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Fantastic Plastic: Designer Toys
Written by Alan Jaffe    PDF Print E-mail

Soft toys have become the new blank canvases for cutting-edge artists, and savvy collectors are quietly buying them up

It’s 6:20 p.m. on a Tuesday, and a line of mostly Asian-American teens stretches halfway down the block on Prince Street in SoHo, filing slowly past the brawny bouncer at the door. This is no nightclub; this is Kidrobot, where the release of a new, limited-edition toy is a major event in the trendiest neighborhood in New York.

At 7:30 on a Friday night in the backyard of a little shop off Philadelphia’s South Street, “the hippest street in town,” a tattooed, pierced and dayglo-haired crowd is smoking cigarettes and eating barbecue – and celebrating the unveiling of a new vinyl toy.

Both city tableaux are part of a movement cross-fertilized by anime, comics, graphic novels, graffiti, hip-hop, pop art and other influences from the street and the studio. The results are collectible figures made by artists with sci-fi names and urban tags. They call their creations designer toys.

The movement was born 10 years ago in Hong Kong and Japan, when comic book artists began pulling the arms and heads off GI Joe and other dolls, grafting on new appendages and accessories, and turning them into metro-denizens and scary-cute new characters. The alluring little mongrels evolved, or devolved, into many species, such as the spiky Cactus Friends, the bloody Gloomy Bears, the puffy Labbits, and Kidrobot’s popular Dunny and Munny – bunny and teddy-bear-like shapes that can take on multiple personalities.

That’s the interactive nature of the designer toys. Various shapes are produced as blank canvases, and artists or collectors are invited to provide their own faces, clothing and accoutrements, be they candy-canes or battle-axes.

At the recent release party in SoHo, the artist Sket One signed his version of the Kidrobot figure, Blackbeard the Pirate, who comes with eyepatch, hook and treasure map.

Collector Calvin Huang, a senior at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan, waited in line to add the vinyl buccaneer to his toy case. He owns 20 pieces, including seven other Kidrobot renditions, which he chooses based on their “design and themes.” He has paid $3 for a small vinyl character and up to $40, the going price for a new Kidrobot. He has also bought “blind boxes,” elaborately decorated cartons that don’t reveal which toy variation is tucked inside, like old-school packs of baseball cards.

Huang will sometimes sell or swap toys with his collecting buddies, but he has never tried to create his own, and he doesn’t play with them. “I use them like a work of art,” he said. “I display them.”

Most designer toys are not playthings, and few are for children. Among the exceptions are the stuffed Uglydolls – fanged, winged or horned creatures called “plush toys” – that come in various huggable sizes for infants and older kids.

Mike Supermodel, the 34-year-old owner of Jinxed, the shop near 4th and South Streets in Philadelphia, said most of the toys he sells “don’t do anything. They sit there … Many figures we get state very clearly on the package, ‘This is not a toy. This is a collector figure. This is a work of art.’”

The cost also defines the customer. “You’re not going to find too many parents buying their kid a $45 Dunny to burn with a magnifying glass, or whatever an 8-year-old would do,” he said.

But James May, the manager of New York’s Kidrobot, said designer toys are for everyone, “adults, children, boys, girls, from everywhere – we sell to a lot of art collectors, designers and kids.”

“You can play with them,” said May, 34. “For me, they are an excuse to buy toys again. When I first walked in here, I thought, ‘Wow, brilliant, this is amazing, this is something for adults as well as children. It’s like buying a nice sculpture.”

Kidrobot has sold some pieces as sculpture, including a Dunny figure custom-ordered from Steuben Glass that went for $28,000. Other toys have gone in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. At the SoHo release parties, the new limited-edition figures sell for $40 to $50, and they quickly sell out. The next day on eBay, the figures are being offered for $200 to $300, “depending on the artist and quantity,” May said.

The market doesn’t move quite as quickly in Philly, according to Mike Supermodel. But he has a loyal core of collectors “who come in and know what’s up.”

