At Pads & Panels, I originally launched a series called Cool People, designed to put a spotlight on some awesome people closely related to the video games and comics industries, though not necessarily creators of the core products themselves. I decided it would be a worthwhile thing to bring over to Bill Jones Ink. Paul Pape seemed like a great guy to get it rolling. It’s his Paul Pape Designs that captured my attention, with his custom geek designs, from action figures and replicas to ring boxes and cake toppers. I exchanged emails with Pape to learn a little more about how it call got started, evolved and what’s to come. So without further adieu, Cool People No. 7.
Full Name: Paul Pape
Location: Bellevue, Neb.
Is Paul Pape your real name?
[Laughs] Yes. What a horrible choice for a business name if it wasn’t. I’m one of many Paul Papes out there, but I’ve been slowly working towards being the Paul Pape. There can be only one.
How did your design venture get started?
My degree is in theatrical design, but I’ve been making things for people since I could tie knots. Knot people were the first gifts I made.
When you got going almost 10 years ago, what did you start by doing?
I began making opening night gifts for designers I was assisting. I would make little versions of them and include the packaging that highlighted their careers. Some were flattered, others a little creeped out. The first commercial product I had was a laser die-cut scale model furniture called Pop-Out Furniture. The first geeky product were customized Miis.
How has it evolved over the years?
The biggest thing is that people are finally getting around to asking for whatever they’d really like, instead of what I’ve already made. I get a lot of “Can you do [blank]?”, which is the part I love. The business started with Miis, then it moved into Mii wedding cake toppers, then to Xbox avatars and avatar toppers, and now into custom ring boxes, action figures, decoder rings, etc.
What did you do to get your name out there? Was it hard in the beginning?
Honestly, when I started, I was still working a full-time job, so I would just put images of my work out on the internet. A couple of bloggers really liked my work, and that helped push it out to others. I make it a point not to pay for advertising. I have in the past (with Pop-Out Furniture) and found it wasn’t cost effective for my type of business. I learned that making a quality product that I am proud of, being responsive to requests and constantly putting images of the new work I made out there really helped. I also offer a lifetime warranty on all my pieces. If anything, and I mean anything, happens to one of my pieces, if they send it back I will repair or replace it as long as I am able. You can’t find that promise elsewhere.
As to whether it was hard at first — absolutely. There were a couple of times I almost got a “real job” but stuck with it, and I’ve finally mowed enough of my own path that that option isn’t necessary anymore.
So is this like a full-time job for you at this point?
Yep, full time — extremely full-time. On average, I work 14 hour days, six days a week. Just this year, I hired a full-time assistant to help with molding and casting and packaging. I still work crazy hours, but my hobbies are my job, so it’s relaxing, even though it’s work.
What’s the weirdest request you’ve ever received? Anything you’d just had to say ‘no’ to?
The weirdest request was for Kevin “Too Fat To Fly” Smith. He wanted a Custom Carbonite of himself, encased in a lightsaber-shaped dildo. It is now displayed at his home. The only jobs I’ve ever turned down were due to timeframe or extremely low pay — like $20 for a fully customized action figure. If I have the time and can be compensated for my time, I’ll do it. And I know that the majority of my customers are 20-30-somethings, so I’m somewhat flexible on price. A dollar to a poor man is worth as much as a $100 to a rich man.
What’s been the most fun?
I love the pieces that make me think. I’ve made thousands of cake toppers. I probably know more about wedding dresses than most women. That’s kind of the daily grind for me. But lately I’ve noticed that the proposals are getting more creative and more personalized, so the ring boxes are becoming collectible art pieces, and those are the most fun projects that I do.
That one is simple: Doctor Who Key To Time for a cosplaying fan. The original prop was “whipped up” quickly by the production designer in the early [1980s] and people have been trying to replicate it for years. It is a deceptively simple-looking prop, but when you start the actual build, you’ll notice there is a lot of info missing. I created the master for that piece a dozen times. Each time it didn’t meet the standards of the client. After two years, I finally got it done, and you can purchase them from my store.
What’s your favorite design been over the years?
Occasionally I’ll make a piece that I want to keep. My home is really lacking in my own work. I don’t create pieces for me. Those pieces are my favorites. The ones that come to mind are the BioShock Big Daddy ring box, or my Coraline Other Mother Final Form sculpture.
Obviously, much of it is game game or geek influenced. Do you still play a lot of games? If so, what are you enjoying now?
I don’t get to play as often as I want, but I’m in love with the BioShock and Portal games. I’m playing BioShock Infinite right now.
What are you working on right now (beside this interview)?
I just wrapped up a 20-sided die ring box, and I have a James Bond-themed time bomb ring box coming up. That’ll be an adventure.
What’s next for Paul Pape Designs?
I am developing my own works. I have six or seven products I am trying to get off the ground. Looking to Kickstarter to get them going. I’ll be doing that in the early summer.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I got started doing this because I wanted something that wasn’t available. So I decided to make it myself. That’s really the backbone of my business. I want people to have the things that will bring them joy. It’s like being the Santa of geekdom.
Interview by Bill Jones