It's hard not to touch things in Joel Henriques' studio.
PORTLAND — It's hard not to touch things in Joel Henriques' studio. The tiny wire chaise lounge in a simple dollhouse. The colorful bird cutouts floating from the ceiling. The wood and cloth puppets on a sunny shelf waiting for a voice and a hand to animate them.
Henriques designs crafts and toys for young children but these aren't ordinary playthings. They're stylish, simple and — here's the best part — easy for even the most uncrafty of parents to replicate. Since becoming the father of twins four years ago, this stay-at-home dad has quietly built an international following among grade-school teachers, artists, designers and parents looking for ways to engage little kids using stuff found around the house or the backyard.
Each month, more than 100,000 people stop by madebyjoel.com — a site where Henriques shares how-to videos, photos of his work and simple instructions for his crafts. He offers free templates of his creations, including one called Paper City, a black-and-white drawing of a skyline and figures that can be cut out and used for storytelling. Thousands have downloaded Paper City, making it the most popular post on his blog.
Now Henriques is on the verge of becoming an author. His first book, "Made to Play! Handmade Toys & Crafts for Growing Imaginations," is due out in October. The book contains a handful of crafts familiar to visitors to his blog, but most of the 35 projects are new.
"Everything in the book involves open-ended and creative play," he said. "All of the toys are designed to have kids play with them however they want to."
Henriques, 38, has a boyish face and the energy of a man used to spending the afternoon playing with preschoolers. He greets a visitor to his Mount Tabor home with the cheerful offer of a homemade latte that he effortlessly tops with a swirly foam design. Wearing laceless Converse sneakers, he heads to his tidy workshop on the second floor of the family's home. Along the way, the walls are adorned with his own art — bold, bright paintings of birds and bikes — and his kids' creations. Just outside his office door sits a small table scattered with paints for his kids.
Prototypes of his creations — cardboard owls and other birds, puzzles, mobiles, a dollhouse — sit on a shelf. Everything here has been tested by his 4-year-olds, Tess and Jack.
"They will totally surprise you," he said. Henriques will design crafts so they can be used in a few different ways, but his kids "always find a different way to take it, a step further. It's hard to predict what a kid might do with a toy because their imaginations are so open."
Maiz Connolly, the mother of three young boys and the blogger behind The Brooding Hen (thebroodinghen.blogspot.com), is one of Henriques' fans. His craft ideas are original, modern and child-friendly — a hard-to-find combination when it comes to kids' toys, she said. Connolly's tried many of his crafts with her sons and watched as they've come up with ideas for new toys on their own.
"When the kids want a toy, they just try to make it," said Connolly, who lives in Los Angeles. She recalled how one son proudly showed off the toys he made. "He will say something like, 'Look how many toys I have made!' and I will look and it's just little pieces of paper he's cut out. I love that."
Henriques didn't start out as a craft designer. His parents had dreams of medical school for their middle child but Henriques had other plans. Raised in Portland, he studied art and philosophy at Walla Walla College, now Walla Walla University, then returned to his hometown and supported himself by waiting tables at local restaurants, playing in a band and painting. When he was 23, he sold his first painting for $150. He started showing his work around town and holding annual art shows, earning himself a "decent little side living."
And then he became a dad. While his wife, Shannon, works as a doctor, Henriques has chosen to stay home with the couple's twins. (They're expecting their third child in June.)
Henriques remembers being struck by how his kids, even when they were very young, were surrounded by toys and yet were drawn to the most simple and tactile things. Like their drool bib.
"This is crazy," Henriques recalls thinking. "We have hundreds of dollars worth of toys — all of these wooden, non-toxic things — and they are playing with their drool bibs."
So, using whatever he had on hand, Henriques made a few simple toys for the twins. He sewed stuffed animals. He made pillows out of old fabric and stitched boy and girl images onto them using black yarn. He made easy-to-manipulate elephant puzzles and wooden dolls with Velcro dresses.
Henriques says he's not much of a tailor so his sewing crafts are basic.
"Just about anyone can make them and they look cool," he said.
In 2009, he started documenting his work on his blog. Last year, after a mention by a well-known Dutch designer, the number of visitors to Henriques' blog skyrocketed, turning him into an international crafting sensation. He's created a line of toys for British-based toy company, Made in Me. He's working on an idea for a show he'll post on his blog called 'Zip and Zander Blastoff' — an ultra low-tech space story for the preschool set.
His latest craft projects — including some work for Cheerios in which he made videos of crafts using cereal boxes — have meant a steadier income.
Henriques, who's been called Craft Daddy by designers and European magazines, seems a bit bowled over by the fuss his crafts inspire. Etsy (etsy.com), the online marketplace for homemade goods, dispatched a film crew to his home earlier this month to shoot a video of Henriques at work. Each morning he logs onto his blog to find piles of new comments from overnight. And then there are the photos, dozens of them, of kids holding up the crafts they did on their own — or maybe with some help from Mom or Dad — inspired by Henriques' blog posts.
There's the monster mobile, which is one kid's take on Henriques' owl mobile. The proud mom who made fabric nesting dolls using scrap material. The kid on the stilts he made following Henriques' directions.
It's an immediate payoff, and a deeply satisfying one, for a guy who spends his days dreaming of ways to turn a tiny pinecone into a dollhouse seat or how to make a doll dress out of scrap fabric.
"It's kind of humbling," he said. "It's really cool."