Most people don’t grow up wanting to be a plush toy designer, and Susan Sofia-McIntire was no exception. “I always wanted to be a fashion designer, and I went to Massachusetts College of Art for fashion design,” the recent Saratoga County transplant says. “When I got there, I didn’t enjoy the fashion personalities. I made a friend who was in graphics, watched what she was doing and changed my major.” Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, she landed a job designing catalogs for Hasbro toys. One fateful day, as she was working on a toy photo shoot, something needed to be sewn on set, so she stepped up. Word got around at Hasbro, and next thing she knew, she was interviewing for a position in industrial design. “They said, ‘You have all the skills to be a plush toy designer,’ Sofia-McIntire says. “I sat there and said, ‘What’s plush?’”
Today, more than three decades later, the question for Sofia-McIntire is more accurately “what isn’t plush?” The designer is an independent contractor for all the major toy companies—TOMY, Spin Master, NSI, Mattel, Child’s Play—and has created dozens of children’s products including the soft toys for the Green Kids Club book series; Present Pets, the best-selling toy of the 2020 Christmas season; and the Nested Bean swaddling cloth, for which she won an innovation award. “I just love the plush,” she says. “It’s a perfect blend of my graphic skills and my sewing and engineering skills.”
Sofia-McIntire does occasionally work outside the soft product world: She received her first patent for a water-filled teether she made for Playskool, and that design has since become the standard for teethers across the industry. But she always comes back to fiber work—even in her free time. “I like to exercise my creativity every now and then and do something completely different than what’s on my studio table,” she says. “So I end up having these one-of-a-kind, really cool things that serve no purpose—they’re just my total creative expression.” Recently, she’s been playing around with a form of Japanese embroidery called bunka, and has used it to create a plush elephant and seahorse, as well as a seashell jewelry case that is currently on display back in her hometown of Amesbury, MA.
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Inspired by the free library stands that have been popping up in yards around Saratoga and beyond, Sofia-McIntire decided to make a similar-looking mini gallery to showcase these items right in her Gansevoort yard. She drew up a sketch, gave it to a builder friend and, voila—the one-cubic-foot Tiny Rhino Gallery, named after the steel rhino sculpture next to which it stands, was born. “Technically it’s a three-dimensional stage for a virtual store,” the artist says. (The products are for sale on her Instagram, @tiny_rhino_gallery.) At press time, a pair of colorful quilted slippers were on display. What’s on deck? Only Sofia-McIntire knows the next chapter of this toy story.