The Little Apple Dolls were created by British artist Ufuoma Urie in 2001. The brand is run and maintained by the artist and sister Chanel Urie who is also responsible for producing some of the dolls’ accessories. Aside from hand making the clothing and following a DIY work ethic, it is also an important part of their ethos to work with and support small businesses and independent artists to hand-craft pieces rather than rely on heavy mass production.
The featureless figures were first brought to life while Urie worked on her university dissertation. The artist’s obsession with movie monsters and horror films fed the essay and her art practice. Deconstructing fear and questions about what made something monstrous became the starting point.
There was something alluring but also something unsettling about the movie monsters from Hollywood’s Golden Age and Urie usually sided with them(!)
She began to hand craft child-sized dolls to explore the idea. The result was a visual combination of fetus, toddler and skeleton. There is a semblance of a face but it’s still not quite there and therein lay what many would consider the dolls’ ‘monstrosity’.
In a separate project Urie also produced photographic works to explore creation myths. She used the symbol of the wounded, "pin-cushion" apple that is anthropomorphised and capable of showing emotion. The two ideas were combined and the pin-cushion apple became Little Apple Red, a type of hero/saviour who then began to feature in the doll’s narratives.
Initially, the Little Apple Dolls fashion aesthetic followed a strict set of rules imposed by the creator. This included a limited colour scheme (red black white and grey), avoiding modern dress silhouettes, and the use of natural fabrics (cottons, raw silk). The outfits are meant to speak of a bygone era, so influences from Victorian England, Old Gothicism, and elaborate Eastern dress (kimonos, hanbok, layered shrouds) can be seen. Of the fashion Urie says:
“Imitations of traditional Eastern clothing for the early dolls, Solus, Sine, Umbrae and Lethe were homages to the mesmerizing costumes I’d seen in old films about ghosts in rural Japan and empresses in Chinese opera growing up. Although I appreciate the clothing, I could never truly replicate the clothing from those parts of the world because that is not my heritage and is not really mine to discuss or celebrate - most of what is created is a complete mish-mash of my influences: Asian horror, movie monsters and vintage fashion. I would urge everyone to go learn more about the rich history and customs of these traditional fashions from the true cultural source (not me!)"
Post series 4, Urie allowed herself more creative freedom to experiment and subsequently released the Custom Couture line, made up of dolls from the artist’s portfolio previously rejected dolls.
Each Little Apple Doll character comes with its own storybook which is written and illustrated by Ufuoma Urie. The stories present the central character with a situation in which they discover a secret which leads to otherworldly conflict or faces a threat which they must then save themselves from. Ultimately each story culminates in a life or death battle with the protagonist losing their earthly life but gaining wisdom or freedom and being invited by Little Apple Red to the Inbetween, a magical realm where a perfected replica of the world they knew is created for them. There they are encouraged to find their own way to eternal contentment and live out their existence in the role they loved before their lives were cut short. The stories are best described as gothic fairytales.
Narrating each tale is Little Apple Red, who does not possess an Earthly voice but speaks through Kook Headcage and Charles Carrion the raven, two storytellers and companions of the curious apple (who have their own separate adventures alluded to at the start of some of the stories)
Speaking about the characters Chanel and Ufuoma say:
“We wanted to create a universe where young girls are the focus. They find themselves in situations that are fantastical but difficult and what defines each of them is their action/reaction to their circumstances. Some sacrifice themselves, some are vulnerable, some are fighters, some are determined and some become corrupted. The stories are teeming with themes of family, death, survival, betrayal, fate, tradition, self-discovery, love and friendship.
In addition there is an overwhelming sense that each character in her own way is misunderstood, an outsider even. Many resolve to do their own thing on their own terms which sometimes means being alone or going against rules, things we have experienced in our own lives so it’s fair to say we put a bit of ourselves in the dolls.
Our brand has transcended beyond the act of selling dolls to collectors - which we are overwhelmed by. The fans; our friends, our community are passionate, dedicated, highly creative, resourceful and understand something that some others cannot: that there is untold beauty in difference and that like them the dolls are spirited, curious, beautiful, complex, imperfectly perfect wandering souls.”