Academy Alumna Designs Patented Pop-up Gift Baskets


Shirley Ladler-Dennis of Diva-So-Easy. Courtesy of Shirley Ladler-Dennis.

Late one December night in 2011, Shirley Ladler-Dennis sat in her living room surrounded by a sea of straw baskets, rolls of cellophane, cards, ribbons and presents. The Vallejo resident was in the midst of her annual holiday tradition—putting together gift baskets for local foster children. Ladler-Dennis loved brightening the lives of the kids who received her baskets, but she was exhausted by the time and effort it took to assemble them. Storing the clunky baskets and other supplies was also a challenge.

“I knew there had to be a better way,” said Ladler-Dennis, who graduated from Academy of Art University with a degree in editorial illustration in 1995.

Determined to avoid being in the same predicament when the holidays rolled around again, she started sketching ideas for fabric baskets. She envisioned something both attractive and easy to store. She made some prototypes, but they didn’t quite work. So Ladler-Dennis went back to the drawing board.  

“I’m an artist,” she said. “I work with paper all the time. I thought, ‘Why not create a paper-based basket?’”

She came up with a design she liked, created some samples and gave them to friends and family members.

“The response was great—people wanted more of them,” she said. “That’s when I started to think that maybe this could be more than a hobby.”

She spent several months refining her design, researching materials and meeting with manufacturers. The end result was a die cut, pop-up basket she could mass-produce at an affordable price.

Ladler-Dennis launched her company, Diva-So-Easy, in April 2012. The company includes a website,, where customers can buy baskets decorated in assorted colorful motifs—all designed by Ladler-Dennis—that are suitable for a variety of special occasions. Themed baskets for birthdays, holidays, baby showers and weddings are also available. Each basket comes in a slim, flat packet that’s easy to store and includes a matching gift card, bow and cellophane.

Ladler-Dennis recently quit her job as a graphic designer to focus on growing Diva-So-Easy. To help take her business to the next level, she just completed the difficult and time-consuming task of securing a patent for her baskets. The application process required submitting many detailed spec drawings.

“When I sat down to put together the drawings, I kept flashing back to my illustration classes at the Academy,” she said. “Learning how to control that pen and ink was really hard. But I was able to take that training and apply it to getting a patent.”

In addition to protecting her design, the patent means a large company can license her baskets. A major drugstore chain and some Marriott hotels have already expressed interest in selling them. Ladler-Dennis may even get to promote her products on TV. She recently auditioned for a new show about inventors being considered for development by CNN.

“If it wasn’t for the excellent training I got at the Academy, I don’t think any of this would be happening,” she remarked. “I learned how to think creatively and that if you don’t succeed at something the first time, it doesn’t mean you won’t succeed if you try again.”

Whatever the future holds for her business, Ladler-Dennis credits the Academy for helping her make it this far. She wants current students to know that all of their hard work can open doors to equally exciting possibilities for them, too.