Los Angeles, California

Founder Charlie Hodges wants to reinvent toy manufacturing from supply chain to social messaging.

Photos courtesy Archamelia

Hodges was a professional dancer before he moved into a second career in toy manufacturing.

“[Dancing] was a really prolific and wonderful career,” says Hodges. “The ballet industry in particular considered me to be a little too short and too fat and too bald, so I dealt with a lot of body-shaming.”

Self-acceptance was difficult. Awards and accolades drew “more attention to this unorthodox body,” he adds. “I think what I learned through all of it is I didn’t need to change how people saw me, I needed to change how I saw myself.”

After retiring from dance in 2015, Hodges conceived Archamelia as a student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. Mattel sponsored a class that had students rethink the Barbie Dreamhouse though a social impact lens.

“I found them to be incredibly resistant to actually changing their social message or strategies,” says Hodges.

For Archamelia — a name owed to wordplay combining “architecture” and “chameleon” with a nod to Hodges’ dancing nickname, “Arches” — it starts with sustainability and inclusiveness.

“I purchased a Barbie Dreamhouse, separated it by materials, and reverse engineered it,” says Hodges. “It turns out that the Barbie Dreamhouse, by my calculations, requires seven steam-cracked gases, five plastics, eight metals, four minerals, two elements, and three types of paper. All of that material goes into a 27-pound toy that’s literally designed to end up in a landfill. I think we can do better.”

The exercise led him to an “entirely paper-based” design that uses outdoor-oriented material mounted on paperboard. “It’s just one material to keep the supply chain simple,” says Hodges, noting that the printing is done in Burbank and die-cut in Santa Ana.

The model “built in a type of resilience I wouldn’t have anticipated,” says Hodges. “When COVID hit, businesses were suddenly having to look for new suppliers because of borders being shut down and travel not happening. None of my materials are from out of the country, because sustainable is about how local you can get. I didn’t run into any issues with borders and other countries’ COVID regulations, et cetera.”

“People would say, ‘The only way to make this is in China or out of plastic or at an incredibly high — like $800 apiece — price point,” says Hodges. All three of those were deal killers for Hodges, who managed to keep his ethos of no plastics, under $150, and domestic manufacturing intact.

Hodges tested his concepts with a foster home and a Syrian refugee family. “A lot of that was about the social impact: trying to understand what a house is to a kid who doesn’t have a traditional definition of a home,” he says. “From these interactions and play tests, I learned that houses are more than four walls and a roof. It’s essentially where we feel safe and loved.”

That informed Hodges as he created Archamelia’s flagship product, The House of a Thousand Stories. It folds up to the size of a book, but includes five playsets that can be arranged in 20 configurations, with more than 100 illustrated panels for hide-and-seek activities.

“I did the illustrations, I did the design of the house, I built the website, I designed the packaging for shipments,” says Hodges.

As of Christmas 2020, he’d sold more than 200 of his first run of 350 units for $134.95 each. “I’m really proud of the fact that, at this point through sales, I have managed to cover all of my manufacturing expenses, startup costs, website fees, insurance,” says Hodges.

Challenges: “The price point,” says Hodges. “I have to sell it as one unit because of the manufacturing setups. In the future, I would like to sell rooms individually — you could buy one room for $30.”

Scaling the assembly of the products and marketing are other challenges “Assembly is a little more laborious than I would like it,” says Hodges. “It’s all been me by hand here at my house. I think the process of hand-assembling 200 houses has taught me a lot about what’s not working and how it could be better. . . . I know that I can make a house. I know I could make 200 houses. I don’t know that I could make 1,000, or how long that would take.”

He adds, “I need a very nimble manufacturing process, because in the future, every room that is produced — whether it’s a lunar landscape or inside a human brain or a monkey den — I want it to unfold differently, because I think that’s part of the excitement for kids.”

Communication to the buyers (parents, not kids) has also proven difficult. “The kids get it — you give this to a kid and they say, ‘Mom, can I go grab my dolls?'” says Hodges. “Parents, however, think that the house itself is the toy, and they’re not understanding initially that this is the context for play. Somewhere in there will be a really fun branding/marketing opportunity to communicate at the drop of a hat that this isn’t just a toy, it’s a platform for play.”

Opportunities: Hodges sees a post-pandemic opportunity to showcase Archamelia at holiday markets and trade shows. “I have really big ambitions,” he says. “I think that this could be a really great thing for kids and a creative way to engage imagination and critical thinking.”

Another wrinkle: “People are exhausted with screens and digital,” he says. “Parents and kids are looking for experiences that are not powered.”

Noting that new parents are often space-constrained, Hodges notes that toys can overwhelm an apartment pretty quickly. “The benefit here is that it’s a small toy that unfolds to 10 times its size.”

Needs: A manufacturing space, an employee or two, and growth capital — with a catch. “I’m really hesitant to look for investors, because I just have this negative impression that investors won’t care about the product, they’re only going to care about their profits,” says Hodges.