In 1971, a little question led to a big idea. When Roger Hargreaves' six-year-old son asked him what a tickle looked like, Hargreaves was inspired to create a yellow Mr. Tickle character with long arms, a small blue bowler hat and a giant white toothy smile. Later that year Hargreaves published his first set of Mr. Men books featuring Mr. Tickle, Mr. Greedy, Mr. Nosey, Mr. Happy, Mr. Bump and Mr. Sneeze. The small books exploring characters with one big thematic trait quickly became so popular that they led to a TV show, the launch of the Little Miss series, as well as countless games and toys.
Hargreaves' son Adam—the curious boy whose question inspired his father to create so many beloved characters—has now become the writer and illustrator of the series. In 2012, Sanrio acquired the licensing rights and is currently re-launching the books and products. This Thursday, iam8bit's gallery space in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles will be become an interactive installation to celebrate the world of Mr. Men and Little Miss. For the show entitled "Everybody's a Somebody," 50 artists will offer up their interpretation of the Mr. Men / Little Miss universe.
iam8bit co-owner and co-curator of the show Jon M Gibson works alongside Amanda White to run their creative production company. Currently in the midst of building the installation, Gibson can barely contain his enthusiasm for the project. Gibson and White love transforming their 4,500 square foot gallery space into interactive multidimensional experiences. He took a break from installing the show to talk with CH about the goals with the project, the enduring relevance of Hargreaves' work and why the Mr. Men and Little Miss characters are so darn cute.
Why do you think Mr. Men and Little Miss are so popular? What is their appeal?
I think the appeal of Mr. Men Little Miss is that everybody is a somebody. Everyone can relate to one of those characters. That's why we thought it would make a really awesome art show. We do a lot of shows that appeal to guys with video games, movies and other pop culture elements but we were really excited about this because we feel it appeals to everybody—young, old, men, women. We feel this is a universal show. It's about identity. It's about who you are and what character you relate to.
How will the Mr. Men / Little Miss installation look at iam8bit?
We are doing the massive installation right now. We are quite literally building out the world of the storybooks from floor to ceiling. There are lots of three-dimensional façades. We are building an apartment complex and a bunch of life-sized characters. They are two-dimensional façades because we wanted to maintain the integrity of the flat illustrations and the flat colors. Ultimately we went for a standee approach. They leap off the walls and exist in 3D space, but at the same time they still maintain their classic sensibilities. On opening night there will also be a Little Miss and a Mr. Man walking around giving hugs. It will be rather surreal.
How did you approach curating the show and creating the installation?
We were actually chasing Sanrio. When we found out they acquired the brand, we got super excited. We came up with this proposal for an incredible experience—versus it just being an art show. We are very keen on inserting people into the mythos of things; for us, it was not just art on the wall but very much about walking into the world.
Why do you think Sanrio wanted to connect with Hargreaves' characters?
They fit into their brand well. It makes so much sense, if you really look at Hello Kitty and how she appeals to so many different niche demographics around the world. There are a lot of different versions of Hello Kitty because she is a universal character appealing to any ethnicity, age and creed. With the Mr. Men / Little Miss catalogue of characters, you can relate to a whole handful of them.
Who are some of the artists working on "Everybody is a Somebody"?
We do have a lot of regular artists that we work with and with every show we try to discover new people to work with as well. Jose Emroca Flores is a mainstay at our gallery, we have been working with him since 2005. He is a talented oil painter, which is rather rare in the gallery scene. He did a take of the show that is a little darker, it's called "Tickler's Revenge." We have Seonna Hong showing at our gallery for the first time ever. She has a really approachable storybook sensibility to her, in a realistic sense.
We have worked with Philip Tseng for a couple years. He took a simplistic approach—much like a lot of his art, he got down to the core of what appealed to him from the Mr. Men / Little Miss characters. He created a line of prints that are all slogan-based. Nicole Gustafsson did the show flyer for us. She put a bunch of the Mr. Men and Little Misses hanging out in the park. She contributed a couple other pieces as well. She captured a really robust, vivacious world in her pieces and focuses on hyper-detail. Her pieces are 12x12" or less but when you see them, there is so much more going on than the limitations of the canvas itself. She is very meticulous. She gets in there with a single hairline pen and goes at it to make every piece of grass sing. She is able to create these awesome majestic worlds.
Do you have a favorite Mr. or Miss?
I like the ideas behind Mr. Nosey. My friends would call me Mr. Nosey; I ask a lot of questions. I like Mr. Tickle, I like Mr. Happy, I like Mr. Nonsense, but I think my very favorite character of all is Mr. Daydream. The notion of letting your mind loose and seeing what will come of it—opening yourself up to experience.
What is the legacy of the world Hargreaves created? How did he influence artists who have grown up with these characters?
Artists don't even realize that they may have been influenced by these books that they read as children, or might be reading to their children now. It is rather unconscious. These books were the first time that I can remember being exposed to really succinct personalities. Generally, kids' books deal with slightly more complex characters, in the sense that they are not associated to one emotion. This was the first time as a kid I saw that people could be defined by one broad attribute. That is a moral lesson to beware of—you don't want to become known as Little Miss Bossy. It's about being well-rounded. There is a lot of helpful stuff in the books in terms of character development. And, in terms of design, the books are super simple. You have very flat colors and only a few colors. Often a character is one single color. Hargreaves distills that down and really gets to the core of character motivation—it is a pretty magical thing.
"Everybody's a Somebody" opens tomorrow, 22 August 2013, at iam8bit in Los Angeles and runs until 8 September. A portion of the proceeds of the exhibition and pop-up shop will benefit 826LA. Books are available through the Mr. Men Little Miss book store. Version of the books are also on iTunes.
Images courtesy of iam8bit