At Design Edge, Mark Nuccio and son Matt tap their inner child to create toys kids will love
Where fun is born
BY LAUREN WEBER
Matt Nuccio was just 5 years old when he designed his first toy -a set of action figures based on the ninja characters he saw on Saturday morning Chinese television shows. Meetings with toy manufacturers followed, and soon the figures -along with toy weapons, costumes and other accessories -were on store shelves. Nuccio became known as "the ninja kid."
Twenty-six years later, and an adult by any defmition, Nuccio still spends much of his time thinking about how to tap into children's imaginations.
"It helps that we're both quite immature," said his father, Mark, Matt's partner in Deign Edge, a Merrick-based firm that does everything from inventing new toys to designing, packaging and advertising for other companies' toys.
Right now, Design Edge's Hewlett Avenue offIces are electric with energy as the firm prepares for next week's American International Toy Fair in Manhattan, the largest industry trade show in the Western Hemisphere. There, retailers will peruse thousands of items that will be available this fall for the Christmas shopping season.
One of Matt's latest creations will be introduced at the show. Called Storytime Theater, it's a "reading entertainment" toy that projects a book's pictures onto a wall so that children can follow along as though watching a movie. The toy is licensed and manufactured by DynaTech Action, a Canadian toymaker and distributor.
Indeed, many of the new games and novelties on display at the Toy Fair will have come directly from the fertile imaginations of independent toy inventors. All of the industry's heavy hitters -from MatteI and Hasbro to smaller fIrms such as Spinmaster -rely on inventors like the Nuccios to keep up a steady stream of innovation.
"Big companies know that not all ideas come from one pool or one source of people, so they're always looking for outsiders to come up with opportunities they may not have thought of. It's a fresh source of inspiration," said Reyne Rice, toy trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association, which hosts the show.
"We're like soldiers of fortune," said Matt Nuccio, 31. "We don't have to worry about manufacturing or inventory. We can do what we want without being restricted by marketing. At the big companies, everything is done by committee. A camel is a horse designed by a committee.
"But you can't walk in off the street," he added. You have to be established."
That's where having a track record becomes critical, and Design Edge has been building its record for more than 30 years. After graduating from college with a fine arts degree, Mark Nuccio, 59, took a job working for H-G Toy Co., a Long Beach toy maker.
Just before H-G med for bankruptcy in 1988, partly the result of an ill-starred decision to relocate its facilities to New Jersey, Mark Nuccio founded Design Edge in his garage, with $7,000 in his bank account and a family of fIve to support. "We had a daughter in college and we had to take her out. But she dealt with it. She ended up going to Nassau Community College for six months."
Business took off quickly, thanks to Mark Nuccio's edgy sensibility and the reputation and contacts he honed during 17 years at H-G. Over time, he diversified the business and brought in a team of talented designers. One of them was Matt, who by that time was a painter and "totally broke," he said. "I was already working here weekends, summers, holidays, whether I wanted to or not," he added.
Now, "we're a design studio as well as research and development," Mark Nuccio said. The company's revenues are "in the low seven fIgures," he added.
"We do all these different elements invention, model-making, advertising, engineering, marketing, packaging. That is unique in this business, and I attribute that to the fact that everyone who runs the company has a fine arts or liberal arts background."
Design Edge's most successful and long-running product is Tattoo Graphix, a do-it-yourself tattoo kit for kids. The company has brought more than 30 of its own designs to market, and has also created award-winning packaging for a variety of other toys and games.
The biggest challenge in the toy business, Matt Nuccio said, is "always staying fresh, being creative." One has to constantly replenish the store of ideas, ever on the lookout for knickknacks and images that might spark the imagination.
"I have so much useless stuff," he said, "from guitar pickups to canvas tarps to all different types of springs. I'll buy sneakers and tear them apart to see what the cushioning is made of. I'll take apart motors. I like to see how things work, how things light up."
That playful, curious spirit pervades the Design Edge offIces, where the walls are hung with kung fu movie posters and odd sketches, and an antique dentist chair sits in a corner looking like a horror movie torture device.
"We have water fights, dart fights, balls flying through the air," Mark Nuccio said. "Any sticky, messy screwball thing that can go on here, does."