JENNIFER Q SMITH Queen of Fuzz, AvantGarb Have It’s hard to take Jennifer Q Smith too seriously. Oh, she’s the consummate professional, to be sure-responding to an e-mail inquiry about her company with the speed and savvy you’d expect from someone who has run her own business for 20 years. Her marketing materials are slick, her shtick smooth. Her northeast-side work space is clearly well used. But the hot pink fuzz ball that looms in the entryway (dressed in a pink-and-turquoise tutu and giant turquoise basketball shoes, no less) makes one thing clear: This is not just another corporate office. Good thing, because Smith is not just another corporate officer. No, she’s an artist who found a way to make a living before making it all the way through art school. She’s an entrepreneur who identified a niche exploiting the one thing many other high-flying executives forget they have-a sense of humor. She is the self-professed “Queen of Fuzz.”
It’s a fitting title for the chief executive of a company that works magic with fabric, fluff and foam. From its humble beginnings in Smith’s Berkeley, Calif., garage, AvantGarb’s mascots, costumes and “awfully big puppets” have come a long way.
Smith and her staff of three have produced the NCAA’s official J.J. Jumper mascot, life-size versions of Fisher-Price’s Rescue Heroes and Barf Boy, the face of the worldtraveling “Grossology” science exhibits.
The key to her success? Smith doesn’t take herself too seriously, either-despite winning a design grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and having some of her costumes displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
Whether she’s fielding a question about her age (“I never tell”) or her middle name (“Q-ute”), Smith keeps things light. The cardinal rule that gets her through life as well as
business: Have fun.
It’s a philosophy that explains Fluffy, the furry pink ballerina that greets AvantGarb visitors (what selfrespecting mascot maker wouldn’t have one of its own, after all?) and the scuffed pink studio floor (because “I’m a girl and I get to pick the corporate color”). It also gets much of the credit for the walls lined with framed photos of successful mascots.
Smith got her professional start in Seattle in the 1970s, as part of a performance group called Friends of the Rag. She created “Sexy Salmon” for the opening of the Seattle Aquarium, for example, and “Formal Clarinet”-which now keeps Fluffy company in Indianapolis-for the Seattle Symphony.
From there, she joined the costume department at The Julliard School in New York City, then on to San Francisco, where she produced costumes for “Beach Blanket Babylon.”
When she started getting requests from companies that wanted her to make mascots for them, she realized she was onto something. It seemed like a perfect fit for a woman who says her first true love was Mighty Mouse.
Her first mascot was a giant chocolate-chip cookie for a small bakery. Her second was Captain H-P for Hewlett-Packard.
“What I love about mascots is they blur the line between the animated world and the real world,” she said. “They are one of the few places where imagination and reality bump into each other.”
‘Smith moved to Indianapolis with her husband, Jim Dougans, and their two daughters in 1988 to escape traffic and be close to family. Business didn’t suffer despite her departure from the coast. These days, AvantGarb makes 30-40 mascots a year-just one third of them for Indianabased clients. Her fun-loving spirit gets at least some of the credit. After all, it takes more than a flair with fabric to come up with characters like Eli Lilly and Co.’s Humatrooper, which hits the road to promote its Humatrope hormone treatment. Smith admits to getting “goofy enjoyment” out of her job, but said everyone would do well to have more fun. “I always pray for humor and wisdom for our world leaders,” she said. “Humor can bring people together and give everyone a sense of commonality.” And that may make the nose-to-the-grindstone days at the office more bearable. Smith takes the responsibility of creating mascots seriously, and there’s nothing she likes more than being completely, thoroughly immersed in a project. But when all is said and done, she emerges from the muck into a world tinged in pink fur and dotted with sequins. “It’s a little piece of heaven,” she said.