May 10, 2017
Jordan Elise Perme and Christopher Lees have been known to welcome rescue animals into their home and studio in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood.
By John Campanelli
Sammie, a former racing greyhound, spends most of her time lounging on a mattress under the big window. Bobbin, a quirky calico cat, walks on everything, guests included. Then there’s Brad, a baby weasel. He stands motionless on a branch inside a glass case in the living room, a pose he’s been holding since at least the 1930s.
“I love taxidermy,” Perme says, “but only things I feel like I’ve rescued from antique shops. I feel if I am taking it and bringing it home, I am giving it a better second life.”
“They have to be vintage,” Lees adds.
Brad shares living-room space with a few squirrels, a mouse and an old fox-head trophy on the wall. Upstairs, in the husband-and-wife-team’s sun-splashed studio, there are hundreds of others. Those aren’t made of fur. They are imaginary species – Sweasels, Squabbits and Foxolotl – handmade from rigid foam and bright felt. They are the Horrible Adorables: part toy, part fantasy, inspired by taxidermy and entirely charming.
The idea was hatched at CIA, where the two Ohioans met in a Foundation drawing class in 2004 and quickly fell for each other. Perme was a 19-year-old from Mentor and Lees was a 25-year-old nontraditional student, a mechanical engineer, from Parma. He’d always wanted to give art school a shot and promised himself he would focus on art and not date anyone while at CIA.
“That didn’t work out,” he says. The couple has been together ever since. They were married in 2013.
Perme pondered many majors: Illustration, Printmaking, Biomedical Art, Sculpture and Industrial Design. She eventually decided on Fiber and Material Studies. She cherishes that journey, the exposure CIA gave her to different art forms and the school’s culture of freedom and open-ended discovery.
“I wanted to learn everything,” she says.
Perme had always been captivated by vintage oddities: Victorian cabinets of curiosities, circus imagery and the legendary animal hoaxes of P.T. Barnum, including the Fiji Mermaid, which was an ape’s head sewn to a fish’s body.
For her BFA project, she created a room of wonders and filled it with weird imaginary creatures, including a fur-covered Hairy Grease Mite. She wrote backstories for them all.
“That’s where Horrible Adorables was born,” she says. “The aesthetic has definitely evolved. Those were a little grosser-looking, scarier and dopey.”
When she graduated, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She took freelance jobs with Hasbro, Little Tikes and JoAnn Fabrics, creating repeat patterns, holiday lines and toy prototypes.
“I thought I was going to get a ‘real job,’ but I also wanted to keep making weird creatures, because I love making weird creatures,” she says. “Then I decided to try to sell the weird creatures.”
At craft fairs, they noticed the mounted critters sold much faster than other work. Not only was the Sweasel on the wall, the writing was, too: Horrible Adorables were hot.
They’ve only become hotter, not just at indie craft fairs, but online, in galleries and in toy stores across the country. They’ve starred in a children’s book. An animation series is in development.
After two years of Foundation, Lees left CIA and quit his engineering job to focus all his time on their art. He uses lean manufacturing techniques to optimize production, freeing up as much time as possible to create the pieces, which range from mini wall-mounted creatures that retail for $70 to larger custom and fine-art pieces that approach $1,000.
They spend their days, and many nights, filling orders, planning for shows and shooing Bobbin the cat. In their limited free time, they tend a vegetable garden, keep backyard bees and visit antique stores, always on the lookout to rescue another friend.
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