Zolo Toys: Combining Japanese Culture with American Ingenuity and Wit

Go to the website for Zolo Toys, and you might be surprised to find links to biochemistry, hypothesis, alchemy. Sound like a science project? Not even close. Instead, Zolo Toys is a connection to a world of fun and creative play.

Byron Glaser and Sandra Higashi are the visionaries behind Zolo Toys. Their website notes that both are natives of Southern California who graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. In an interview with the Japanese American National Museum, the two spoke about how their partnership began. According to Byron and Sandra, “We sat next to each other in the first class on the first day at Art Center and we have been sitting next to each other ever since.”

Together, Sandra and Byron founded Higashi Glaser Design, a multi-dimensional graphic design firm in New York City. The idea to create toys came while they were working on the interior graphics for F.A.O. Schwarz’s flagship store on 5th Avenue and started to look at the toys that were being offered. They recognized “that there were some really big holes in the market.” In 1986, Zolo began designing toys that were different from other gender and age specific toys. As they put it, “Zolo appealed to both genders and all ages. It had a universality that took on a life of it’s own.” In fact, the name of their company suggests the unique nature of their creations. They explain, “Many of the pieces are very organic and some reminiscent of animal shapes and patterns. We wanted to reference zoological, and Zolo felt like it represented us well. Now we use it as a noun, an adjective, and a verb!”

As one would expect, toys the designers recall from their own childhood have influenced their work. Byron says, “We both love toys and they have always played a part in our lives. Having been raised in the ’50s and ’60s which was a great time for toys, Sandra was very good to her toys and still has some of them. I was much harder on mine. We wanted to make a toy that inspired creativity and engaged who ever was playing with it. We wanted a toy that we would like to have.” It is obvious that toys are more than a business to these two. Asked what they would like to accomplish through the toys they create, they respond with eloquence and passion. “We wanted [the toys] to be loads of fun but to also inspire a message, that all kinds of shapes, colors and patterns can work together and that the results can be extraordinary. We wanted to inspire people to be creative. We feel that’s the basis of real-world problem solving. If we can effect a positive change in the smallest way, that’s what makes it truly fulfilling. One of our favorite response cards was from a woman who was in her nineties and plays with a [Zolo toy] every day because it makes her feel creative and is good for her arthritis—we would never have guessed it was also therapeutic!”

Zolo toys are undeniable unique. For example, Stacrobats allow you to create your own circus with figures, balls, and a base that can be connected in countless way. Children can accompany Ozlo and friends on an alphabet adventure through Zolo ABZ, a wonderful way to learn the alphabet. Children and adults alike can play for hours with Globonz Deluxe, a set of 50 ultra-bright, long lasting, glow-in-the-dark interchangeable pieces that can be connected into bone-rattling, back-flipping, head-turning, “myth-illogical” creatures.

Both artists acknowledge the influence of Japanese culture in their creations. They note, “The Japanese culture is infused with an amazing sensibility to nature and balance, both important elements that are basic to good design. Combine that with American ingenuity and wit, and you have the spirit of Zolo!”

Because of their contributions to the world of design and toys, Bryon Glaser and Sandra Higashi were honorees at the Japanese American National Museum’s 2006 Annual Dinner.

View video interview clips of Byron Glaser on

October 2006

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