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Paid to play: The life of a toy maker

Kip Rathke with his creations. (Michael Kirby Smith)

Kip Rathke was five years old when he watched Sesame Street for the first time. From that moment on, he was always making and collecting puppets. This love affair with puppetry brought him to New York City, where,  now in his mid-40s,  he works as creative director at Sesame Workshop.

Rathke has worked on award-winning toys for the non-profit Sesame Workshop and other companies, helped develop puppets for television and designed sets for amusement parks such as Sea World, Busch Gardens and Sesame Place.

Becoming a toymaker

Rathke came to New York from Ohio to attend Pratt Institute, where he studied drawing and fine arts. While a student, he worked summers gluing feathers on Big Bird’s costume for $6 an hour.

Today, Rathke said, aspiring toy makers can attain a BFA in toy design from universities like F.I.T., which offer classes in doll design and computer graphics in toy design.

A creative director’s work

After graduation, Rathke designed puppets for television on a freelance basis, working for clients like the Muppet Workshop, The Jim Henson Company's Bear in the Big Blue House and Nickelodeon's Eureeka's Castle. He joined Sesame Workshop in 1997, where he works with licensees to develop educational toys that live up to the Sesame Street name.

“Companies present concepts to us, and we work with them to develop the design, make it more character correct, and give it a more Sesame Street feel,” Rathke said.

The educational department also helps give the toys more educational value. Sesame Workshop is a non-profit, and the proceeds from its sales fund educational programming around the world. Rathke recently worked on characters for television shows in the Middle East and South Africa.

Technology in toy making
As the creative director of Sesame Workshop, Rathke has also developed a digital guide to help people sculpt characters and make them into plush toys.  The guide includes 3D scans for reference, down to digital images of the characters’ eyeballs. Users access these images as they build toys, helping to ensure consistency.

What a puppet maker needs
Rathke said the most important characteristic of a puppet maker is “being able to see a face in everything, and seeing a personality in that face.” Successful toy and puppet makers will have a background in drawing, sculpting and other fine arts, as well as experience with the new 3D technologies.

Internships are available at Sesame Workshop and most toy companies, and are a great way to break into the industry.

Although his job has stressors like any other, Rathke says working for such an education-minded company is a nice feeling. His favorite part of the job, however, is walking around the city and saying “I did that” when he sees a toy he helped design.

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