Neon ice cream cones with candy piled atop, unicorns staring longingly at one another, big-eyed koala bears with ripped jeans, surfing penguins and, of course, Purrscilla the fabulously fluffy white cat. These are the emblems of Lisa Frank, a once-thriving stationary empire, a person and an enigma. This tale of ’90s pop-culture glory begins in the much more monochromatic Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, where Lisa Frank (yes, that’s her real name) grew up comfortably. Her father ran a successful automotive company, and he and Lisa’s mother were both art aficionados who happily doled out coloring books to keep their daughter happy and occupied.
As a prep school student in the 1970s, Lisa took to painting and eventually sold $3,000 worth of her work. In college, she transferred her artistic sense into more commercial items like plastic jewelry, and, by the time she was 20, she had launched her first company: Sticky Fingers. There, she turned to making stickers—a product that would help to make her a household name. Lisa renamed her company “Lisa Frank, Inc” in 1979, the same year Spencer’s Gifts made a million-dollar order. The girly girl from Bloomfield Hills was now a 25-year-old business whiz. Throughout the 1980s, the brand’s bright colors and hallucinogenic imagery were literally stuck on little girls all over America. The stickers would soon morph into school supplies like folders and Trapper Keepers, bigger surfaces for wilder and more detailed artwork.
In the early days, before the proliferation of fast and cheap computing power, artists at Lisa Frank, Inc’s 300,000+ square-foot headquarters in Tucson, Arizona, used acrylic paint and airbrushes on all their products. At one point, the company employed 30 artists and handled its own manufacturing and distribution. For Lisa, running that aspect of the business was difficult. She had never been in this for the money, and felt it took her away from what she really wanted to do: create art. These days, the gigantic fun-factory is still running, but with far fewer employees. It’s home to a fireproof vault that houses a copy of every single design the company has ever created. As for Lisa Frank, she’s still around—and has no interest in being a public figure. She agreed to talk to us on the condition we didn’t reveal her face, saying, “The secrecy has worked for so long. Why come out of the closet?”