Friends With You


Once upon a time, there was a parade featuring a 60-foot-tall
rainbow-colored dog, a white beast called Murbit, and a red and yellow
pyramid with a sharp nose.

The parade, titled
“Skywalkers,” included blimps designed by David Choe, Paper
Rad, Mumbleboy, Devilrobots, Ara Peterson, and Misaki Kawai as part of
Art Basel Miami last December. But the real stars of the show were the
two local boys who dreamed it up—big, jovial Tury Sandoval, 30,
and the equally amiable Sam Borkson, 27, partners in the art and design
entity known as Friends With You.

Meet Friends With You and
you’ll come away hugged, happy, and full of energy. The
Miami-based duo became friends after meeting in the rave scene during
college; for the past four years, they have been blurring the line
between art and design with a frenzy of toys, balloon parades, and epic
installations that emphasize luck, togetherness, and magic.

Sandoval
got his start at a Miami ad agency, where he discovered just how
influential marketing strategies and brand management can be on public
opinion. After four years, though, he says, “I learned that if you
don’t have a savvy brand or brand manager, it doesn’t matter
how good the creative is. The clients will shit all over it.”

So he left for the agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, where, he says,
“I got to see how well-thought-out campaigns and marketing
strategies were implemented, and had a tremendous success rate in the
marketplace.” Borkson, on the other hand, has worked in a fine-art
setting while also creating video graphics for Viacom.

 

friends_01.jpgfriends_02.jpg

Top of Page: Malfi, the duo’s trademark creation, who is said to bring
luck and adventure. Above: Exterior and interior of the “Albino Fox,” a project commissioned
by Volkswagen. From Friends With You Have Powers! © Die Gestalten Verlag
2007.

In 2002, the
two decided to establish Friends With You, and their style seems to have
sprung forth fully formed. They began by making toys; Borkson was
attracted to the idea after he traveled to Japan and saw kids
incorporating playthings into their clothes and backpacks, taking them
everywhere. “We really love the reach of toys,” he says.
“That’s why we started disguising our art as such in the
first place.” One of their first creations was Malfi, an eminently
huggable, pear-shaped character who, the story goes, brings luck and
adventure.

 

Paul Budnitz, founder and president of designer-toy hub
Kidrobot, can’t get enough of the Friends With You creations.
“Their toys are totally, completely mad, a little cute, a little
dangerous, and utterly out of the box,” he says. “For some
reason I can’t explain, we sell tons and tons of them.”
After first launching their line, Borkson and Sandoval found themselves
unable to keep up with the demand, and they hired a mother-and-daughter
seamstress pair in Miami’s Little Havana to help make the plush
toys like Malfi, Mr. TTT, Albino Squid, and Shoebaca.

The art-toy
market has its downside, however. It’s oversaturated, and its
obsession with exclusivity and packaging has nearly robbed the word
“toy” of its meaning, creating a system where Comic Book
Guys collect every edition of a specific item, then wait for its value
to skyrocket on eBay.

In response to this increasingly precious and
commodified turn of the market, Friends With You created The Good Wood
Gang, a collection of colorful, wooden “transformazoid”
toys; it took them two years to design and create a fully modular toy
that children can pull apart and re-configure. “It’s just
our philosophy that toys are to be played with,” Sandoval says.
“They need to have a degree of functionality—either physical
or spiritual—that most artists who are designing toys simply
choose to ignore.”

Since then, they’ve produced motion
graphics, animations for Sony and MTV, logos, illustrations, posters,
and a short film for Nike in which their magical cast of characters play
starring roles.

From the beginning, though, Borkson and Sandoval
weren’t content to create a new Mickey Mouse if he didn’t
have a Disneyland to play in. A few galleries let them run wild making
walk-in productions, but Friends With You faced the same problem that
all such artists and their galleries encounter. Large-scale
installations, like their giant “Get Lucky” shrine at the
Merry Karnowsky Gallery in L.A.—which provided a quick “wish
response system” and face-to-face time with God—are
expensive to make and nearly impossible to sell.

