If you've ever watched films like The Hateful Eight or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or binge-watched shows like Glow, American Horror Story, or True Blood, then you've seen the stylish work of L.A. designer and entrepreneur Annamarie von Firley. The co-founder of vintage-inspired fashion label ReVamp is once again pulling from the past for her latest venture, Adventuretown Toys, an online emporium of cool playthings and gadgets for kids of all ages.
You won't find made-from-TV toys here. Instead, find creativity-sparking wooden building sets, tactile play foam, charming felt figurines, anatomy sets of gummy bears and sharks, strategy board games (calling all Queen's Gambit fans), compost kits, and many, many other goods for future and current botanists, scientists, fashion designers, and physicists, to name a few. Most — if not all — are plastic-free, non-toxic, and biodegradable, which will surely spark joy in eco-conscious kids and parents — because if you're going to step a tiny brick en route to the bathroom at midnight, it may as well be something that's nice to another mother (Earth, that is).
Von Firley founded Adventuretown in 2016 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The plan was to open a 10,000-square-foot toy wonderland in Downtown's historic Roxie Theatre (the last movie house built on Broadway), which would feature a village-like concept "with different buildings housing different types of toys: One building for maker and engineering toys, one for science-oriented toys, one for imaginative play, one for puzzle and games, a giant tree in the center full of wooden toys, and the lobby would have developmental toys for newborns to 3-year-olds and special needs toys. There was even a stage for birthday parties," von Firley tells UncoverLA.
"I was in the middle of a capital campaign when COVID-19 hit. There was no way to open a store where you could play with all of the toys that were for sale when we can't even breathe safely around each other," continues von Firley. "I still hope to open it one day once we have figured out how to live with COVID safely."
The creative entrepreneur has another education-focused plan up her stylish sleeves — one that aims to be "a peace-of-mind design for the pandemic generation" and their grown-ups, she says. Coming next year is Fledglings' Flight, a website and child development app that will help parents support their kids with "tracking milestones and providing them with child development information, as well as daily exercises and activities," she explains. "Lock-down measures will have a profound effects on young children's development with many of the sensory inputs that we have taken for granted are now not available."
We recently got to know von Firley to learn more about her fashionable career journey, how he ended up in the world of toys, and some of her top gift picks for kids and children at heart. Read on below, and shop Adventuretown online (bonus: Angelenos get free same-day delivery).
We know you have a wealth of experience in fashion, though your degrees are in a different discipline of design. Can you tell us more about that?
Actually, the fashion career was the anomaly in my life. My first degree was a BA in Wooden Toy Design and Construction from Hampshire College. I have another BFA in Furniture Design from the California College of the Arts. I accidentally became a fashion designer for 20 years. Opening a toy store is actually the natural path for me — the fashion was a diversion!
How did you get into the toy industry?
In my first year at Hampshire College, I didn't know in what I wanted to major, but I collected toys. My father was German-American and we spent six weeks out of the year in Europe. He discovered that the world's largest toy manufacturers convention, Spielwarenmesse, was in Nuremberg, Germany. It was free to attend, but you had to have a business and be over the age of 18. I was 19 years old when he created an "import" business and made me the vice president so that I would have the credentials to attend.
The convention boasted toy manufacturers from over 100 countries. There were warehouses that were the size of six football fields filled with trains, outdoor toys, baby toys, mass market toys, and more. And there was a huge one with wooden toys. At the time, I thought that wooden toys were dumb: Wooden cars and whirligigs. But this warehouse was full of innovative and imaginative toys. I was hooked.
My dad asked if I could get an internship at any of the companies, but they all declined because they were afraid that I would steal their ideas and make them in the U.S. The reason that I didn't end up with a career in toy design was that in the U.S. at the time, there was no market for educational toys, or wooden toys, for that matter.
I designed kinetic toys that taught the basics of engineering through push and pull toys. Because there were no wooden toy companies in the U.S. and the U.S. companies who did exist only made plastic toys that would break the first time you played with them, I decided that it was not the place for me and I pursued my second degree in furniture design.
My final project at Hampshire was Furnitoys which was furniture that you could play with. So there was actually a straight path between those two disparate degrees as well. Twenty-five years after I attended Spielwarenmesse I returned, but as a curator of toys instead of an inventor.
We'd love to know more about ReVamp! How did you pivot to fashion design?
ReVamp was the birth child of my best friend and I when I was living in San Francisco. We were both swing dancers and were lamenting about how poorly the other dancers were dressed at the show on the [World War II ship] S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien. She said we should start a fashion company that made vintage reproduction clothing for swing dancers. I said "no" because I was already working for an all-natural perfume company startup and saw that my boss never got paid. That company sold and moved to the Midwest.
