If you can imagine it, Dillon Works can build it

MUKILTEO — The gigantic paper airplane perched above the front entrance looks like it was folded out of paper from the world’s largest yellow legal tablet.

The 26-foot creation on the Dillon Works’ roof on Harbor Reach Drive isn’t made of paper but fiberglass, making it weigh one staggering ton.

“A lot of people wonder what’s up with the paper airplane,” said Mike Dillon, president of Dillon Works. “I really shouldn’t tell — it’s part of the mystery.”

Then he gives away the mystery.

Dillon, 51, said the airplane is inspired by Swedish American artist Claes Oldenburg, who creates large sculptures of everyday objects. The paper airplane is also a nod to the Boeing Co., located only a few miles away in Everett. Still, some people mistakenly think Dillon Works is a paper business.

It’s not — it’s far more than that.

Walk through the front door of the 30,000-square-foot building — Dillon jokes it’s 3.9 million square inches — and you get an idea of the sense of whimsy and wonder of the company.

Above the reception desk hovers a life-size pteranodon, a flying dinosaur with wings spread, clutching a huge No. 2 pencil.

Go a little farther, and a single pink-and-white flower grows tall as a tree above the door to a workshop. These and other creations have sprung from the minds of Dillon and his employees in the company that holds fast to its motto: The design and fabrication of almost anything.

Dillon, the youngest of six children, remembers being into magic tricks and wanting to make his own creations as a kid. He wasn’t interested in model kits where he knew what the end result would be.

“I was always the type who wanted to do my own thing and I wanted to be creative and make things,” Dillon said.

While growing up in New Jersey, Dillon at age 6 learned how to sew from his mother, Clotilde. She used an industrial-size machine to sew coat linings for extra income for the family, Dillon said. He used the skill to create puppets. Then his father, Wally, found ways for him to show off his work.

“I did a whole Christmas thing with Santa and Mrs. Claus and I remember a witch and a dog I built,” Dillon said. “I did shows for the Kiwanis talent show or the Veterans of Foreign Wars potluck.”

Dillon was 11 when he and his family moved to Ellensburg. A year later, he got his first job as a window painter. He learned techniques by studying how other people painted pictures on windows and asking them questions.

In Ellensburg, business owners often wanted their shop windows to feature cowboys on bucking broncos and clowns in barrels to celebrate the city’s annual rodeo. In the winter, he’d paint holiday scenes. The job paid $15 to $35 a window. In one season, Dillon made about $1,500.

Dillon used some of the money when he was 14 to buy his first car, a 1963 Chevy Bel Air. He paid $250. An older sister drove the car until he was old enough to get his license.

“It was such a good deal I couldn’t pass it up,” Dillon said. “It was a big old tank of a car and it came with seven new tires.”

After graduating from Ellensburg High School in 1978, Dillon took a few classes at Central Washington University. When Coca-Cola came through town to film a series of commercials, they needed some help with set designs. Dillon, who was known around the theater department, was recommended for a job that paid $60 a day. The art director for the commercials was Jim Dultz, who later went on to design TV shows and movies, including “Muppets Tonight” and “Team America: World Police.”

Dillon liked the work so much that he quit college and moved to New York. He worked with Dultz on several commercials and built animated window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord &Taylor before becoming homesick and moving back to Seattle in 1980.

There, Dillon started working in Nordstrom’s advertising department where he met his wife, Carol. On New Year’s Day 1981, during a visit to New York, the couple took a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park.

“We were super young and had no money so we walked everywhere,” she said. “We were in the horse carriage and that’s when he asked me to marry him. He was the perfect gentleman and was very sweet.”

The couple married that September in Seattle but bought their first home together in Tujunga, a town north of Los Angeles. While living there, Dillon met up again with Dultz.

“I was busy working with him on TV shows and commercials, doing sets and props and special effects, that sort of thing,” Dillon said. “Then I got a job on a really bad B movie called ‘Galaxy of Terror.’”

While it was a forgettable movie, Dillon got a chance to work with James Cameron, who was the production designer who went on to direct “Titanic”; Sharen Davis, who went on to a long career designing costumes for movies including “Ray,” “Dream Girls” and “The Help”; and legendary B-movie director Roger Corman.

Work on that movie lasted about two months. The crew had to be inventive when creating the movie set because of its low budget, Dillon said. Dishwasher racks made up the floors of the spaceship while Styrofoam food containers were used as molded panels on its walls.

“We used all these different props to create the illusion that they’re parts to a spaceship,” he said.

During this time, Dillon met someone with a connection to Walt Disney Imagineering, when the division was designing and building Disney theme parks throughout the world.

At age 19, Dillon started work as a Disney Imagineer. He stayed with Disney for almost five years and worked on redesigning Fantasyland at Disneyland, and at Tokyo Disneyland, and on projects for the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Florida.

“Snow White, Pinocchio, Peter Pan. I worked on all those rides,” Dillon said.

At Epcot, Dillon said he worked on an area called the Kitchen Kabaret, where animated fruits and vegetables talked about the four basic food groups and encouraged people to eat healthy.

While at Disney, Dillon said he continued to do some work on the side for commercials. One involved building crab legs for actors in a commercial for SeaGalley Restaurant.

“I was working on crab legs in my garage,” he said.

Dillon decided to leave Disney in late 1985. People were being laid off because of a lack of work, Dillon said. He told his boss he and his wife were planning to visit family in Seattle for the holidays and that if he was going to be laid off it made sense to happen before their trip so they could just stay.

His boss agreed and told him he was being let go.

Dillon and his wife returned to Seattle and in 1986 moved into a house in Lake Forest Park where they had their first son, Zac. The couple welcomed their second son, Oliver, three years later.

Dillon worked on projects for commercials out of his garage. He built costumes for businesses that included Red, the mascot for the Red Robin hamburger chain.

