“My love for animals is immense,” says Crystal Rokes. “Animals are therapeutic for me. Whenever I need to calm down and relax I head to the barn. I guess animals just make me happy.”
Crystal has spent her life surrounded by animals, both real and the plush kind. For the last 26 years, she been the lead designer for Douglas Cuddle Toys. She spends her workdays studying real animals to capture their essence in designing plush critters of all kinds for Douglas. It helps that she’s also surrounded by animals at home: “We have horses, a donkey, parrots, llamas, an iguana, ferrets, and dogs. No animal is off limits in my home,” she says.
It’s her insights into animals that makes Crystal’s design work so lifelike. “I spend so much time with animals and studying animals that I have a pretty good idea of how to re-create them for Douglas,” Crystal says. “It’s about understanding their features—their eyes, noses, and fur— and how they move. It’s also understanding the overall dimensions and proportions. We try to make our plush animals as realistic as possible. But they also need to be endearing and sweet. It’s these two characteristics that make Douglas toys unique. You have to get the feeling from each piece we create that it’s real, it’s natural, and just right. For example, the animals can’t be stuffed too much and eye placement has to be right. We take things to the next level by combining what’s natural and fun. It has to be real to be a Douglas toy.”
Innovation & Evolution
“The toys that do go into production and ‘come to life’ successfully always show our creativity and innovation,” Crystal says.“ Choosing the right fabrics is essential to the lifelike design and the overall process. “When I see a new fabric it helps spark creativity and let’s me think of an animal to design. That excites me,” she says.
Innovation also comes with evolution. “Our product line, and the types of animals we produce, changes with new materials but also with what people want,” Crystal says. “This ebb and flow forces me to pick up and create new items with refreshing new poses, new designs, and new fabrics.
“Golden retrievers have always been a popular item in our collection,” Crystal says. “But we don’t make the same retrievers today that we made 30 years ago. Our design process has been refined through the years to make our animals look better and even more realistic. New fabrics make this possible. Fabrics really determine what animals we create at Douglas. If the fabric isn’t right we don’t create the plush animal.”
Playing No Favorites
It’s that evolution that has kept Crystal from ever deeming one of her creations as a “favorite.” “I really don’t have one favorite design,” she says. “But there are certain toys that I designed to look like my personal real-life animals. Those are very special and endearing to me. We did create a line of fairy bunnies many years ago that are no longer available. I loved how they looked. Maybe someday they might come back. You never know. There’s a camel that sits behind me in my office that was never produced. He was too complex. But I love him.”
Crystal points out that all Douglas creations are required to meet strictest safety standards. “It’s very important to me that everything I design be safe for children,” she says. “Every design begins with safety in mind. All our fabrics are tested to quality standards. Our eyes and noses are tested regularly to make sure they’re safe for children. Knowing we make a product that children love, and can enjoy safely, is very rewarding.”
Crystal also says working at Douglas is very special. “It’s very homey here. I have great co-workers and we work wonderfully together. It’s a cohesive team. We have fun. We laugh a lot. I love the creative process of designing these animals and working for a company that cares so much about it products and its customers.”