Look on the Breit Side

updated 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

IS IT REAL—OR IS IT A GREETING CARD? VISITORS TO MARY Engelbreit's house in Clayton, Mo., could easily get confused. The popular illustrator's spacious two-story home is a jumble of what she calls her stuff—antique children's furniture, overstuffed chairs and couches in lively fabrics, knickknacks and geegaws, pottery and china, tiny books and family pictures tucked into every nook. "My house does look like the things I draw," she says. "I don't like rooms that match. I like a lot of patterns, a lot of detail, a lot of color. I like it a little junked up."

Engelbreit, 41, isn't alone in her taste for the cute and cluttered version of American homeyness. Her signature greeting-card style—round-faced, impish kids, benign animals, flowered and checkered borders—has become as recognizable as the work of Norman Rockwell. Some of her colorful drawings are even known by title—usually old saws given a little twist, like "Life Is Just a Chair of Bowlies." Engelbreit's designs appear not only on Sunrise cards (12 million a year), calendars and posters but on coffee mugs, watches, clothing, bedsheets and rugs. Now she can add a best-selling book to that list. Fulfilling a lifelong ambition, Engelbreit has illustrated a new edition of one of her favorite fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen (Workman). "I chose it because it has a girl hero, who has all the adventures," she says. "I believe women should not be restricted."

There is a touch of the feminist in Engelbreit, but also a deep belief in the old-fashioned values of home and hearth that she illustrates. That may be the key to her appeal. "My drawings show a world with familiar details that people recognize," she says. "It's a world that people wished they lived in."

Born in St. Louis, Engelbreit was determined to be an artist even as a little girl—an ambition that her father, a children's clothing salesman, and mother, a homemaker, encouraged. "When I was 9 and insisted that I needed a studio," she recalls, "my mother jammed an art table into a closet for me—it was 108°F in there, but I loved it." Though she never had any formal training, Engelbreit began selling one-of-a-kind greeting cards to a local gift shop for a quarter apiece as a teenager, and after high school she skipped college to work at an art-supply store and later at a small ad agency, where she illustrated the owner's campaigns for his clients. In 1974 she met her future husband, Phil Delano, a juvenile-court social worker, who urged her to pursue her dream of becoming a children's book illustrator.

After marrying in 1977, Engelbreit visited several New York City book publishers, who repeatedly turned her away. One suggested that she show her drawings to greeting-card companies. At first, she says, "I was insulted. I thought they were the lowest form of art—hearts and flowers and get well soon." But Engelbreit quickly discovered that "there were alternative card companies doing such great things," and clinched her first deal, selling three card designs at $50 apiece. She worked with one other company before she began marketing her own greeting cards; sales topped more than a million cards a year when Engelbreit reached a licensing agreement with Indiana-based Sunrise Publications in 1986. At the same time, Phil left his job and became business director of the new Mary Engelbreit Company. Card sales quadrupled by 1988, and by 1992 her designs were selling so well she took a three-month leave to work on The Snow Queen.

During this year's sabbatical, Engelbreit plans to illustrate a book written by a friend featuring Mary's familiar character, Ann Estelle. Some day she would like to illustrate her favorite book, Jane Eyre. Meantime, her hands are full with sons Evan, 13, and Will, 10. "I'm good with the kids, but not with the house stuff. Phil helps out a lot—he cooks, and I do all the decorating—except the boys' rooms, which are off-limits," says Engelbreit, an admitted flea-market freak and inveterate collector of plates and children's books, Santas and snowmen. Engelbreit doesn't mind that her home, like her art, is considered cute. "There's so much ugliness in the world," she says. "We need a bit of everything to get by."

PAULA CHIN
BARBARA SANDLER in Clayton

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