In 2006, sculptor Mark Borella felt helpless when his friends’ son was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Borella wanted to give the friends something to honor their son, but he couldn’t think of anything suitable. Finally, he turned to a jar of leftover clay and molded the clay into smiles.
On the last day of the young man’s life, Borella brought a handful of smiles to his friends’ house. “I know there is nothing I can say or do to make you feel better,” he said. “So I thought I would bring you some smiles to help you get your smile back. I call them ‘Seeds of Happiness.’”
When word spread about the little sculptures, and people kept asking to buy them, Borella decided to start a business. Soon, his staff grew too large for his house, and Seeds of Happiness settled into a small building in St. Louis, Missouri, where about a dozen people work.
“We’re very laid back,” says employee Sophie Williamson. “We have a lot of fun. We always say that all this fun we have, we put it right back into our work.”
Each month, Seeds of Happiness ships more than 40,000 “seeds” to customers in the United States, Canada, Germany, England, Australia, and elsewhere. The company also sells T-shirts, caps, and other clothing.
To make a seed, clay is shaped into a ball, and then the eyes and mouth are drawn in. “We poke the eyes with chopsticks,” says Borella. Next, an employee adds other features, like a hat or a beard. The seed is then put into a kiln to bake. About 15,000 seeds are baked at a time.
When the seeds come out of the kiln, an employee presses the bottom of each one so that the figure can stand up. The seeds are then baked a second time. Finally, they are painted and ready to be shipped.
“Everything in here,” says Borella, “is based on smiles, happiness, and being funny.”