I was between jobs and my friend wore me down. I did not have a background in fashion and didn't even know how to sew. She was to be the manufacturing part of the business and I was to be the design, marketing, and running of the business day-to-day. She already had her own business and did not have time for two. After a year of her barely participating, I took on the whole company on my own and moved it to L.A. in April of 2001 just when the dot-com bubble burst. I hired people who knew what they were doing and learned from them.
After 20 years, I was a master of my trade. The work with TV, movies, theaters, operas, museums, and national parks was a natural extension of creating reproduction vintage clothing. But after 20 years, I felt like I was living someone else's dream and wondered when I was going to get to do what I wanted to do. So in 2018, I closed reVamp so that I could focus on Adventuretown Toy Emporium full time that had I founded in 2016 with a successful Indiegogo campaign.
The Best Toys for Kids of All Ages
Now that you're caught up with von Firley's inspiring career story, check out her favorite toys from makers around the world designed for newborns to teens and children at heart, and what she has to say about each pick.
For Newborns to Age 1
Can of Sardines portable activity kit: "If Cirque du Soleil made baby toys, it would look like this. This darling French Can of Sardines is tops with all of the most fashionable babies who adore exploring the sensory surprises secreted inside each sardine. Then tuck away the fishes for a tidy getaway." Shop: Can of Sardines portable activity kit, $36
Zippee silicone sensory activity: "Sensory exploration is the order of the day for the littlest humans. This sensory activity made from food-grade silicone will keep baby's hands busy by pulling each brightly colored cord that gives a different sensory experience. Builds fine motor and problem-solving skills. Dishwasher safe." Shop: Zippee silicone sensory activity, $20
For 2- to 4-Year-Olds
3D Adventure Dome: "Build eye-hand coordination, spacial relationships, and fine motor skills with this domed adventure activity. Use the magnetic bird to pick up the colored seeds inside the dome and drag them up to the top. Pull away the bird to send the send sliding down a through to ring a bell." Shop: 3D Adventure Dome, $40
Wooden Lacing House: "It takes a village to teach a child… or perhaps only a house. This sweet wooden lacing activity is as practical as it is decorative. Use it to teach your little one how to lace, as well as tie knots and bows. Then leave out to make a charming addition to baby's room decor." Shop: Wooden Lacing House, $16
For 5- to 7-Year-Olds
Eco-Bricks Lego-friendly bamboo bricks: "Finally, an alternative to plastic Lego bricks! These durable bricks fit perfectly onto the Legos found in your home, but have two key advantages: They are biodegradable and your can color them yourself with markers, colored pencils or watercolors. Try THAT with the plastic kind!" Shop: Eco-Bricks Bamboo Lego Bricks, $22
For 8- to 12-Year-Olds
Rube Goldberg contraption kit: "Create a contraption that will raise the flag at the end of the course using dominoes, ramps, teeter toters, wheels and a vortex that would make silent movie engineer, Rube Goldberg proud. There are endless ways set a course for silliness." Shop: Rube Goldberg contraption kit, $58
Robot Explorers foam building set: Create 5 or more brightly colored kooky robots with this hearty construction set made from high density foam. Light-weight and durable, these funky explorers are ready for adventures in trees or tubs. Shop: DIY Robot Explorers foam building set, $40
DIY Crane construction set: "Somebody shrunk the crane! This award-winning DIY crane set is a miniaturized version of the real thing with I bars and everything. Made for the serious aspiring engineer who can learn about architecture when building it and principals of engineering when playing with it. Comes with 178 pieces. Shop: Crane construction set, $55
For 14- 17-Year-Olds
Pixio magnetic pixel blocks: "These tiny Minecraft-like magnetic blocks allow your digital artist to bring their pixel art into three dimensions. Each cube measures 1/3 of an inch and makes a clever desktop activity." Shop: Pixio magnetic pixel blocks, $27
DIY Dragon Automaton: "Long before there were robots, there were automatons. Made from wood and requiring no glue or tools, you junior engineer will love creating this dragon, then bringing it to life with the turn of the crank." Shop: DIY Dragon Automaton, $40
Narwhal small waterproof speaker: "This powerful Bluetooth speaker pairs with any device and allows you to listen to podcast, audiobooks, or music, wherever you might expect some splashing: beach, pool or shower." Shop: Narwhal waterproof speaker, $40
For the Young At Heart
UGears Horse Mechanoid: "This 410-piece mechanical engineering feat is not for the faint-of-heart. Connect the pre-cut pieces without using glue to create a horse that walks, when wound-up, with rubber bands!" Shop: UGears Horse Mechanoid, $55
Luxury Greek Mythology chess set: "Whether Queen's Gambit inspired you to learn this ancient game or to dust off your strategy books, this elegant copper-plated chess set is an elegant way to achieve your endgame. Handmade in Greece for 50 years, this soon-to-be heirloom is the perfect way for a parent to pass on the tricks-of-the-trade to the next generation." Shop: Luxury Greek Mythology chess set, $225