Mattel toy designer David Vonner is living his superhero dreams after surmounting obstacles, from Gene Simmons of KISS to collateral damage from an attempted robbery which delayed college.
Vonner visited Southwestern Michigan College Nov. 15 to speak on “Solving Problems with Creativity and Your Inner Child” as part of the Academic Speaker Series in conjunction with TRiO Student Support Services (SSS) program’s 50th anniversary.
He received the most lavish introduction imaginable thanks to managing three other designers for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) action figures since December 2016.
Angie Palsak, SMC SSS director, wore a black Riott Squad shirt, leveraging his ability to bestow immortality by “shrinking you down to eight inches of pristine plastic perfection while the rest of us wither and fade away” in a rowdy wrestling-style promo for social media to get Ruby Riott’s attention and to persuade her to speak in Dowagiac.
Riott attended SMC in 2009-11 as Edwardsburg native and Brandywine graduate Dori Prange, appearing on stage in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Vonner didn’t divulge details about Riott’s pending action figure except to acknowledge being in Florida while “she sat in a chair as cameras scanned her for a 3D image. It’s always top-secret. We work two years in advance. Right now we’re wrapping up 2019 and are in the conceptual stage for 2020.”
Where some toy releases are driven by movie franchises every few years, “WWE basically has a movie every week” between Raw, SmackDown and NXT.
The introduction also spoke to Vonner when David Carew and Select Voices sang a 588-2300 jingle for Empire Carpet, since he grew up an only child watching Chicago’s WGN from Atlantic City. He live-streamed SMC’s event to his old high school in Pleasantville, N.J., home of the Greyhounds.
“I went to art school so I wouldn’t have to worry about math,” Vonner chuckled, “but I use it all the time” for engineering specifications.
“My mom, who worked in the casino industry, grew up in the Sixties counterculture when Martin Luther King was around. Marvel’s Spider-Man, Hulk and X-Men were part of that,” said Vonner, who met Stan Lee. “My dad was the same way. He was into comics and cartoons, too, so that stuff was in my crib. Comics are how I learned to read. I wasn’t into Dr. Seuss. I didn’t know until much older, but I’m actually colorblind.”
Besides drawing, Vonner drummed in marching band. He hoped to attend Joe Kubert’s School of Cartoon and Graphic Art named for the comic book artist known for DC Comics’ Sgt. Rock and Hawkman, but his mother objected. Vonner compromised and entered The Art Institute of Philadelphia to major in advertising and graphic design.
“Some friends of mine decided to rob a gas station and someone got shot,” Vonner said. “To fight this case and prove I wasn’t involved I had to take time off from school. I didn’t want to let my mom down. My advice is to picture in your head whatever drives you. Invest in you, then things start to bend toward you. It’s a journey. I can’t tell you how many doors I had closed in my face or resumes rejected. It wasn’t about money or fame. I just wanted so bad to be part of this artistic community.”
Vonner airbrushed shirts in flea markets and worked as a casino dealer to make money to continue. He learned Adobe Photoshop through a Stockton University acquaintance and landed his first job, paying $25,000, at Spencer Gifts.
During six years at Spencer he designed an Elvis alarm clock and memorabilia for KISS’s reunion tour Simmons thought “sucked” until Vonner shared his vision. Vonner also worked on an Ozzy Osbourne “Crazy Train” incense burner before joining a preschool toy company.
“I went from designing KISS dolls to designing rattles,” Vonner said. “It was a big, hard transition because now I had to worry about safety so children don’t choke to death.”
Vonner, 46, a frequent contributor to the Netflix series “The Toys That Made Us,” noted, “I never met a toy designer growing up. No one knew where toys came from. They just showed up on the shelf. It’s very international and can be very cut-throat,” hence the secrecy.
Vonner developed many successful Marvel products with Hasbro in Rhode Island from 2006-12.
Entering the toy world turned Vonner into a “sponge. I went to the library and soaked up books about toy manufacturing and different kinds of plastics re-educating myself. Learn about everything and be open to collaboration because once you generate something from nothing, how are you going to sell it?”