But their experience
in the corporate world gave them a useful sense of where to get funding.
“We knew the kind of budgets that corporations have,”
Borkson explains. “It allowed us to dream bigger and
bigger.”

So the duo turned to corporate assistance, banking on
the fact that the sheer spectacle of their installations would be a
selling point. They were right. Big businesses are like modern-day
Medicis faced with fickle (and savvy) consumers, and they’ll do
anything to get people’s attention.

“Corporations are
replacing the great kings trying to speak to the people,” Borkson
says, “and we are that bridge.” Sandoval elaborates:
“What clients are getting is a simple and compelling, positive
statement, no matter how we serve it. And that does not change. . . . I
think that clients come expecting a certain level of over-the-top
‘we can change the world’ attitude that is intoxicating for
us and for them also.”

Their refreshing lack of irony and
wholesale exuberance is a reaction against today’s general
attitude of detachment. In their new book Friends With You Have
Powers!
, published by Die Gestalten Verlag, the two of them take
issue with the spirit of the age: “In the sterile settings of
modern society, spiritual outlets have become a low priority within our
daily routines.”

In response, they’ve created some truly
mythic projects. For one of four guest rooms they designed in 2004 for
Volkswagen’s Project Fox hotel in Copenhagen, Friends With You
surrounded guests with images of trees and thrift-store kitsch to create
a modern-day fertility shrine; Borkson and Sandoval covered another room
in tile and adorned it with a gilded bull’s head that could have
come out of The Ten Commandments.

They also created an
installation based around the new VW Fox car, which they turned into a
totemic, furry white monster called the “Albino Fox.” Its
soft pink interior was filled with votives, holiday lights, and flowers:
“We brought a level of spirituality to a standard car,”
explains Sandoval, “making it important and raising it to the
level of worship and homage.”

Last November, Sebastien
Agneessens, curator and founder of New York agency Formavision, asked
the guys to redesign the Diesel Denim Gallery in New York City.
Agneessens says their intoxicating spirit and sunny disposition is a
welcome change of pace, which he attributes to their home-town.
“They come from Miami,” he says. “In New York, you
wouldn’t be able to find that kind of energy in art.”

In
fact, it’s in Miami where their work seems to take root best. In
November 2005, real estate megadeveloper Turnberry Associates got word
of a massive playgound the duo planned for Miami’s Museum of
Contemporary Art and approached the partners to design a
children’s playground for the Aventura Mall complex in North Miami
Beach. “Rainbow Valley,” which opened last December,
includes three mountains, secret tunnels, and rainbow bridges, enabling
kids to manipulate their environment by turning rubies and diamonds
inside the main mountain’s console. Borkson and Sandoval expect to
work on even “bigger and badder” playgrounds next year as
well, and there’s no doubt that deep-pocketed companies will line
up to fund them.

One wonders, though: What do clients—like
Toyota, which helped fund “Skywalkers”—actually get
from bankrolling projects that blend art, design, and branding into one
transformazoid of fun? Does it even matter? “We know that it is
good for them,” Sandoval says. “Whether it helps their
bottom line in the long run or not, that is a whole different question.
. . . But the immediate benefit is obvious—that through this
funding they are making more and more art accessible to a wider audience
and in turn elevating all of our lives.”

The true focus of
Friends With You, Borkson says, is to revive spirituality and belief in
a disenchanted world. “We have energy sources and the absolute
spirit all around us, so we should use its power to achieve and
perpetuate greatness and friendship in ourselves and each other,”
he says. “It’s real magic, and we want to share it with
everyone.”

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About Caleb Neelon

Caleb Neelon is the co-author of forthcoming The History of American Graffiti (HarperCollins). His project 'Signs and Symbols' with 125 Boston youths is on view until September at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and his monograph, Caleb Neelon's Book of Awesome, is a 2009 release from Gingko Press. Caleb's Site

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