The first thing you’ll notice about FLABJACKS is the cast of cheerfully chubby characters. All curves and folds with not a straight edge or angle in sight, the curious oddballs exude a deadpan disposition that vibes exceedingly well with the modern millennial psyche.
FLABJACKS is the brainchild of Hong Kong-born visual artist and illustrator Ton Mak. What began as escapist doodles created in her spare time soon turned into a sprawling world populated by imaginary chubsters that spread insouciant joy and energy. Ton never actually studied art formally. Instead, she majored in Anthropology at University College London, which perhaps explains why she is so adept at humanizing a meatball or a spud (root vegetables are a fave).
Besides illustrations, Ton also makes stuff you can poke, squish, hug or simply hang out with. Bean bags, plushies, soft vinyl toys and other cushy objects provide tangibility to the relaxed lifestyle of her portly pals. FLABJACKS is featured on numerous artist collaboration projects, the latest being a PUMA crossover sneaker collection exclusively for the Chinese market. Through the “She Moves Us” campaign, which empowers female artists to freely express their own voices and creativity, Ton brightens up the Suede Mayu in her signature hand-drawn style.
In this Studio Visits feature, we catch up with Ton in San Francisco to discuss her brand and recent collaboration with PUMA.
“I love a good routine and pretty much always start by putting some thoughts down on paper.”
When did you move into your current studio?
I moved into this home studio during the pandemic, and so a lot of my stuff is in Shanghai where I still consider a “home”-ish.
Describe a typical day in your studio.
Every day starts at 5:30am with some form of egg-centric breakfast, a teeny bit of coffee and music. I love a good routine and pretty much always start by putting some thoughts down on paper. Writing a list of things I want to get done, or even just general feelings, helps get the groove going. Then I move on to more creative happenings, which include painting, writing, planning for new toys, brainstorming upcoming shows and projects. There’s also the super mundane stuff that cannot be ignored: taxes, emails, chit chats, snacks and walks.
Are there any special items you like to keep in the studio?
Right now, the space is quite bare compared to my old studio in Shanghai. I try to keep track of all the toys that I have made, to keep them nice and safe, but I’m surprisingly terrible at it!
“Every character carries a similar spirit at the core: each hopes to bring joy, happiness and a slice of peace to those who befriend them.”
How did the name “FLABJACKS” come about?
FLABJACKS initially started as a passion project 10 years ago and honestly I didn’t give the name much thought back then. It was a very in-the-moment kind of thing. I wanted to create a little universe of friendly pals and I needed a name. I loved eating flapjacks when I was living in the UK, so that was that!
Many fans refer to your characters as “Pang Tuan” (Chubby Bun). Is there a message you’re trying to send across with them?
In the beginning, I had a bit of an obsession with certain inanimate objects. I was drawn to dough forms, like buns, baos and baguettes. Eventually, I started creating other worlds and characters. For example, Magical Natural is a succulent-filled wonderland, Pansy is a girl who leads a relaxed lifestyle in extra-large underpants, and Banana Boo is an old fruity favorite of mine. As the FLABJACKS universe continues to expand, every character carries a similar spirit at the core: each hopes to bring joy, happiness and a slice of peace to those who befriend them.
What is your favorite chubby character in real life?
I gave birth earlier this year, so I’d have to say that my little one is by far my favorite. Close runner-ups would probably be my two cats Benji and Dusty.
“To be honest, I’ve never thought much about myself as a female artist in the past.”
What do you think of PUMA’s “She Moves Us” campaign?
To be honest, I’ve never thought much about myself as a female artist in the past. There was never a deliberate focus on gender in my world of characters. Having said that, I became a first-time mom soon after I started working on this project with PUMA. That was a big reality check for me. How do I sleep again? How do I juggle nursing and painting? How much time do I have to work today? These are real questions that I’m still navigating through every day, and I have become so interested in knowing more about how other female artists journey through these changes too.
I love observing other women work. I love hearing their stories. It’s like I’m looking for real life testimonials to show me that yes, it is possible! It’s a powerful community that I wish to explore further. Ultimately, I’ve got to say I love being a female artist. I love that these challenges lead to opportunities to do more. With or without a child, the truth is every woman has to navigate growing pains and changes in their own ways — we are all in this together.
How do you feel about your first time collaborating with PUMA?
So wonderful! It’s been a while since I’ve worked on anything footwear related, so I’m grateful for this opportunity to unlock new creative possibilities. PUMA has given me an incredible amount of freedom to express whatever I want and feel in terms of ideas and overall designs — I couldn’t have asked for a more liberating and open-minded collaboration.
“I love the Suede Mayu because it has a uniquely different, easy-going and rounded silhouette. It fits nicely with the characteristics of FLABJACKS.”
What’s the inspiration for the PUMA x FLABJACKS collection?
The name of this collection in Chinese is “好的⼀天”, which translates as “Have A Good Day”. I must’ve head this super simple phrase from my father-in-law and it just stuck with me. It has a nice ring to it and a positive vibe, and I wanted to spread an uplifting energy through the collection. May we all have an OK day!
The collection consists of three variations of the Suede Mayu.
I love the Suede Mayu because it has a uniquely different, easy-going and rounded silhouette. It fits nicely with the characteristics of FLABJACKS. The shoe has this funky proportion that makes it feel welcoming, and I especially love the slightly ballooned soles.
There are some interesting names as well.
All three shoes represent a certain feeling and mood. “Happy Doing Nothing Island” is filled with bright and uplifting primary colors, and I truly believe that some of my best days are those where I do absolutely nothing. Sitting around. Bit of deep breathing. Sipping on tea. What a blast. That goes hand in hand with “Garden of Rest”, which is more peaceful and floral. Finally, “Fuzzy Cactus Park” has a funky grass-like texture to it.
These designs are heavily influenced by the time I’ve spent in San Francisco in recent years. The natural landscape here has become such a big part of my work. I love the sunny weather and blue skies, as well as the succulent plants that I see every day on my walks. Every season, there seems to be a new plant, flower or tree that’s transitioning in a beautiful way.
“Do it for the process. Do it for yourself. By all means, definitely do something.”
Who are some favorite artists who have inspired you?
I don’t have a favorite per se. I find inspiration from all sorts of creative outlets. Whether they’re a writer, a chef, or even a gardener, anyone who is dedicated to their craft generally radiates a wonderful energy that can be both inspiring and energizing. Inspiration doesn’t come from their output, but rather the passion, the sense of individuality and momentum, what’s happening behind the scenes. That’s the stuff I find most empowering.
What advice would you give aspiring artists and designers?
Do it for the process. Do it for yourself. By all means, definitely do something.
Do you have any long-term aspirations outside of your art practice?
There are still dream projects that I would like to work on, but they feel like totally unfamiliar territory. Like animation, writing new genres of work, or more mindfulness-related projects. I prefer to keep them swimming loosely in my head for now though. My grandma always says, “Unless something has happened, keep it to yourself.”
Photography by Eddie Lee for Hypebeast.