He chooses his products according to certain criteria. “We want to keep things artist based. We try to stick to designers we like. It’s really a matter of aesthetics.”

The best artists, Supermodel said, include Frank Kozik, who owned a record label but was better known for his silkscreen posters. He had recurring figures in his posters, and started making toys of them. “The majority of his figures have a five o’clock shadow and a cigarette,” whether they are rabbits, bananas or Dunny figures.

Another favorite is Dalek, a former graffiti artist who created the Space Monkey character. “It doesn’t look like anything else; it’s his own creation, and he’s spun it off into many figures,” often a cleaver-wielding primate.

The violent nature of the designer vinyl has roots in older playthings, from Ignatz tossing bricks at Krazy Kat to GI Joe going off to war with an arsenal of weapons. The new toys’ blood and guts are just a bit more overt. Familiar faces recur in the recent creations: Mickey Mouse is reborn as an enraged Runaway Brain Mickey or as a Warhol-esque Andy Mouse. And Star Wars regulars return as tiny figures in Kubrick Series 7.

The artists want to create images that people can set on a desk, Supermodel said, but they want to go “way beyond anything anyone’s seen from a toy before.”

One of the local artists selling her creations at Jinxed is Steff Bomb, 24, of Langhorne, Pa., who makes plush toys, including an amputee rabbit who carries a battle-ax, “because he’s out for revenge.”

But don’t be misled by her name or her funny little monsters. “I make things cute because I’m actually terrified of that stuff in real life; I’m terrified of horror movies,” she said. “I’m not an angry person, and I’m not violent in any way. It’s just a way of expressing it … to let things escape.”

A collector of Ninja Turtles and Supergirl action figures since she was a child, Bomb began making toys three years ago, after graduating from beauty school. A medical condition, she later discovered, would prevent her from standing on her legs and doing hair all day, but she was also a self-taught artist who had honed her skill redrawing favorite comics. While reading about an all-plush art show, “it just clicked. … I went out the next week and bought myself a sewing machine, and got some remnants, and just started.”

Her first toy made from fleece, felt and scraps was supposed to be a robot, “but it just looked like a gray oval with floppy arms and legs – it was just a mess.”

She kept trying, and began selling pieces to other artists and friends online. Slowly, her customer base expanded. Bomb’s toys have sold out at the London shop Hooky. Now she works a day job at a handmade jewelry shop in New Hope, Pa., then drives to a rented space to sew until 2 a.m. But she recently signed her first contract, with ESC Toys, to mass-produce Mr. Lertchman, a plush asparagus monster holding a can of spray paint.

Bomb is also a collector of plush and vinyl, and is a big fan of artists Kozik, Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, and Mike and Katie Tado. “They’re people I’ve admired for years, so it’s nice to actually own something that they’ve created, rather than just looking at in magazines or online or at their shows. It’s attainable artwork.”

The toys have gone beyond the office and home showcase. At the current triennial exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, a 6-foot rabbit, actually a Munny, the Kidrobot creature, is part of the show, and a special set of 3-inch Dunnys is being sold in conjunction with the exhibit through July 29.

Kidrobot’s founder, Paul Budnitz, who also has shops in San Francisco and Los Angeles, offers a line of clothing with the signature image and other designs in limited editions. He has collaborated with Nike to penetrate the sneaker culture, has customized a Rabbit for Volkswagen, and is planning a furniture line and a cartoon series for Nick Jr.

As the designer toy movement rises from its underground, street-cred origins into the mainstream, Supermodel said, there is a danger of it becoming watered down. “I think it will crest and drop off to a degree,” he said.

“But the companies have been very conscious of keeping it art-based and going with artists who are independent. They give them a platform to get their stuff out there in a new way. And the artistic merit of the toy itself hasn’t gone down just because it’s gotten popular. If anything, it’s gotten better.”