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by Louise Buyo
How Designer Toys Became an Artistic Enterprise
As the ratio of art i sts to galleries continues to grow disproportionately, some art i sts have chosen to
bypass gallery representation altogether and seek other avenues to success by adding merchandise
to their businesses. Contemporary artists are taking their original illustrations and paintings and
reproducing them on a variety of materials, from clothing to furniture. One of the most unique and
recent merchandising trends is designer toys.
mbraced by everyone from Pop Surrealists to Street artists, became more eclectic, drawing on pop culture and graffiti for
designer toys first appeared on the scene in the late 1990s inspiration.
with handmade vinyl figures created by Hong Kong Many artists who create designer toys see them as an excit-
painter Michael Lau. During that time, toy factories in Hong ing medium and use them to make bold statements in design and
Kong, the international capital of toy manufacturing, closed as color. “It has taken my ideas and characters and given them a
companies were lured to Mainland China by cheap labor. presence and tactile form that they would not normally have,”
Inspired by nostalgia for the Golden Age of Toy-Making, Lau comments artist and illustrator Julie West (www.JulieWest.com).
fashioned his own vinyl toys, infusing them with an edgy, urban Designer toys also attract artists because they are highly
aesthetic. Other artists were inspired to follow his example, start- accessible to a public that idolizes childhood. They attract enthu-
ing an international movement in the underground art scene. As siasts of all ages and backgrounds with an appreciation for inno-
the concept infiltrated Europe and North America, designs vative products. “Quite simply,” says Steve Lewis, owner of
This custom toy, designed by Riot68, was sculpted from a ready-made platform, which he then carved and embellished.
14 Art Calendar ı November 2008 www.artcalendar.com
designer toy boutique, Überbot, “a lot of professional artists turn
to vinyl toys because it’s fun.” Collaborating with Companies
Independent toy companies — Kid Robot, STRANGECo, Toy2R
Precious! Limited! Collectible! and Toy Qube — have helped propel designer toys into the
Unlike their corporate counterparts Mattel and Hasbro,
artists working as toymakers realize their careers are directly
mainstream with boutiques and online storefronts. They also
affected by their creative choices. As a result, they are aware promote artist collaborations. The Dunny, a basic unpainted
that their work must be individual and recognizable. West con- rabbit toy by Kid Robot, was the focus of one of the first
firms, “My work has not diminished by selling parts of it in artist-manufacturer partnerships. Kid Robot sent Dunnies to
commercial ways; in fact it has made it more in demand.” various artists around the world who then interpreted the
As artists who design toys generate an income and build a shape in wildly different ways. Their designs became limited
following with these smaller, more accessible works, they simul-
editions that were manufactured, marketed and distributed
taneously create a buzz for their more expensive originals.
Eventually, many of these artists end up showing and selling
by Kid Robot. Likewise, Toy2R frequently commissions inter-
their originals in galleries. “It’s been somewhat of a spring national artists to repaint its Qees — a collection of bears,
board, really,” admits Riot68 (www.Riot68.com), an artist and cats, dogs and monkeys.
designer who operates under his graffiti moniker. “I spend a lot
more time painting (murals); however, the interest in my (cus- Just like any re p roduced art form, scarcity is the key to the
tom toys) has sustained, probably even grown as time passes.” success of designer toys. Limited editions and custom designs
While Riot68 creates custom figures on a commission make toys irresistible, encouraging rapid consumption. It also
basis, other artists, like West, enter into licensing deals with contributes to an inflated price tag: A single figure can com-
small, independent toy companies, such as STRANGECo. mand anywhere from $50 to $500 or more. While this may
Doing so helps augment the cost of producing an original seem expensive for a vinyl toy, the price tag encourages collec-
design for a single vinyl toy. “When undertaking my toys, I tors on limited budgets who desire art from artists but cannot
think it was crucial to have the backing of a good company. It aff o rd their originals. For example, artist Gary Baseman’s
allowed me to go about the process in a creative way rather unsigned vinyl toy, HotChaChaCha, fetches $110 while his
than be bogged down with the details,” says West. paintings begins at $5,000. It also allows a collector to become
Bumble by Julie West. Vinyl, 8”. Tweet by Julie West. Vinyl, 8”.
www.artscuttlebutt.com Serving the Visual Artist for 21 Years 15
familiar with an art i s t ’s work before committing to a larg e r
Buy a Blank Platform acquisition. “Most people that buy and collect vinyl toys
Getting a licensing deal is tough work, especially in the designer toy busi- also buy and collect art,” reflects West.
