Friends With You

Posted inDesigner Profiles

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

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

Meet Friends With You andyou’ll come away hugged, happy, and full of energy. TheMiami-based duo became friends after meeting in the rave scene duringcollege; for the past four years, they have been blurring the linebetween art and design with a frenzy of toys, balloon parades, and epicinstallations that emphasize luck, togetherness, and magic.

Sandovalgot his start at a Miami ad agency, where he discovered just howinfluential marketing strategies and brand management can be on publicopinion. After four years, though, he says, “I learned that if youdon’t have a savvy brand or brand manager, it doesn’t matterhow 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 marketingstrategies were implemented, and had a tremendous success rate in themarketplace.” Borkson, on the other hand, has worked in a fine-artsetting while also creating video graphics for Viacom.

Top of Page: Malfi, the duo’s trademark creation, who is said to bringluck and adventure. Above: Exterior and interior of the “Albino Fox,” a project commissionedby Volkswagen. From Friends With You Have Powers! © Die Gestalten Verlag2007.

In 2002, thetwo decided to establish Friends With You, and their style seems to havesprung forth fully formed. They began by making toys; Borkson wasattracted to the idea after he traveled to Japan and saw kidsincorporating playthings into their clothes and backpacks, taking themeverywhere. “We really love the reach of toys,” he says.“That’s why we started disguising our art as such in thefirst place.” One of their first creations was Malfi, an eminentlyhuggable, pear-shaped character who, the story goes, brings luck andadventure.

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

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

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

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

From the beginning, though, Borkson and Sandovalweren’t content to create a new Mickey Mouse if he didn’thave a Disneyland to play in. A few galleries let them run wild makingwalk-in productions, but Friends With You faced the same problem thatall such artists and their galleries encounter. Large-scaleinstallations, like their giant “Get Lucky” shrine at theMerry Karnowsky Gallery in L.A.—which provided a quick “wishresponse system” and face-to-face time with God—areexpensive to make and nearly impossible to sell.

But their experiencein 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 andbigger.”

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

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

Their refreshing lack of irony andwholesale exuberance is a reaction against today’s generalattitude of detachment. In their new book Friends With You HavePowers!, published by Die Gestalten Verlag, the two of them takeissue with the spirit of the age: “In the sterile settings ofmodern society, spiritual outlets have become a low priority within ourdaily routines.”

In response, they’ve created some trulymythic projects. For one of four guest rooms they designed in 2004 forVolkswagen’s Project Fox hotel in Copenhagen, Friends With
Yousurrounded guests with images of trees and thrift-store kitsch to createa modern-day fertility shrine; Borkson and Sandoval covered another roomin tile and adorned it with a gilded bull’s head that could havecome out of The Ten Commandments.

They also created aninstallation based around the new VW Fox car, which they turned into atotemic, furry white monster called the “Albino Fox.” Itssoft 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 thelevel of worship and homage.”

Last November, SebastienAgneessens, curator and founder of New York agency Formavision, askedthe guys to redesign the Diesel Denim Gallery in New York City.Agneessens says their intoxicating spirit and sunny disposition is awelcome change of pace, which he attributes to their home-town.“They come from Miami,” he says. “In New York, youwouldn’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. InNovember 2005, real estate megadeveloper Turnberry Associates got wordof a massive playgound the duo planned for Miami’s Museum ofContemporary Art and approached the partners to design achildren’s playground for the Aventura Mall complex in North MiamiBeach. “Rainbow Valley,” which opened last December,includes three mountains, secret tunnels, and rainbow bridges, enablingkids to manipulate their environment by turning rubies and diamondsinside the main mountain’s console. Borkson and Sandoval expect towork on even “bigger and badder” playgrounds next year aswell, and there’s no doubt that deep-pocketed companies will lineup to fund them.

One wonders, though: What do clients—likeToyota, which helped fund “Skywalkers”—actually getfrom bankrolling projects that blend art, design, and branding into onetransformazoid of fun? Does it even matter? “We know that it isgood for them,” Sandoval says. “Whether it helps theirbottom line in the long run or not, that is a whole different question.. . . But the immediate benefit is obvious—that through thisfunding they are making more and more art accessible to a wider audienceand in turn elevating all of our lives.”

The true focus ofFriends With You, Borkson says, is to revive spirituality and belief ina disenchanted world. “We have energy sources and the absolutespirit all around us, so we should use its power to achieve andperpetuate greatness and friendship in ourselves and each other,”he says. “It’s real magic, and we want to share it witheveryone.”