Shari Bradt likes “to play.”

Whether she’s sewing stuffies or finger puppets of a character from one of her children’s drawings, cutting out the components of a mini-bus or food cart with a scroll saw, or hand-sanding wooden cars and boats then polishing them with her own beeswax and oil finish — it all seems like play to Bradt.

PHOTO GALLERY: More images of MODplayhouse products

Bradt is the owner of MODplayhouse in Duluth, a business that has evolved from selling handmade modular playhouses as its main product to a “playhouse of things.”

Bradt still offers a small modular playhouse kit. But her product line has expanded to include wooden cars, canoes, sailboats and trains — along with wooden peg people and cloth finger puppets that can ride in them. They come in two sizes, for toddlers or kids older than 3.

Shari Bradt, toymaker and owner of MODplayhouse. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)
Shari Bradt, toymaker and owner of MODplayhouse. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)

“I wanted old toys, wooden toys, well-made toys that could get passed on to family and friends, rather than the landfill” she said, reflecting on her business on a sunny afternoon from the patio of her home on Duluth’s South Road.

New products this fall include wooden VW mini-buses and food/delivery trucks in a variety of themes: ice cream, sushi, tacos, fruits and veggies, mail, a traveling art gallery.

She crafts themed kits of finger puppets, many of which are based on her children’s drawings of animals in pants, monsters, llamas with flowers, a wizard mouse, a dog that’s a soda jerk. She can even custom-design puppets of someone’s family members or a character from a child’s submitted drawing.

A favorite are her A-frame wooden and cloth tents and tiny hand-sewn sleeping bags. Add a canoe full of peg people and a couple of bear puppets, and a child can play out an idyllic or scary Northland camping adventure.

Shari Bradt puts finishing touches on a tent that she sells as part of her MODplayhouse product line. Much of the sewing and assembling of her toys is done in her design studio/bedroom. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)
Shari Bradt puts finishing touches on a tent that she sells as part of her MODplayhouse product line. Much of the sewing and assembling of her toys is done in her design studio/bedroom. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)

Open-ended play

Open-ended play is a hallmark of MODplayhouse. “We provide the tools. Your child gets to create the story — whatever that story might be,” Bradt explains on her Website.

MODplayhouse got its start eight years ago when Bradt was searching for a playhouse for her daughter, then 5. She wanted something that was eco-friendly, portable and modular, so her daughter could design it and redesign it.

“I didn’t like the options,” she recalled. “So, I went to work in the basement and started building.”

She gives that experience more thought on the MODplayhouse website: “I wanted something that didn't designate what play would happen for little girls — i.e. the standard house with a kitchen, laundry, dishes. … I wanted my daughter to be the builder, the architect of her own stories. It could be a gallery, a bakery, a store of her very own.”

MODplayhouse products can be used interchangeably. Add a canoe with a racoon and a monster in it to a family going camping, and who knows what story a child will create. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)
MODplayhouse products can be used interchangeably. Add a canoe with a racoon and a monster in it to a family going camping, and who knows what story a child will create. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)

In building that first playhouse, she discovered that building modular was more difficult than she had anticipated. All the parts had to fit interchangeably. She managed to give her daughter “something” that Christmas, then set off to revise the playhouse into a product she could sell.

When crafting the playhouses, Bradt struggled to find the right materials: food-safe dyes to color the panels, an eco-friendly recycled wood or paper composite that wouldn’t warp. She made several revisions to the housing kits. The materials were pricey, and the larger kits didn’t sell so well.

She branched out to wooden cars, trains, sailboats and canoes, and peg people to go into them. But she wanted to incorporate more fun elements into the product line.

She made a couple of stuffies based on characters her children had drawn. “It opened something up for me, a starting point. They had these awesome little drawings,” she said. “It was their imagination that re-sparked mine.”

A family affair

She asked her son, Lucas Bowen Bradt, now 11, to draw her a dog. He complied with a dog with a potbelly and three chin hairs holding an ice cream cone. He’s the artist behind Yule, the mouse in a wizard suit with a cupcake; Hawkman, and a host of monsters. Keeping up with the evolving product line, the dog recently gained a hat and a name, Jack the Soda Jerk.

Different versions of “Jack” the soda jerk. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)
Different versions of “Jack” the soda jerk. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)

Bradt, who holds a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Kansas, scans and edits her children’s pencil drawings, adding color and other touches here and there, then prints the finished characters onto fabric.

“It’s super-empowering for him, when someone buys (a finger puppet of) his drawing,” Bradt said.

Lucas also designs marketing videos, showing the toys at play. In one, the Blob Monster gets left off a train. And he’s the critic, recently pointing out to his mom that she had forgotten to put holes in a new camper for peg people and finger puppets.

Olivia Bowen Bradt, now 13, is developing a series of llama finger puppets, and helping to design the new food/delivery trucks and accessories that go with them. “She’s my planner,” Bradt said.

Lucas Bowen Bradt’s original drawings of a monster, Hawkman and Yule the mouse, have been turned into several versions of finger puppets. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)
Lucas Bowen Bradt’s original drawings of a monster, Hawkman and Yule the mouse, have been turned into several versions of finger puppets. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)

Pointing to a tiny hamburger and pizza that Olivia fashioned out of clay, Bradt pondered the idea of offering modeling clay with the trucks so that children receiving them could make their own foods or products. “Mom always has the final say,” Bradt noted of the ideas her family generates.

Husband Justin Bowen listens and trouble-shoots her design issues. He set up and maintains her garage workshop, recently installing a dust hood. And he buys her power tools, like that band saw she received for Valentine’s Day.

During the pre-Christmas rush, all family members get involved: stuffing finger puppets, sanding and polishing wooden cars and boats, assembling shipping boxes. Last year, Bradt’s kitchen table was filled with product.

As awareness of MODplayhouse grows, Bradt will be sweating out whether she made enough inventory over the summer.

Andrea Novel Buck, a professional journalist for 25 years, is a Duluth freelance writer and Youth Education Director at Temple Israel.

A tin of Northwoods-themed finger puppets. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)
A tin of Northwoods-themed finger puppets. (Andrea Novel Buck / For the News Tribune)


Where to Find MODplayhouse

In stores: Hucklebeary in downtown Duluth, Silver Creek Co. in Two Harbors, Rose and Loon in the Rosedale Center, The Purple Turtle in Stockholm, Wis., and the Maker’s Mercantile, a mobile camper that travels to events along the North Shore.

Online:

Upcoming festivals:

Bradt is scheduled to occupy booth No. 34 Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Chester Bowl Fall Fest (rain date Sunday). Other upcoming events include:

  • Makersfest at Silver Creek Co., Oct. 12
  • Junk Hunt at the DECC, Nov 1-2
  • Festival of Trees at the DECC, Nov. 16-17
  • Art on Tap at Fitger’s, Nov. 30
  • Duluth Winter Village via Maker’s Mercantile, Dec. 7-8
  • Art on Tap at Fitger’s, Dec. 14.