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Forever friends with her bank manager

Deborah Jones sent her drawings of cuddly teddies to publishers on the off-chance. Ten years and 600 million cards later she is still mystified by their appeal. So is Rosie Millard
  • @Rosiemillard
It's time to face facts. If you receive a card this Easter, statistics reveal it may not be one from the National Gallery showing Michaelangelo's Pieta. It's more likely to show a couple of teddy bears hunting for Easter eggs, regardless of whether you are religious or not, and even if you visit the National Gallery on a daily basis.

The reason the bears will have the upper hand this Easter Day, as they did on Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and any other day, is because people love them and their exploits more than they love any other picture, photograph or drawing on a piece of laminated paper. Better known by their moniker "Forever Friends", the teddies represent the best-selling greetings card in history. Globally, 600 million cards bearing (ha ha) the goings-on of this domesticated ursine brigade have been sold around the world since they hit stands exactly 10 years ago.

At first, the Forever Friends scene is difficult to grasp. The cards have never been advertised; however, their world-wide retail value is something approaching $400m. They have no names, or Peanuts-like characters to associate with; as soft toys, nearly eight million have been sold. The bears are twee and soft and round, but have nothing to do with children. In fact, FF doesn't really turn children on; it's more of an adult thing. There are grown people in this country who have entire Forever Friends weddings. There are adults in China who wear Forever Friends clothing. There are people in Hong Kong, get this, who buy gold Forever Friends statuettes at pounds 350 a throw.

"I like it, but in this day of phones and faxes I'm mystified by the obsession with it. Particularly the themed weddings," says Deborah Jones. Which is strange, since Ms Jones invented Forever Friends and lives with "the bears" 18 hours a day.

A penchant for drawing soft toys is not what springs to mind on meeting Ms Jones. She and her husband, Toby, inhabit an extremely stylish barn conversion near Bath, all monochrome furnishings, bare brickwork and minimalist paintings. A child-free thirtysomething couple, groovily wild dinner parties seem more like their scene. She sports plum nail varnish and dyed hair, and smokes Silk Cut. He is a house-husband and proud of it. She likes The Cure and used to model herself on Hazel O'Connor (early Eighties star of Breaking Glass and beloved of Smash Hits magazine). Absolutely not someone, then, who would dream of having a Forever Friends figurine on her wedding cake.

"I'm not naturally a cute person," she says, with mild understatement. She started out training as a graphic artist, but was unable to get a grant to the course, and so began her working life as a civil servant in the MoD. ("I would come to work with peroxided hair. They tolerated it.") But, she says, she does understand kitsch. In truckloads. Responding to a need "to do something creative", she started drawing cute cards at night, and sending them off to publishers; now more than 800 different Forever Friends cards a year emanate from her workshop at home, where she works alone; this year, she is up to her 10,000th creation.

Deborah admits that leaving the Civil Service for a career in greetings cards was not an obviously canny move. At the time, she had only sold a couple of designs (involving comic hedgehogs, since you asked), to a young card publisher called Andrew Brownsword. It was the start of a highly successful relationship; after two years at the MoD, she decided to design cards full-time, mostly for Brownsword. "I did it 24 hours a day. I churned out 30 finished cards a week." In 1986 she joined the company full-time, and the next year she came up with Forever Friends, on which she is now the chief (and only) designer.

Meanwhile Brownsword himself, also based in Bath, became something of a card mogul. Rated by The Sunday Times last year as worth pounds 175m, he sold Andrew Brownsword Cards in 1993 to Hallmark UK/Ireland, of which he is now chief executive. It is an arrangement that suits Ms Jones, who for all her individuality and what must amount to a fair amount of personal wealth appears happy to be simply an employee. With Hallmark's international muscle behind her, Forever Friends is now syndicated in 40 countries.

Entering Deborah's workshop is like landing on Planet Bear. We are surrounded by bears. Tumbling bears. Plush-clad baby bears. Bears on swings, bears on stationery, smiling bears atop keyrings, "resin" bear figurines, rag bear books, bear snow-domes, Valentine cards, Miss You cards.

Next to this cornucopia is an ashtray, a large mirror and a make-up box. "I do my hair and my make-up here in the morning," says Deborah. "I spend my life in here. Sad, isn't it? I'm not even taken seriously. I only once met someone a party who was excited by what I did, and I later found out he had misheard me. He thought I said car designer, not card designer." She gazes at a bear carrying a sign saying "You're the Best" on a card and sighs.

Toby wanders in, carrying a plate of biscuits. "Do I get fed up with the bears?" he says. "You bet I do. The pressure is on all the time. She often works seven days a week. Sometimes it's 11.30 at night and she's still working. I think, sod it. Come and watch TV."

He says he would never send an FF card ("people would think we used samples, and take offence"), but admits he is entranced by the Forever Friends world. "They have no names, and they never open their mouths ... I think that's because Deborah doesn't want them to have tongues. But that makes them all the more enigmatic." He wanders off.

The bears exist in a parallel universe. They cook, garden, have baths; they even make phone calls. With limitations, admittedly. "They use proper phones," says Deborah. "They don't use mobiles. They don't use computers; in fact, they hardly ever use electricity. Oil-lamps are more their style."

Female bears wear aprons. They might occasionally carry the odd briefcase, but they are more likely to push a pram. Male ones do manly things, such as gardening. "I never show daddy bears cooking. Well, perhaps barbecues, for Father's Day. And they never push prams on their own. I suppose I should break out of such stereotypes," she says, as if she has only just thought about it. "Hm. Daddy bears have washed up. That might be the way forward."

It's unlikely, however, that she would wilfully ruin the formula. FF revels in a lack of modernity. There are bears on the moon, but they carry big red hearts, not astronaut gear. And this is clearly what people like. Something nostalgic, familiar, wistful. Like stumbling on old, beloved toys in an attic; which was, in fact, the original inspiration for Forever Friends.

"They are simple. They don't say too much," Deborah says. "Yet they allow adults to say meaningful things to one other that might otherwise be difficult to say. I Miss You, or I Love You. Humorous cards are fine, but not for all situations. The bears are deliberately nameless. They can be anything you want them to be. They are substitutes for ourselves." As long as you don't mind wearing an apron.

Rosie Millard is the BBC's Arts correspondent.