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'Fail Whale' creator aims to democratize art

Road Trip at Home: With her new start-up, Walls360, Yiying Lu is hoping to make it possible for more people to be able to appreciate art and make it a regular part of their lives.

Yiying Lu, the designer who created the famous Twitter 'Fail Whale," is having her first-ever North American exhibition in San Francisco on Thursday night. The event is also the launch party for Walls360, a start-up she co-founded, and that is selling what it says is a revolutionary kind of wall graphics.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Since the famous "Fail Whale" is known for signifying that Twitter is down, it might surprise you to know that there are a lot of people out there who appreciate seeing it.

"People are actually looking forward to [Twitter] downtime," said Yiying Lu, the artist who created what came to be known as the Fail Whale. "I'm [always getting] tweets from people telling me it makes them happy" to see the whimsical image of a whale being hauled out of the water by a group of small birds.

Lu may be best known for creating that iconic image, but she likely hopes that won't be true for long. Yesterday, she and three partners launched a new company, Walls360, hoping to forever change the way people hang art and even what people think art is.

In short, Walls360 aims to give artists, companies, designers, photographers, and anyone else who wants to hang high-quality imagery their walls an easy and inexpensive way to do so.

The company's secret sauce is what co-founder John Doffing called premium self-adhesive repositionable fabric paper, essentially a high-brow fabric sticker that enables very high-resolution print-outs of any digital image, even up to 8 feet tall, and which can be placed on a wall in such a way that it's very hard to see that it's not painted on. And then it can be taken down and moved in seconds, up to 100 times, and all, Doffing said, without damaging any surfaces. The material can even be crumpled up and then flattened out again without any obvious wrinkles.

Doffing explained that material can accept printouts of up to 1,400 dpi using environmentally friendly inks. The company is handling the printing itself at a facility in Maryland.

To celebrate their new undertaking--what Doffing called a "platform"--and to leverage Lu's geek celebrity, the Walls360 founders (who also include Tavia Campbell and Jason Weisenthal) are hosting an event at the Hotel des Art here tonight that will be one part launch party and one part gallery show for dozens of pieces of Lu's work, much of which would be recognizable to anyone who's seen the Fail Whale.

In the early going, Doffing said, the company is looking at two markets--individuals who want to hang images designed by Lu or any of thousands of other Walls360 offerings, or their own or friends' or family members' art, and companies that want to set up branded storefronts. He said that next week, Walls360 will announce partnerships with a major science-fiction franchise and a leading video game title. Everything, regardless of the imagery, is printed on-demand, and Walls360 will keep no inventory, he said. Walls360 hopes to lure in customers with relatively low prices--a 6-foot image comes delivered for just $90, and many sets are selling for less than $40.

Doffing says that Walls360 is aiming to be the "Zazzle or Cafepress for wall graphics."

Snacks and main dishes
For the Chinese-born and Australia resident Lu, who studied business and technology in college and later art, becoming a partner (and the artistic/creative director) in a company like Walls360 is an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new artistic medium. She seems keen on being involved in something that could democratize art in some small way, given how expensive it usually is to hang art, and the inexpensive prices Walls360 plans to charge.

She sees what the company is offering as a bit of a play on Andy Warhol's famous line about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame. In this case, Lu said, "Everyone can bring art to the wall, and everyone can have 15 minutes of fame."

Indeed, it's that sentiment that led to Walls360's tagline, "Art for Everywhere."

For Lu, art is something that was once a distraction during her very proper education. While in school studying technology and business, she recalled, she used to spend two or three hours every day looking through art books and going to bookstores and museums, yet never imagined that it would become her living.

"I thought that [art] was snacks," Lu said, "but [it] became main dishes. I was born for this."

The 'Fail Whale,' the design that brought Lu international geek fame. Yiying Lu

Her style is certainly unique, and anyone who sees some of her bigger works would almost instantly see the resemblance to the Fail Whale. But it turns out that the Fail Whale itself happened only by accident.

In 2002, Lu recalled, she was very much into animal symbology and had created a card for a friend featuring an elephant spurting a number of small birds out of its trunk. It was called "Lifting a Dreamer." Later, she was thinking about a different version of the image and started thinking of a friend of hers that lived in New South Wales, Australia. That got her thinking about whales, and lo and behold, she created the now-famous image.

In fact, however, she was not hired by Twitter to do the image for them. It turns out that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone found the work on a stock imagery site and decided it was appropriate as something to showcase when the popular microblogging site was down.

The popularity of that image led two new friends of hers who were getting married to commission Lu to design an image for their wedding invites--something that was the "exact opposite of a Fail Whale," said Dale Larson, the soon-to-be groom.

As new fans of penguins, Larson and his fiance Laura La Gassa asked Lu if she could design something for them that incorporated the tuxedoed, flightless birds. Lu's solution? The "win penguins."

Two San Francisco residents, Dale Larson and Laura La Gassa, commissioned Lu to create the 'win penguins' for their wedding invitation. They saw the design as the exact opposite of the Fail Whale. Yiying Lu

"She was incredibly easy to work with and came up with an amazing design with little input from us," Larson said. "We liked them so much that we even had it made into a topper for our wedding cake....Of many wonderful memories from our Wedding, Yiying's art stands out as one of the things people remember and love."

But the story of Lu's creation of the Win Penguins doesn't end there. Because Larson is fairly well plugged into the social media community, his blog post about Lu's work for him and La Gassa got picked up by Mashable and the Huffington Post, and someone Lu had never met before saw the HuffPo entry: John Doffing.

Based on that, Doffing got in touch, and the two discovered a mutual appreciation of art, digital media, and more. And they decided not long after to go into business together.

Mixing reality and the virtual world
For someone steeped in technology like Lu, there had always been a sense that people spend so much of their time these days immersed in the virtual world of computers and the Internet. Art, and life, is reality, and (almost) never the twain did meet.

But Lu wants to change that--and she sees what Walls360 is about as enabling the blending of reality and virtual reality for a wide group of people.

"Art [is] no longer just on the canvas," Lu said. "I wanted to introduce new ways for people trapped by every day life and don't have time to appreciate art."

That could come, Walls360 hopes, from people being able to take imagery they find in their lives and get inexpensive manifestations of it to hang on their walls. And it could also come from the blending of art and technology that Lu said her background in the two allows her to combine.

For example, she said that one of the next things Walls360 wants to do is to find a way to incorporate augmented reality into the art it sells. That could come, Lu explained, by blending QR codes into the images, allowing people to take photos of the art and experience something that a company or client wants them to see on their phones or iPads.

At the same time, Lu said, she imagines potential partnerships with companies like Twitter in which Walls360 would allow people to buy printouts of tweets they like. So imagine finding a tweet you really enjoy, and then paying a few dollars to Walls360, which would then send you a printed version that you could, say, affix to your laptop. Or put on a wall along with some sort of related imagery.

"This is what I've been thinking," said Lu, "to combine reality and the virtual world, so things are more grounded. It's better to have something tangible."