Peggy Brown: inventor and all-around fun gal

Aug. 30, 2007

Although she lives in the ultimate playhouse for grownups, Peggy Brown of Bay View has this complaint: "Nobody will play with me!"

It's not that she doesn't know how to have fun. Brown practically invented fun.

It's just that in a beeline career path that took her from a fine arts degree in industrial design from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design to working for some of the country's biggest toy and game designers, she not only knows the rules of the game, she wrote those rules.

She doesn't necessarily play by them, however.

The first clue knocks your socks off as you walk through the front door of Brown's house on South Logan Avenue. It's a lampshade she concocted out of Dixie riddle cups - hilarious, yet elegant.

And who knew that superballs make terrific drawer pulls? Or that you could cloak your bathroom in secrecy by cleverly disguising the door as a bookcase? Or that those candy-colored lanterns that look like they came from Ikea are simply plastic soda straws?

These are typical of the easy-to-do-with-great-results ideas that landed Brown a spot as a recurring guest on the popular Rachael Ray television show, where she is affectionately known as "Peggy from Milwaukee."

It's no surprise Brown comes up with some of the best Halloween get-ups ever. She's been the hit of costume parties where she has turned up as a Chia Pet, Big Boy with big foam pompadour, a cactus, a bag of Sugar Babies and a s'more.

In Brown's office studio, where the secrets to her next projects remain safely stashed away, a colorful "treasure chest" with small drawers stores the tools of her trade. They are neatly organized by category - puff balls, pairs of dice, mini books, feathers, marbles, checkers, meat balls, suction cups and a "Squirmel," which looks like a fuzzy caterpillar and actually moves like one if you hang it from the zipper pull on your hooded sweatshirt.

Putting the fun in games, toys

Brown's career began when she was hired as a game designer at Western Publishing Company. She worked on hit board games, including Pretty Pretty Princess, Girl Talk and Outburst, designing game pieces and getting a glimpse of what makes a particular game click with kids.

Before the games ever showed up on toy store shelves, they were kid-tested in what Brown calls the "NYPD room." Children were asked to sit down in a room that featured a one-way mirror, not unlike the interrogation room on the "NYPD Blue" TV drama.

"You give them a game and you show them how to play," Brown said. "Then you leave the room."

As the game designers watched through the mirror, kids showed them exactly what worked. And what didn't.

That's how they found a flaw in an early version of Pretty Pretty Princess. Players win by collecting game pieces - bracelets, earrings, necklaces and a crown. Turns out little girls really don't care for spider rings, though. Too icky.

After leaving Western Publishing, Brown opened up her own game and toy design firm called Alley Oop, where she did everything from writing rules to designing game boards.

Brown says there are a few guidelines as to what makes a game successful in the marketplace.

"You've got to have a theme and a hook and virtually no rules," she said. "In Europe, you can sell heavy strategy games, but not in America."

Her resume includes designing some of the toys that McDonald's tucks into Happy Meals. Hollywood movie marketers have turned to Brown to come up with toys based on film characters.

"You get the script ahead of time and it's printed on red so it can't be copied, or else they fly you somewhere and you sit in a room and read it," she said.

A bit of this, a bit of that

Brown has worked as an inventor, writer, creative director, consultant and executive.

"In my last job I was a corporate meeting monkey, and that's not really where I belonged," she said.

So Brown is once again her own boss and loves every second of it.

"I'm real happy because I'm spreading out beyond the toy business. It's kind of fun to spread my wings a little bit," she said.

This week, two new books created by Brown and Catherine Rondeau, another Western Publishing alumna, will hit the shelves of bookstores nationwide.

"Wacktivity" and "Collectopia: A Friendship Scraptacular" published by Random House, are aimed at girls ages 8 to 12 and are chock-full of engaging activities Brown hopes will inspire them to collect memories, knowledge, friendships and ideas.

"I like the stuff that causes you to think and gets kids to use their creative mojo," she said. "It's kind of hard to put that kind of thing in games these days, so that's why I've turned to books.

"We just think kids need a little bit of direction in how to use their imaginations better. I think it makes for deeper people who know how to use their heads."

Brown's work and clips from her appearances on the Rachael Ray Show can be viewed at peggybrown.net.

Nan Bialek keeps tabs on the South Shore's creative side. To contact her about an art topic, call South Shore NOW at (262) 446-6632 or send an e-mail to amuehlbauer@cninow.com.

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