Mary Engelbreit makes her mark in greeting cards

December 15, 1993|By Lynn Van Matre | Lynn Van Matre,Chicago Tribune

Artist Mary Engelbreit's name may mean nothing to you, but chances are you've seen her stuff.

It's all over the place, in fact. Ms. Engelbreit's colorfully nostalgic drawings of round-cheeked children, often accompanied by a whimsical snatch of poetry or a vintage quotation, can be found on greeting cards, calendars, clothing, rubber stamps, needle craft, address books, desk accessories, picture frames, umbrellas and shower curtains.

Not to mention bedding, Christmas ornaments, playing cards, stickers, magnets, dollhouses, gift wrap, cast-iron doorstops and dozens more decorative doodads that add up to a $30-million-a-year business for the St. Louis-based Mary Engelbreit Co., run by the artist and her husband.

A rag doll version of one of Ms. Engelbreit's moppets is due out next spring. Two lines of wooden furniture, one for adults and another for children, are in the works. So is a series of home decorating books a la Martha Stewart and Mary Emmerling.

Then there's "The Snow Queen" (Workman), Ms. Engelbreit's current project -- a plunge into the children's book market with a newly illustrated version of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

Ms. Engelbreit's illustrations may be nearly ubiquitous, but the 41-year-old artist herself has remained relatively low profile. Her recent promotional tour was her first.

More than 2,000 shops requested her presence at book signings; thanks to her intensive work schedule and domestic demands (she's the mother of two boys, ages 10 and 13), Ms. Engelbreit turned down most of them. Still, she managed to visit bookstores in 20 cities in one month, cheerfully scrawling ME 93! on books for fans. "It's not my goal to be a familiar face in every household," she explains. "But I didn't want this book to get lost in the shuffle.

" 'The Snow Queen' has always been one of my favorite stories," adds Ms. Engelbreit, whose childhood reading tastes ran to fairy tales, "Elsie Dinsmore," and Nancy Drew and the Honey Bunch girls.

"I think it was because a little girl is the star of the show. In most fairy tales, the girl lies around waiting for her prince, but in this one, she goes out to rescue a little boy. I loved the way she just kept plowing ahead, having these adventures."

By the time she read "The Snow Queen" for the first time, Ms. Engelbreit knew she wanted to be an artist when she grew up.

"I taught myself to draw by copying illustrations from my mother's and grandmother's books of fairy tales from the 1920s and '30s, Raggedy Ann and Andy books, and Popeye cartoons," she recalls. "If you do that long enough, you start drawing your own little people."

After finishing high school, Ms. Engelbreit worked for an art supply company and an ad agency before naively setting off for New York at age 22 to seek her fortune illustrating children's books. Nobody offered her a job, but a sympathetic editor suggested she try selling her designs -- which, at the time, leaned toward unicorns and castles -- to small greeting card companies.

She met with enough success that a few years later, in 1982, she started her own company in her hometown of St. Louis. By then, she had married, had one child and was expecting another, and had swapped the fantasy approach for the folksy style that would make her famous.

"After I had children, the things happening in my day-to-day life were more interesting to me than unicorns and castles," says Ms. Engelbreit. "Since we lived a pretty ordinary life, I decided these things must be interesting to other people, too."

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