“This was just putting food on the table,” Carol Dillon said. “But he was so creative about everything. He knew how to make things … and how to get the job.”

Dillon hired freelance employees and in 1986 moved his growing business into a building in the Lake City neighborhood of Seattle. The company was officially incorporated as Dillon Works a year later and moved again in 1990 to a larger space on Aurora Avenue in Seattle.

In 1999, the company settled into its specially designed building on Harbor Reach Drive in Mukilteo.

“Mukilteo — it’s near Seattle only harder to say,” the company’s literature boasts.

Photographs lining the walls at Dillon Works show an impressive and creative display of what the company’s employees have made over the past 25 years.

A Pokemon float — with characters Reshiram and Zekrom — for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

A towering rocket that’s the entrance for the Starliner Diner at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Massive snowglobes for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

And a home theater that looks like it’s an armed and fully operational battle station straight out of “Star Wars,” including a C-3PO, automated, motion sensor doors and what looks like a window showing the stars.

The projects just go on and on: A home theater that looks like the Nautilus from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”; a 22-foot-tall tree made for the Zoomazium at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo; two 14-foot stainless steel sculptures of a fish and a fisherman that stand on street corners in Bremerton.

The tree-sized flower in the Mukilteo workshop — there’s a bouquet of them above the entrance to a mall in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dillon calls his 30 employees three-dimensional problem solvers. Or as his company’s catalog puts it: “We think outside the box (while fully appreciating the full potential of the box.)”

In April, Dillon Works installed a bookstack with classics from Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Franz Kafka outside the Library Place condos on Hoyt Avenue in Everett. The bookstack is 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide and covers an electrical box.

That project took about 50 days to create, said Craig Chapman, a foreman who has been with Dillon Works for six years.

“(The books) turned out real well. It was a fun project,” he said. “There have been so many fun projects. Everybody here loves what they do and it shows in the end product.”

At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a swarm of 600 jellyfish made of vacuum-formed polycarbonate went up in April above the entrance to an exhibit. Jenny-Sayre Ramberg, director of planning and design at the National Aquarium, started talking about an idea for the purple-hued swarm with Dillon in late fall.

“They created a large beautiful metal structure evocative of water and the movement of water and the jellies hang down on strings,” she said. “It’s very beautiful.”

Chris Olberding of Whidbey Island started working with Dillon in 1995 while he was helping Sony launch PlayStation. He continued to hire Dillon Works to create trade show displays for PlayStation up until his retirement in 2008.

“He is the nicest, most honest guy,” he said. “Every time we wound up selling something that I had no idea how we were going to produce I called Mike to give them a shot at it.”

For a show, Dillon Works once created a working 15-foot PlayStation Portable, a handheld gaming console, Olberding said. He also remembers that the monster truck that appears to crash through a workshop wall at Dillon Works was originally part of a marketing display for “Grand Theft Auto.”

“It’s blasting through a brick wall with guns blazing and all of the debris is everywhere,” he said. “It’s absolutely amazing. … It’s hard to believe it’s not real.”

Realistic, bizarre and playful creations by Dillon Works are located throughout the world, in countries including Canada, Russia, Kuwait, Japan, Mexico, Korea, Portugal, Estonia and the United Arab Emirates.

“People wonder how much of our work is local and really very little of it is,” Dillon said. “We’ve worked all over the place.”

What’s his favorite project from the past 25 years? For Dillon, that’s like asking a parent if they have a favorite child.

“I have different favorites for different reasons, but my true favorites usually are when the client knows that we’ve pulled off something really great and that they appreciate it,” he said.

At least one project didn’t go as planned. A 20-foot submarine sandwich balloon filled with helium just wouldn’t stay in place over a shop in Seattle.

“It would be fine until the weather got bad and it would blow over and then blow down,” he said. “I finally gave them their money back and said this isn’t going to work. It was just too much of a hassle. That’s pretty rare, though.”

The business of designing and fabricating almost anything has changed over the years.

In its early days, Dillon Works built mascot outfits that included the Mariner Moose, running clams for Ivars and props for photo shoots.

If a commercial or a print advertisement needed angel wings for a model, they were the ones to build them, Dillon said.

Not anymore.

Nowadays, the wings can be made with different technology.

“We’ve become obsolete with that kind of work,” Dillon said. “We saw that coming about 20 years ago and started doing more permanent, architectural pieces.”

Still the business has been affected by the recession. Five years ago, the company was busy building interior structures for American Indian casinos, including the Tulalip Resort Casino in Tulalip and Angel of the Winds Casino in Arlington. That work has slowed as fewer casinos are being built. The company has to be nimble in how it looks for work and the kind of work it pursues in order to stay busy, Dillon said.

To compensate, Dillon started what he calls “a diversion” of Dillon Works called Alchemy Bluff Studios. He started the outlet about a year ago and designs functional artwork — tables, chairs, and other furniture and interior structures with a creative twists. It also helps keep his staff employed, Dillon said.

“Because of the economy being slow, I didn’t want to lay people off,” Dillon said. “So to try to keep people employed I started this company. When it’s a little bit slower we build it and inventory it and then sell it.”

Jill Bruvold, a purchaser at Dillon Works, said she enjoys constant projects such as creating a giant slab table for the conference room and making things like a net filled with giant rocks for the company’s showroom.

“Sometimes when the shop is slow he’ll have us do little projects for him,” Bruvold said. “He’s a really great businessman, I think. Obviously he’s really great at presenting his work and he’s really creative.”

With all of his imagining, Dillon never saw himself running a business like Dillon Works. But he did see himself in this line of work.

“I always knew I would be doing something like this,” Dillon said. “Did I imagine this specifically? … I have no idea. But this fits, it feels right.”

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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