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Lovebots Set Their Sights on a Larger Invasion

Could the Lovebot be Toronto's next cultural icon? That's the goal of its creator, Matthew Del Degan.

A few weeks have passed since the word “Lovebot” became part of Toronto’s lexicon. It all started when the media got wind of artist and entrepreneur Matthew Del Degan‘s concrete creations. The blocky, knee-high robots with protruding hearts have caught the attention of outlets like the Star, CityNews, Global, CTV, Samaritanmag, and even the Space channel. Clearly, there’s something appealing about the project’s utopian goal: to spread Lovebots throughout the city, each one commemorating an individual act of kindness.

Now Del Degan is faced with a complicated challenge: he has to turn his grassroots art project into a sustainable business that is capable of handling art shows, auctions, and merchandise sales without falling short of its ideals. Torontoist caught up with the 23-year-old OCAD grad after the buzz died down to see how the Lovebot army was progressing.

(Click through the image gallery to see pictures of some Lovebots that have already been installed around town.)

Torontoist: First of all, how big exactly are the robots?

Del Degan: They’re two feet tall exactly, and 250 pounds. Their bodies are basically big squares, a little top heavy, but they have a big strong base. I have more changes I want to make to them. There’s a bigger robot coming that people don’t know about, that we’re going to release next year. We’re already starting to produce the mould.

And how long does it take to make them?

The hardest part is the de-moulding, pulling the rubber off of the cement. And then you have to bolt them back together and lubricate the moulds to pour in the cement again. Pouring robots doesn’t take that long—it’s just pouring mud into boxes, right? But you have to mix it, too, so that takes some time. It usually takes a day, about 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., to make six robots. But then it takes about two days to get to the next time you’re pouring.

About how many do you make each week?

Well, it died down when we hit the 100 mark. Now on a good week we’re making about 12, but six a week is okay. The original 100 are going out into the city, but we’re also doing repairs and making replacements. By the end of the summer, I’m guessing we’ll have close to 200, and I’m pretty happy. My original goal was 600, but that’s because I have pretty lofty goals.

Are you surprised by the attention and positive response the Lovebots have received so far?

No. As ridiculous as that is, and that’s a pretty cocky thing to say. But they say an overnight success is five years of hard work. This one was four. You have to think that hard work pays off. Yeah, I didn’t know it was going to be front page on the Toronto Star, or on Monday morning I’d be on the CBC Radio morning show. I didn’t know that would happen.

Has the exposure prevented you from actually building the Lovebots?

I think it’s helping. You know, now that I’ve built my fan base even more. And that’s the kind of person I am: I want to expand all the time. Now I’ve taken on a more managerial role. Before, I was pouring all the cement myself. At the very beginning I was sanding the foam prototypes for weeks on end. I remember for the first [prototype], I locked myself in my basement for three weeks saying, “I know there’s a purpose to this, I’ve got to get it done.” And I said after those three weeks that I would never do that process again, because you wonder if you’re wasting those days by locking yourself up like a true artist. Then I did that three more times, and that turned into the moulds that made the robots. So it was worth it.

Have you expanded your team since then?

Now I’m not even doing the physical work. I’ll come up and oversee and check to see how things are going, and I can only trust a select few people that I have been working with all summer to build the robots. There’s only one guy [Ryan Caklos, the cement expert] who can build them as well as I can. He’s been working on the project for a year, and he’s kind of like my right-hand man. And Rodger [Beck, who handles marketing and publicity] is kind of like my left-hand man, and without them I couldn’t do what I’m doing today. There’s still too much to do for three guys and a couple of volunteers, so we’re trying to grow my little militia. We don’t want to get too big, because I find the bigger the team, the more inefficient the work.

How many volunteers do you have now?

We’re looking for more. We’re looking for interns and volunteers to help the company as it grows. But we have about 20 volunteers that are very off and on. When we really need extra hands, we’ll give them a call. They come in once a week, maybe twice a week. The kind of people that we’re reaching out to are the kind of people that believe in spreading love around the city and the story that we’re bringing to the city.

How do you see the Lovebot company growing?

I want my company to be a for-profit company that constantly does charity work and gives back. We’re trying to be really delicate about it, so as our first piece of merchandise, we’re only going to release a house key with the robot cutout, so it should be nice and utilitarian. Later on we’ll start to release more toys and hopefully turn it into a larger business. We’re already organizing an art show and auction charity event.

If we can bring in a lot of revenue and create an icon that the city identifies with, then we can sort of create a tourist icon. We’ve been doing research into the Moose in the City project, and that drove about 3.5 million dollars in revenue for tourism and it was pretty successful in that respect, but it didn’t have the essence of what we’re doing. What we’re doing is making the city a more positive place. It’s already overwhelming, the feedback and the stories we’ve received and the people who feel connected to the project. I’ll just walk down the street and people will yell “Hey Robot guy!” We’re writing grants and proposals to work with the government to get a warehouse space and expand, and hopefully build 200 five-foot-tall robots. I’ve built a 7-foot-tall robot and people go nuts for it, like the Moose but better.

There’s also interest in buying the Lovebots themselves. Is selling them also part of the plan?

The issue is, if I sell all these robots and they go into private residences and offices and they disappear from the street, then we don’t do what we said we were going to do, which is send 100 robots out into the city. So we’re saying that you can buy any robot after the original 100. But I think what I’m going to do, and this is up in the air, is when one is bought we make two, and we give one to a community centre so we’ll start adding to the 100. So it keeps growing.

Could we actually see Lovebots in Toronto tourism advertising in the future?

We’d love to see the City working with us, and they want to. They basically said, “How can we help?” But first we need a clear business plan, to see where the money’s coming in and where it’s going out, what charities we’re going to be working with, and then what they’re investing in. And we’re going to propose some pretty outrageous things.

But I think the coolest thing would be this talk of a massive robot. If I could do that, we’re basically making one of the coolest monuments in the entire world. We’re talking about basically a 10-foot-tall robot made of cement looking out at the lake. If we can get that done and Lovebot becomes an icon in Toronto, it’ll be one of the most powerful symbols in the world. So we’ll see if we can get to that point.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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