[Photographer / Alyson Madsen]

What a Doll – Susannah Rosenthal Discusses a Barbie Doll Redesign

On the first day of spring amidst the backdrop of PAWS, Inc., I met with the woman who redesigned Barbie.

The woman who redesigned Barbie- Susannah Rosenthal
Barbie redesigner Susannah Rosenthal

Ten years ago Susannah Rosenthal returned to this area from the west coast, hoping to develop property in Muncie. Four years ago she discovered and purchased the headquarters for PAWS, Inc., the sprawling complex previously owned by “Garfield” creator Jim Davis.

Following graduation from Anderson High School, Rosenthal’s interest in art and architecture lured her to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where after a 1.5-year stint she dropped out to find a job.

Luckily she met RitaSue Siegel, a Pratt grad who ran its placement service. Siegel interviewed Rosenthal, who announced that she only typed 11 words per minute, with mistakes. However, seeing her portfolio of illustrations for children’s books earned her a position at the Fifth Avenue Hallmark gallery, designing pop-culture exhibitions and collectible product lines for Hallmark stores.

Rosenthal’s small design team created exhibitions such as “The China Show” starring Pearl Buck, “The Christmas Show,” for which she designed nude gingerbread and sugar cookies for Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown’s tree, and the “Express Yourself” show, for which she served as lead designer. Her idea to create short sandboxes for children and tall stand-up sandboxes for adults was a hit of the show.

“I loved seeing Fifth Avenue businessmen drop their briefcases to play in the sand,” said Rosenthal.

At Pratt, Rosenthal had met her lifelong friend and artist, Tina Collen. They were the only girls in a class of 30 boys, all industrial-design students. Rosenthal enjoyed working with male designers, where she said “cooperation was out in the open.” She once joked with her boss, “I’ll arm-wrestle you for your job.” Two years later she secured the job.

“I feel as though my entire life has been guided in some way,” said Rosenthal. One specific example occurred when she accompanied her mom to a spiritual camp in Anderson, where a psychic asked her if she was sewing.

“Yes,” she answered.

“Something blue?” was the next question.

“No,” she responded. And with that, he predicted she would be relocating to a new job near the ocean.

Back at Hallmark, Rosenthal picked up some blue material and created a blue stuffed dog wearing a T-shirt. The rest of the assignment quickly fell into place. She had finished 15 new lines when she saw an ad for “Design Job Relocation,” posted by Siegel in the New York Times. Remembering the psychic’s prediction, Rosenthal called immediately. With photos of her Hallmark designs, she was flown out for an interview with Mattel in El Segundo, California. They offered her a job on the spot.

mattelBarbie was one of Mattel’s biggest sellers. Three years after she was hired, Rosenthal asked her boss if she could redesign the iconic doll, which then sported pursed lips, a static pose and straight arms ever since its 1959 debut. What transpired was her redesigned Superstar Barbie, complete with big smile, streaked hair, hot-pink dress and bent arms, allowing her to take action and glamour poses.

“You have just saved Barbie,” exclaimed one of Mattel’s senior vice presidents. For her venture she was awarded the 1976 President’s Award for the redesign of Barbie.

Starting as a designer and later as a designer with model makers, Rosenthal was promoted to vice president of new business concepts. In this role she learned more than she ever dreamed possible. “I was surrounded by designers with amazing talent and skills, generating ideas and engineering products that made millions of dollars,” she said. “I had the best job in the world. The job was better than school.”

barbieEventually becoming head of the Blue Sky department at Mattel, which Rosenthal said was a “highly coveted job,” she hired many talented designers and tech experts. Two of those, Caleb Chung and Dave Hampton, later invented the toy sensation Furby. Chung’s TED Talk about designing can be found at

Rosenthal also found the time to start a summer program where preteens could obtain jobs designing toys alongside professionals. She is hoping to create a similar program in Muncie.

Leaving Mattel in 1991, Rosenthal pursued her other life passions, which paid off handsomely. She worked with top architects, building three award-winning beach homes in Manhattan Beach, California.

“I have been very lucky,” she said. “I have had the best design jobs in the world and was able to work with renowned architects Antoine Predock and Dean Nota.”

Today Rosenthal is still creating dolls, of a different sort. Currently at work on animated avatars, she’s adding artificial intelligence into her lines of expertise, creating what she calls an “animated academy,” bringing education alive for both teachers and students. The prospective owner of PAWS may figure prominently into her plans.

“My new venture is called CoPlay,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a concept analogous to co-workers, whereby many of the biggest innovations evolve while playing and playing together – or co-playing.”

For more information and details on Rosenthal’s future projects, contact

Comments 1

  1. Sonya S. Paul says:

    Kudos to Alyson Madsen for such a great story!

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