Ken Como did not originally set out to be a toymaker, but after losing his job as a furniture draftsman in 2009, he decided to turn his hobby into a career.
As the owner of Noli Noli, a toy company based in Long Island City, Como makes his toys out of recycled and local wood. From pencil holders shaped like whales to race cars and owls, his toys are functional but also high-end.
Design stores and furniture stores across the country and in countries like Japan, Denmark and Sweden purchase bulk orders of his products.
Como, who has lived in Long Island City for 13 years, began his career as a painter. After going to graduate school in New Orleans, he moved to New York and began trying to sell his paintings at art shows.
“I wasn’t really selling my paintings,” Como said. “I met my future wife and we got married and she was like, ‘I don’t know about painting, you need to get a job so we can buy a house.'”
He used the woodworking skills he learned in his sculpture classes to get a job drafting plans for a fine furniture store. On the side, Como sketched out toy designs and used leftover scraps of wood to bring the designs to life. He eventually showed them to the craftsmen he worked with and got tips about which tools to use.
After receiving positive responses from his friends and co-workers, he seriously began to consider starting his own business in 2009.
“I [told myself], ‘maybe I should, instead of getting another job and getting laid off again, I should do what I want to do,'” he said.
Most of Como’s toys have a cylindrical base. He achieves this look by using a lathe – a machine that rotates the wood on its axis to allow him to cut, sand and drill into each piece. Most toys are made of local woods such as walnut, cherry and red oak and he uses only natural finishes.
He used the advice from the mothers he met at craft fairs when selling his toys, who appreciated that Como did not use chemical wood finish or paint. They also were happy to hear that the toy maker used local and recycled wood to make his products. Build it Green, a nonprofit retail store in Astoria that carries salvaged wood, allows him to replenish his supply when he’s running low.
The toys resemble Japanese Kokeshi dolls, which are handmade from wood and usually have a cylindrical base and large head. Como, who was married in Japan and spent two years studying woodworking there, draws some inspiration from those toys and his Japanese wife.
“My wife for some reason does not like mouths on the toys so [they’ve] never had a mouth,” Como said. “That’s like, 100 percent my wife’s decision.”
His sons Kiichi, 7, and Michi, 3, are also vocal about their opinions and Como will have “breakfast discussions” with his family about new designs.
“If I see them playing with it, I think it’s a good idea,” Como said.
The name Noli Noli was also partly inspired by his wife’s Japanese heritage. Como and his family took a vacation to Noli, Italy in 2009 and enjoyed the town, which he described as “really laid back” and “kind of like a blue collar resort.”
When he discovered that he name Noli was already in use, he decided on Noli Noli when his wife told him the phrase meant “I’m so excited” in Japanese.
The company celebrated its fifth anniversary this year and Como just moved to a new studio at 5-26 46th Avenue after the new landlord in his old studio started raising the rent. Now, he’ll have space for a small equipment room, design room and space to showcase his toys.
Como does everything himself and also works as a freelance draftsman in Manhattan. He has to balance taking care of his children while designing and creating each toy, which take at least one hour to make. Many times, he’ll have to fill bulk shipments of 100 or more pieces.
“The challenge is getting a big order and filling the order and having children,” Como said. “[Michi] is not in school yet, but will be in school this fall. That was a challenge.”
The Massachusetts native is looking for an employee to help fill orders more quickly and is expecting that he’ll have to train him or her in specific woodworking skills.
“I really need an employee to make [the toys] fast and to get them to people who want them,” Como said. “I need to train somebody because what I do, there’s no school for it.”
Though he cannot afford to make a living by just making his toys, Como said he hopes to keep his business running for as long as he can.
To view or purchase Como’s toys, visit Noli Noli’s website.