Several factors contribute to the small run of most
ness. Independent toy companies receive numerous toy designs from artists,
toys: cost of production, artistic integrity and marketing
but decide to manufacture only a select few. Some artists, like Riot68, create savvy. Artists who finance themselves tend to make toys
custom toys from readymade blank platforms (also known as DIY customiz- with a very limited production run because they don’t
able figures) that can be painted and altered at home into a one-of-a-kind have the financial resources of toy manufacturers. While
designer toy. If you haven’t been approached with an offer for partnership, producing toys in greater bulk would lower the unit cost,
don’t get discouraged. Take matters many independent toy companies avoid large runs of their
into your own hands to bring your figures because it jeopardizes the integrity of a design and
concept to life. engenders the scorn of collectors and other artists. As
Several of the independent toy Riot68 notes, “Some of the production stuff is a little weak
companies sell blank platforms. and mass-produced.”
Some of the most popular are
But Are Designer Toys A rt?
Munny by Kid Robot, Kaniza by Toy Designer toys are treated as both a product and an art
Qube and Qee by Toy2R. A really object, blurring the separation between the two. West
fun platform is the Soopa Bros. believes collectors buy them for their aesthetic qualities.
Coin-Up DIY Figure by ESC Toys. It Lewis agrees, “A painting on the wall is no diff e rent from a
has the shape of an old-fashioned toy you display in a glass case or a graphic novel on a coffee
Munny, a platform by Kid Ro b ot.
arcade game and costs $30. table or a shirt you wear around town.”
Munny by Kid Ro b ot (www.KidRobot.com) is practically an institution. You While many museums and galleries have yet to house
can buy it in three sizes — Mini (4"), Original (8") and Mega (18") — and sev- designer toys within their walls, alternative venues display
eral colors including white, black, pink and glow-in-the-dark. A Munny can toys along with two-dimensional work of these same art i s t s .
set you back $10 to $200, depending on its size. Überbot (www.UberbotOnline.com), the largest designer
toy store in the southeastern U.S., regularly holds exhibi-
Unlike Munny’s basic humanoid shape, Kaniza and Qee are available in
tions featuring artwork and vinyl toys as well as a yearly cus-
different sty l es. Toy Qube (www.ToyQube.com) offe rs Kaniza in four 4" tom figure show. The show often draws a large crowd of
shapes that cost $10: Boxfish, Squid, Hammerhead Shark and Starfish. Q e es buyers and spectators, re p o rting an attendance of more than
by Toy2R (www.Toy2R.com) are by far the most diverse line of all platforms. 1,000 people last year.
There are simply too many to list here. Platforms from Toy2R cost $6 to $40. Lewis is no longer surprised by the popularity of custom
Once you’ve purchased a platform, do whatever you like to it. To cut your shows. “There’s creativity on multiple levels,” he says.
figure, warm up the vinyl with a hair dryer to make it soft, and then use an “People are curious and are fascinated to see what local artists
X-Acto knife cautiously. You can also mold your platform into a different come up with.” It doesn’t hurt that attendees are invited to
shape by adding Magic Sculpt, a two-part epoxy clay that adheres to any- pass judgment on the designs by voting for their favorites.
thing. It dries overnight so you can sand, ca rve and paint it the next day. The Top 20 entries, as chosen by the crowd, are given invita-
tions to sell their work at Überbot. He laughs, “Throw in a
Once you’ve got the shape you desire, you’re all set to paint.
ballot box, and it becomes a different event!” AC
For durability, use water-based paints. Kid Ro b ot recommends acrylics
from Golden Pa i n ts. If you settle on another type of paint, such as enamel,
prime your platform with Krylon Sandable Primer. For a step-by-step guide on how to
manufacture your own designer toy,
Submit a Design to Patch Together see ArtCalendar.com
If you can’t sculpt, but feel you have some wonderful design ideas, you
can still make your own toy. Patch Together (www.patchtogether.com) is a
Web site where art i sts can come together and upload their toy designs for a
vote by their peers. Once a month, the toy design with the highest votes will Louise Buyo is the Assistant Editor
be manufactured in a limited quantity. The designer of the toy wins $500 at Art Calendar. In her blog
and receives fi ve percent commission of the toy sales, as well as the notori-
she reviews exhibitions and shares
ety of having a manufactured toy, without sharing the production costs or the details of Orlando’s art scene.
having to make the prototype. Louise can be reached at
16 Art Calendar ı November 2008 www.artcalendar.com