Anne Letherby's children, Adam, 17, and Mackenzie, 13, are long past the days of playing with baby toys.
But Letherby, 46, still finds herself spying familiar toys at the store or attached to a stroller at the mall.
"That's one of mine," she'll whisper to her children, and by that she means a toy she created and designed for Sassy Co.
Letherby designs the prototypes for the toys in the studio at her home on Lancelot Drive in Providence Plantation, relying on her bachelor's degree in industrial design from Ohio State and her lifelong love of art and "all things creative."
"I always loved to draw," said Letherby, who grew up in Michigan and moved to Charlotte seven years ago for her husband's job. "I took art classes whenever I could. Art was always my elective of choice."
Letherby originally went to college with plans of being an architect, but she decided she preferred designing products to buildings.
After working for design firms that produced prototypes for everything from vacuum cleaners to car parts, she discovered a passion for designing products for children.
She has been working as a freelance designer since her daughter's birth, conceptualizing and designing baby toys like a plush vegetable and flower garden that is interactive, with carrots that can be pushed back into holes and flowers that peek out of a basket, and a stuffed ladybug with mirrors hiding under its wings that also has a teether attached to it.
She begins with a concept, either one she comes up with on her own or one Sassy Baby Products asks her to create.
After sketching an initial conceptual drawing, Letherby refines it and adds details.
For instance, the Sensory Symphony began as a simple one-dimensional sketch of a colorful toy with fish on it. The final product, that Letherby conceptualized and refined and Sassy Baby Products then produced, is an interactive toy with fun, colorful and textured fish on it.
Each time the baby touches a fish it produces a sound that changes when the mode of play is altered. Letherby has to be able to see the final product in her head when she begins her sketches, and she said she finds the creative process satisfying.
"I love working with my hands," Letherby says, and she has found many different outlets for her creativity.
She has made and sold some watercolor paintings, illustrated a children's book and contributed sketches for books on drawing and industrial design.
Her latest venture is designing and creating murals with a child-friendly motif.
She has made an underwater backdrop for the new Children's Worship Service at her church, Matthews United Methodist, and created a Kid City, complete with murals for four separate rooms, that depicts a park, a zoo, an aquarium and an arcade for the newly constructed Light of Christ United Methodist Church in Ballantyne.
Letherby sketches the murals to scale, then scans each sketch into her computer.
After redrawing them on the computer using Adobe Illustrator, she sends the computerized sketches to a printer who enlarges the images and reproduces them onto 4-by-9-foot sheets of adhesive vinyl so the mural is applied like wallpaper. The result, 9 feet high and 40 feet long, is "a thrill to see when it is finally up" and is enjoyed by the little churchgoers. Letherby used the same concept, one she experimented with and mastered while making the church murals (for which she volunteered her services), to make vinyl flowers for a client's nursery.
A typical mural costs anywhere from $500 o $2,000 per room, which covers the materials, production costs and Letherby's labor.
Her favorite creative hobby is remodeling homes, something she has done with relish in her own house.
"My husband loves it when I get commissioned to do an art project for someone else because then I am using other people's money," she said.