How Googly Eyes Became an Essential Part of Crafts
Courtesy of Googly Eyes Foundation.
In 2008, Christopher Walken made Saturday Night Live history in one of the late-night show’s most absurdly funny skits. The actor wasn’t impersonating a famous politician, nor was he commenting on a timely news event. Instead, he was affixing googly eyes—those little plastic crafting doodads—to plants.
“A lot of people are putting googly eyes on their cactuses nowadays,” Walken’s character, a gardener with an ironic fear of all foliage, explained to the camera. Behind him, plants of all shapes and sizes thrived, each with cartoonish eyeballs glued to their leaves. “Normally, plants don’t have eyes, so it’s hard for me to trust them,” he continued. “Hence…googly eyes!”
On one hand, the skit revealed a character’s unique paranoia and how he mitigated it. On the other hand, it reminded viewers of the creative potential of googly eyes—to transform even the most mundane object into a sweet, funny, and non-threatening creature.
Barney Google comic strip by Billy DeBeck, via Wikimedia Commons.
Chances are, if you grew up in the U.S. between the 1970s and today, you’ve come in contact with these small, plastic capsules made up of a loose black disk or ball at their core, which, when jiggled, moves freely like an excited, over-stimulated iris. Historically, they’ve been sold mostly in art supply stores (like Michael’s) as fodder for Halloween decorations and kids’ crafts. Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, children’s birthday parties have been rife with projects where pipe cleaners, pom-poms, and googly eyes merge to become wide-eyed dragonflies, bunnies, or Cyclopes. These days, there are sprawling Pinterest boards and hosts of how-to videos on YouTube dedicated to googly-eye crafting. Even artists and designers have used them, tapping into the whimsical object’s ability to make humans feel at ease or induce laughter.
Interestingly, though, a deep dive into the history of googly eyes leaves the object’s origins shrouded in mystery. Most sources track its beginnings to a comic strip from the early 1900s called Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. Created by cartoonist Billy DeBeck in 1919, the character Barney Google’s defining physical characteristic was a set of very large, “googly” eyes. (He also inspired the 1923 hit song “Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.”)
Photo by Chris Blakely, via Flickr.
It remains unclear exactly when and how Barney Google’s eyes jumped from the pages of newspapers to become three-dimensional objects ideal for crafting and artmaking. What’s certain, however, is the googly eye’s staying power—and its ability to inspire creative projects. In the 1970s, Tom Blundell, an executive of the toy company BIPO, created the hit knickknack Weepul when he began playing around with the plastic, kinetic eyes.
The little puff ball, which features large feet and googly eyes, is still in production today, and Blundell claims he’s manufactured some 400 million of them. A recent catalogue shows a sprawling range of Weepuls, from one resembling an alien to others holding no-smoking signs and breast cancer awareness banners. (The miniature dolls have been used extensively as advertising tools, too.)
On the crafting end, the internet is chock-full of googly eye–inspired ideas to keep kids busy and make utilitarian objects a little more enjoyable. Bloggers show kids how to transform a mix of pine cones, brown pipe cleaners, and googly eyes into spiders. And for older audiences, there are recipes for crafting fuzzy, anthropomorphic iPhone cases; stress balls; and binder clips.
Fine artists around the world have incorporated googly eyes into their work, as well. One collective, dubbed the Googly Eyes Foundation, has made it their mission to place the plastic eyes on objects in as many public spaces as possible. They describe themselves as a “group of artists, creatives and happy people living in three different continents that decided to spread happiness around the world.” Their street art projects have included affixing googly eyes to mangled trash can lids, street grates, and bike racks, adding personality to objects we might otherwise pass without noticing as we rush from place to place.
Most recently, self-driving car designers have even capitalized on the empathetic power of googly eyes. After a 2018 survey revealed that as many as 73 percent of Americans don’t trust autonomous cars, Jaguar and Land Rover decided to adorn their new self-driving models with pairs of large, digitally operated eyes, based on the power of googly eyes to bring smiles to people’s faces.
It was this quality that comforted Walken’s SNL character, too. “Cactuses have pricklers…so you need to know where you stand with them at all times,” he explained of his use of googly eyes. “The only way you know where you stand with someone is to look into their eyes, right?”
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.
Sponsored by Hermès