Zack Buchman holding dog
Zack Buchman, head of Furry Puppet, has been crafting expressive custom puppets for over fifteen years.

It’s impossible not to interact with Zack Buchman’s puppets. Their personality is much more than the sum of two eyes—sometimes one—and a nose and mouth. “I am personally surprised and moved sometimes when I see the finished product,” Buchman says, despite the fact that he has made many of the decisions about its creation.

“When [the puppet] comes to life, you just forget all of the technicality.”

puppets dancing
Furry Puppet’s creations have appeared in music videos for renowned artists like Missy Elliot, showcasing their versatility and unique appeal.

Buchman is the head of Furry Puppet, a design studio that makes remarkably expressive custom puppets. He launched Furry Puppet’s website fifteen years ago from a Starbucks in New York City. Since then, the studio has made puppets for dozens of TV shows, commercials, and music videos. Their client list is wide-ranging, and includes companies like Apple and Casper, and musicians such as Missy Elliot and American Authors.

As a child, Buchman says, he wanted to have “a machine that makes toys.” Using household objects, Buchman would create things and give them expressions. He loved Sesame Street and was terrified by some of the Muppets.

Buchman also played a lot of early video games. The amount of detail compressed into the few pixels that were available at the time showed him how much personality you can create within strict limits. LucasArts’ early adventure games were a big influence.

“The characters were really simplified,” Buchman points out, yet the designers captured their “expression and energy.”

Furry Puppet Studio puppets do the same, exuding personality through just a few details. In a music video for German folk band Herman Dune, a blue yeti puppet looks so hopeful and pathetic when he emerges from the forest and sticks his thumb out for a lift that we can’t help but cheer for him when a driver (played actor Jon Hamm) pulls over and offers him a ride. The yeti’s eyes are shiny black plastic that reflects squares of light; it feels like he is seeing city life for the first time with wonder.

Puppet-making in the United States

A puppet is any small figure that fits over the hand or is controlled by strings. Puppet-making has a long history around the world, and includes hand (or “glove”) puppets, marionettes, and shadow puppets, among many others. Indonesian puppets are among the first to have been documented, dating back to the 800s CE.

Puppet-making in the US began with Native Americans, including the Hopi of the Southwest and the Inuit of Alaska, who still use puppets today in ceremony. The Spanish brought their puppets to the country in the 1500s, and two centuries later, British puppeteers toured in the early American colonies. Immigrants from Greece, Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic (and others) brought their own traditions of puppet-making and performance in the centuries that followed. New York City became a hub for professional creators and performers in the early 1900s.

Today, most people are familiar with Jim Henson’s creations, especially the Muppets. Henson worked in the 1960s and 70s, creating puppets for ads and TV shows like Fraggle Rock and, of course, Sesame Street. The popularity of characters from the PBS show spans generations and speaks to the innate appeal of puppets; many children today still love Elmo, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster (not to mention his famous song, “C is for Cookie”).

Puppets—especially giant puppets—also have a long history in activism in the US and abroad. Bread and Puppet Theater is a traveling political theater that started in New York but moved to Vermont in 1974. The group serves bread at every performance. Little Amal, a twelve-foot tall refugee child from Syria, visited the US in 2023, after completing a walk from the Syrian-Turkish border across Europe. The surreal experience of watching or interacting with her, a child who is not alive and yet is so human, is emotional.

octopus puppet
puppet with dreadlocks
Zack Buchman launched Furry Puppet’s website from a Starbucks in New York City, and the studio now serves a diverse clientele, including top brands and musicians.

Creating a career in puppet-making

To develop a career in puppet-making, Buchman moved to New York City as a young person and began making and designing for other people, but he found that he didn’t enjoy working for others. At the same time, there was nothing besides puppet-making that he felt he was really good at.

Buchman quickly realized that he would need other people to make his career a reality.

“I was just not good enough on my own and I recognized it,” he says.

He began to hire other people to work with him. Now, Furry Puppet studios includes talented artists like Tom Newby, who specializes in puppet mechanisms, and Polly Smith, co-inventor of the sports bra, who works as a costume designer, among others.

Since then, clients from all over the world have commissioned creations from Furry Puppet Studios. Buchman credits the uniqueness of his studio’s creations with drawing a large, diverse clientele.

Clients typically reach out to his studio online. The studio has a great blog that is graphically simple: photos and videos of their latest creation with a quick, positive caption. The studio also shares photos and videos of puppets on Instagram and Facebook.

blue monster puppet
desus puppet
puppet head on work table
Furry Puppet Studio’s talented team includes specialists like Tom Newby, who focuses on puppet mechanisms, and Polly Smith, who works as a costume designer.

Launching a line of toys

During the pandemic, Buchman launched a webcomic called Blobby and Friends featuring a blobfish. It was quite popular and led Buchman to start Uncute, a company that makes plushies of “uncute” animals, such as (of course) blobfish, proboscis monkeys, and water bears. (They also make “Purritos,” kittens wrapped up in blankets like a burrito, which are undeniably cute.)

Buchman decided to work with manufacturers overseas to create Uncute plushies. At first, Buchman made connections to factories through a relative of a friend who was working in China. Now, Buchman and his colleagues work directly with Chinese factories.

In a positive feedback loop, Uncute has benefitted Furry Puppet in numerous ways.

“The success of our toys allowed us to be a bit more picky about the puppet projects we work on,” Buchman says.

Having connections to factories overseas has also given the studio to access to a huge variety of materials for their puppets. At one time, Furry Puppet manufactured its own fleece; now, they no longer need to.

old man puppet
puppet head on work table
Inspired by early video games and the expressive power of minimalistic design, Zack Buchman’s puppets capture personality through just a few carefully crafted details.

Creativity and collaboration

Buchman seems to have a balance between relying on his own creative impulses and working with others. Of Blobby and Friends, Buchman says, “I was always looking for a way to do my own thing.” Buchman initially drew the characters on his own, but now he collaborates with others to make them.

The push and pull of working for and with other people excites Buchman. “Every time I meet a new client, I’m kind of surprised by how wonderful they are,” he says. This delight in other people comes through in his studio’s creations and his line of toys.

“I think that making people feel good is something that is desperately needed,” he says.

Alicia de los Reyes

Alicia de los Reyes


Alicia de los Reyes is a freelance writer who loves to make things. She has her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire and her work has appeared in the Billfold, the Archipelago, Sojourners Magazine, and others. See more of her work at aliciadelosreyes.com.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This