Meet the Maker: Thor
Tom Thordarson, known simply as “Thor” to fans of his work, is the celebrated artist behind all of our cocktail mugs. But before he was the world’s most in-demand mug designer, he led an adventurous career in the entertainment industry. Read on to find out more about this one-of-one artist.
Where do you trace your artistic roots?
I grew up in a little town near Pasadena. My parents got divorced when I was four, so my mom and I moved in with my grandparents for a few years. She’d keep me occupied by throwing a stack of paper on the kitchen table, where I’d draw and make up stories for hours and hours. My grandpa was a woodworker and would make me toys, but he’d have me draw them up first. I learned that if I could imagine something and draw it, that I can make it. That’s what eventually led me to a career that was centered not around drawing or painting something that gets hung on a wall, but communicating ideas that become three-dimensional objects or experiences.
Where did you start your career?
In high school I was thinking I’d become a doctor, but then I got accepted at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design, which was a tough school to get into. I specialized in illustration at school, but I got to develop my skills as a sculptor as well. I started freelancing for Universal Studios and Disney before I even graduated.
What kind of projects did you work on?
I was doing concept art and character art for theme-park rides and attractions. Then when I graduated I was hired by a company that was building animatronics for Universal Studios Orlando. I worked on storyboards, designed set pieces, and painted models for rides like King Kong, Jaws, and so on. That led to me working in art direction and creative direction, first at Universal then later Disney Imagineering, where I was a director in ride and attraction development.
What does that role entail?
The company would come to me with some new technology they developed and want ideas for how to turn it into a ride. I typically worked at the early conceptual stage of the process, what they call “blue sky” stuff.
Is developing rides like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” what led to your interest in mugs?
No, it goes back much farther than that. Starting when I was a kid, I spent a lot of my time in Hawaii. My cousins were commercial divers on the big island, and I’d live there during the summers.
Also, my mom helped me get into tiki culture. She was a model and a Playboy bunny, and worked at the Playboy Club in L.A. At the time Polynesian tiki bars were huge and we’d go to those. I’d have my Hawaiian Punch while she had her tropical cocktails. And from time to time she’d buy me a souvenir mug, which was as exciting for me as a Batman or Universal Monster toy.
When did you actually start making mugs?
In the late 1990s I decided I wanted to do some personal artwork, and I found out that there was a tiki culture revival starting. So I did some concept paintings, and a gallery in Waikiki saw my work and asked me if I wanted to work together. We ended up opening “Thor Thor Gallery,” the first tiki art gallery in Hawaii. Then I started sculpting my own mugs. I was the creative director for Tikifarm for awhile, then I was doing designs for all of the mug makers.
How’s the mug design process work?
It starts with an idea, then I sketch out concept art, then it becomes a sculpture. When I started making mugs I was sculpting in clay and wax. Eventually I taught myself digital sculpting.
There’s this software called ZBrush, which is a vertical sculpting program. You’ve got a stylus and a big screen and a virtual blob of clay and a bunch of virtual tools. Once you get used to the process, it’s very similar to sculpting with your hands, and looks like something handmade, but way faster and less messy.
When your virtual sculpture is finished you can save it as a file that will communicate with a 3D printer. These 3D printed models become master molds, and the molds are used to make the ceramic mugs.
Where do you get inspiration for your mugs?
Most of my ideas come from things I’ve seen. I’m a highly sensory sensitive person, almost to the point of it being a challenge for me—it can be overwhelming sometimes. I still have very vivid memories from my childhood, like mini movies in my brain. I use other references of course, but many of my most inspirational ideas still come from my childhood.
What’s it like to be a highly collectable artist?
It’s great to see people appreciate my mugs. Mug making in the last ten years, especially the last five, is becoming something that more and more people are trying to get into. They see it as a hot commodity.
I love working with bartenders who are really proud of their cocktails and want vessels that are appropriate to serve them in. That’s like a partnership with another artist. And that’s why it’s been so exciting to work with Death & Co. Your company is always open to new ideas—I get so bored doing surfboards and pineapples and such.