By Kathy Day
John Todd Figi of La Jolla, passed away on Jan. 9 at the UCSD Medical Center as he awaited a lung transplant. He was 66. Subsequently, Figi himself became an organ donor.
He had served as chairman of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and was respected for his collection of Latin American art and for his success as a businessman.
Friends said his brother, Hans of Guilford, England, captured the arts patron’s persona in the obituary he wrote: “For all his success and notoriety, he was ultimately respected for being a “regular guy” who could just as happily share a beer with the gardener as be the host of a black-tie party in a foreign capital. When he spoke to you he made you feel like you were the most important person in the world.”
Featured in the Light’s 10 Questions column in 2008, Figi wrote that he was inspired by “creativity, hard work and those who practice both.”
In answer to the question, “What is your greatest accomplishment,” he said, “Since I have never had children, my greatest accomplishment, I believe, was starting as a hippie with an idea and building it into one of the largest, most creative and respected gift companies in the country.”
That company, Figi Graphics had its roots in Wisconsin, where he was born and raised. He started a business called The Butcher, The Baker, making candles and following in his parents’ footsteps as entrepreneurs. They had started Figi’s Gifts in Good Taste in the kitchen of their one-bedroom apartment. Their pioneering company ultimately became a leader in the mail-order gift-food business.
He merged it with another company in 1973. After a business trip to Southern California in February 1974, winter coat and hat in hand, Figi relocated his company to J Street in San Diego within three weeks. The company sold everything from photo frames and wall décor to refrigerator magnet to gift stores across the U.S. and around the world. He sold the company in 1998.
In addition to his involvement with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Figi served as president of the San Diego Chapter of YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) and was active in many local and national charities, usually anonymously. Among them were the Old Globe Theater and the Monarch School.
He also served as chairman of the California Gift Association and received the Award of Distinction from Gift for Life for his support of AIDS education and research.
Kit Sickels, who knew Figi from traveling the world together and from business dealings, said when his friend “set his mind to something, he always accomplished it.”
Figi, he added, was an extremely honorable man and a very successful businessman.
Sickels said as his friends and former employees kept watch over him via the website
as Figi’s health declined the past few weeks, it was apparent by their comments how much of an impact he had on them.
Hugh Davies, MCASD director, said Figi, who became chairman when the recession began, was “enormously important” to the museum which had just opened three new buildings.
“His finest hour,” Davies said, was taking on the challenge of the annual auction that had previously raised $350,000 to $400,000. Through his hard work, the event that year raised more than $1 million.
“He took on the challenge and called in all of his markers. He got people to donate art, to bid on items and set up a phone bank so people from out of town could bid. … We called it the Figi effect.”
Davies said he admired Figi not only for his business practices, his energy ideas and generosity, but also for his spirit. “We was fun at a party, an elegant and refined man.”
In February 2010, Mayor Jerry Sanders appointed Figi to the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.
Second District Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who nominated him for the commission, said via e-mail Tuesday that Figi “did a wonderful job and had a long and distinguished career in arts and culture. The work he did meant so much to so many. He will be missed."
Figi’s greatest passion was collecting Latin American art. He especially appreciated and collected works by Roberto Matta, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera and other Latin American artists of note. He frequently loaned portions of his renowned collection to museums around the world.
He is survived by his wife, Norma Jean “Jake” Figi of La Jolla; sister Sara Finkle of Aspen, Colo; and brothers Hans Figi (Sharon) of Guildford, England, and Eric Figi (Alison), also of La Jolla; nieces Anna Patterson (Chris) of Bozeman, Mont.; Kate and Erin Figi of La Jolla, and nephews: F. Scott Thomson of Park City, Utah, and John Todd “Jake” Figi and Lucas Figi of Guildford, England. He was preceded in death by his beloved black Labrador retriever, “Nick.”
A celebration of his life will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Sherwood Auditorium at the Contemporary Museum of Art in La Jolla. In lieu of flowers donations in Figi’s name are requested for either Lab Rescue or Lifesharing, a lifesaving and life enhancing effort of transplantation.