Responses to Stephanie Wirkkala's work range from uncontrollable laughter to "Why?" and "I love it!"
Her favorite: "How the heck did you come up with that?"
The Laguna Niguel resident is a familiar face at Art-A-Faire at Huntington Beach's Pier Plaza, thanks to the toilet she never leaves home without. She keeps the white 50-pound throne from Costco in her car, lugging it to and from craft shows — and she has the sculpted arms to show for it. The owner of Jewels for the Loo creates decorative floor-bolt covers for toilets like her handy companion.
A graphic designer by profession, Wirkkala was working in 2000 with a client who specialized in lion-shaped toilets priced at $3,500. But despite the toilets' high-end appearance and cost, their white-encased bolts were uninteresting, she thought. Wirkkala responded by gluing beads to plastic caps and offering them to friends as gag gifts.
Dubbed "balls of steel," they were a big hit, she said, helping her realize that she was onto something with untapped potential.
Four years ago, Wirkkala revisited this idea by enrolling in ceramics classes and sculpting every day for a year at home. She now uses Santa Ana-based Muddy's Studio to fire and glaze her creations, which include fish, turtles, whales and lotuses. Most are her brainchildren, but some, like the frogs, were born of numerous customer requests.
Wirkkala, 53, who is currently working on adding a gecko to the list, begins by creating oversized sculptures, which are then scaled down so they don't seem incongruous when placed on a toilet. Plastic and silicone molds help her construct multiple replications of the original.
The potty jokes abound.
"People spend a lot of their resources on their bathrooms to make them nice, and Jewels for the Loo are such an easy, affordable upgrade," Wirkkala remarked. "It livens up the space and adds an element of surprise."
Her products, valued at $20 a pair, are the result of extensive research into bathroom colors and decor. Many homes boast hardwood floors, encouraging her to concoct a brown color as well as the more expected blues and greens.
According to Huntington Beach resident Pam Free, manager and promoter of Art-A-Faire, many locals participate in the weekly event, which regularly draws 50 to 55 vendors. Others travel from San Diego, Riverside and even Palm Springs with photographs, jewelry, soaps, candles, recycled bottle art and more. She often receives phone calls from tourists who want to make sure that their visits to Surf City coincide with the market's schedule.
"When I received [Stephanie's] application, I was happy to see a new, creative item," she said. "What a great way to add some fun to your bathroom. I bought some from her the first time she participated."
Free is tickled by the "Toilet Jewelry" sign that hangs on Wirkkala's toilet, which she says makes people laugh and encourages them to leave with at least a set or two of the decorations.
Although Jewels for the Loo sees maximum business online and at art shows, Wirkkala also sells her wares at home accessory, gift and specialty shops. And she recently applied to appear on "Shark Tank," the ABC reality TV series that features entrepreneurs who pitch business plans and ideas to potential investors.
Having sold thousands of toilet caps, she believes that hers is a million-dollar idea — one that needs financial backing and manufacturing support.
"There's a big demand for them — I can't keep up," Wirkkala said.
The Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate thought back to a 2010 summer party hosted by her parents in their Tustin home, where her family's love for art was on full display. Her father, a musician, mother, a mixed-media artist, sister, the founder of Plein Air Painters of Hawaii, and others manned booths to sell their wares.
It was when Wirkkala sold out that she understood that her idea brought smiles to people's faces whether they were 4 years old or 80.
"I think people love beauty, fun and [uniqueness]," Wirkkala said. "I think they celebrate in creativity."