He's still reaching for the brass ring Sled pants, an ironing mitt, stretch-fabric gift wrap. Brent Farley has come this close to inventing the next big thing. And he's not about to rest until he does.

CATCHING UP WITH ... BRENT FARLEY

October 25, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

Nothing can quite prepare you for your first step inside Brent Farley's home.

Outwardly, it's identical to the stacks of other tan, aluminum-sided residences in a sleepy Baltimore County apartment complex. Just one clue signals you've arrived at the right place: A hubcap-sized, neon-green peace sign adorns a bedroom window.

Farley likes peace signs. Really likes them. More on this later.

The door to Apt. 301 swings open, revealing a scene of domestic tranquillity. Farley's wife, Wendy, wields a metal spatula as she cooks dinner. Son Sam, nearly 6, pleads his case for a visit to a friend's house. Farley is freshening up after work.

None of this really registers, however, because you're still in the hallway, mouth agape, spinning in slow circles as you take in the riot of colors and textures: walls layered with glossy magazine pages, letters, greeting cards, pins and stickers; rows of framed, geometrical paintings that climb to the ceiling; green, spreading plants and a giant American flag and a white plaster mold of a woman's very pregnant belly. It isn't just an apartment. You've stepped into a giant collage.

Farley, 48 - creator of this visual smorgasbord, self-proclaimed "world's greatest inventor" - bounds into the living room. Six weeks have passed since Farley traveled to New York as a finalist in gadget retailer Hammacher Schlemmer's national inventor's competition. His creation, an ironing "mitt" worn over the hand, lost to a gutter-cleaning device.

But the defeat has hardly quashed his dream.

More than half his life has been consumed by the pursuit of that one elusive gadget - the thing that will make us wonder how we ever managed to lived without it, the thing that will make Farley a bundle of cash. His quest is charted in dozens of journals he fills with sketches and scrawls, blueprints and brainstorms.

"Give me a category," he commands, "and I'll show you how fertile my imagination is. ... Cars? I have a patent pending right now on an air mat. You know your floor mats in your cars? You know how they curl up sometimes? Well, what I offer is a mat that's inflatable, 1-inch thick."

A foam disc lying on the floor suddenly catches his attention and he kicks it across the room: "It's a kickable Frisbee!"

"I can wrap 20 presents in three minutes," he announces. He grabs a piece of printed fabric and stretches it, sock-like, over a white square box.

"This is stretch wrap," he says. "This is something I've been kicking around for 10 years. I've won inventors' contests with it. And here I sit. You go to the mall, get the old ladies to wrap something for you, no less than five bucks, eight, 10, 12 dollars and it takes them 20-25 minutes. Then they tear it off and throw it away."

This is what gnaws at Farley. It wakes up him at night and causes him to pick fights with his wife of 12 years. It's the knowledge that he has come so close, so many times, to that elusive, magical gadget everyone will want.

His voice drops to an agonized whisper: "It's like winning the lottery and having someone take it away. It's like having the winning ticket, but you get up to the window and it's one number off. I hate it. But I can't stop."

He almost did it with the sled pants. They earned him a finalist spot in Hammacher Schlemmer's competition last year, and the buzz was good. What he'd devised were pants with a built-in sled on the legs and rear. Just sit down at the top of a hill, and you're off. Nothing to carry back up, either.

Farley grabs a videotape and pops it into the VCR. It's a year-old tape of "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," filmed right before the 1997 contest winner was announced. Regis introduces Farley and announces he is from "Biltmore." Then Regis sits down and Farley begins strapping him into the sled pants.

"Excuuuuse me!" Regis blurts as Farley reaches for the thigh straps. Farley keeps his composure. Kathie Lee is shrieking, "The human toboggan! I love it!"

On the tape, Farley is beaming, shaking hands with Kathie Lee, telling her how he dreamed up the concept at age 12. In the living room, Farley stares at the television, unsmiling.

"I thought I was going to win because Kathie Lee and Regis, they gave me more time than any of the other inventors and they built a set for me. And I didn't win."

So close to that lottery ticket, once again. All he needs is someone to gamble on him, to manufacture one of his hundreds of ideas and give him a cut of the sales. He can't afford to do it himself.

For work, he paints sets for Hollywood movies - he's currently employed on the new Barry Levinson film "Liberty Heights" - but the money he earns evaporates quickly. He has spent thousands of dollars on patent searches, to make sure he doesn't waste time on an idea someone else has already had. The letters lining his walls hint at his postage bills (from the Jay Leno show: "Thank you for the material. ... Unfortunately, we are unable to offer you a booking.")

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