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Insider Profiles

Child’s Play, for Work

Sharleen Liu'I'm kind of a big kid myself. I have this natural curiosity — anything new can inspire me.'


As a child, toy designer Sharleen Liu used to think a lot about the way everyday objects were made. She remembers wondering: "Why is a car always in that shape? Why isn't it a triangle?"

Today in Los Angeles, a hub of the toy industry, she gets to answer some of her own questions as she crafts whimsical cars for doll playsets, among other playthings. In a career spanning over a dozen years, she's conceptualized everything from a Lil' Bratz party bus (complete with imaginary hot tub) to a voice-recognition electronic diary to a musical, bubble-blowing flower.

"The thing about toy design is that you have to put your mind in the kid's mind and see it through their eyes," she says. "I'm kind of a big kid myself. I have this natural curiosity — anything new can inspire me."

It's that kid-at-heart wonder that's led to another of her passions: hoop dancing, which involves using the hula hoop, an iconic childhood toy, as a tool for self-expression while moving to music. Every month, she meets up with fellow enthusiasts for "hoop jams" at local parks. She's also a part of the city's fire spinning subculture — and yes, that means she spins her hula hoop while it's in flames.

Being able to find like-minded individuals who share her unique interests is what Liu loves most about Los Angeles. "There's so much diversity here, so pretty much anything you're into or want to get into, you can find a community that likes the same thing," she says.

She especially enjoys her neighborhood of Culver City because of its charm as a small yet culturally rich pocket of Los Angeles. Eclectic restaurants like Tara's Himalayan Cuisine abound, and the location on L.A.'s Westside allows her easy access to favorite spots like Venice's Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a street known for its funky cafes and boutiques, like the design shop A+R.

One drawback to living in Culver City, however, is her prickly daily commute to the San Fernando Valley. As much as Liu's job involves an aspect of child's play, the traffic and the stress can wear her down. When she gets overloaded, she really needs to break away. One of her most ideal local escapes is the port of Long Beach, where the historic Queen Mary cruise ship is docked.

The waterfront views remind her of her childhood home in Keelung, Taiwan, which is also on the water. "I love the ocean and boats," she says. "When I go to the Queen Mary, I can be on the boat overlooking the entire bay. It's really beautiful, really serene to me."

Recharged, she can put her mind back to the creative process. Will all that ocean time inspire a design for some cute marine critter for the tub? It's possible. Los Angeles, with its natural beauty and artistic bent, provides the perfect backdrop for Liu's imaginative inclination. As she says, "Being in this environment encourages me to create and know that anything I create will be appreciated."

Check out Sharleen's Los Angeles.