In today’s toyscene, urban designer toys are the seductive young rebels, a photogenic wonder and an aesthetic thrill, unlike most everyday mind-numbing toys.
Their history (not so long, but quite energetic) follows the course of a peculiar ingeniousness that came to be a classic landmark in the world of those who appreciate, collect or create art toys. The typical reports (for instance, Michael O’Sullivan or Paul Budnitz) come with the theory, quite infatuated, that those little (or large) beauties have come into the world practically out of nowhere, that they are something completely new and unseen. Well, their phylogeny, characteristics and systematics are intimately linked to the world of toy collectors and designers, endowed with an elaborate imagery and a sharp eye influenced by these toys’ unattested ancestors: old collectible art toys. Definitely, the differences in concepts, material and vision are those that settle the indisputable artistic value of each toy generation.
Their arrival happened in an optimal habitat, one that allowed them to develop and flourish quite rapidly: the Hong Kong world of toy collectors. In the beginnings, in the 1990s, two local artists, Michael Lau and Eric So, exhibited their creations and the visitors knew almost instantly that something exciting was about to happen. To tell the story in short, they had had half a century of toy cleverness behind them, marked mostly by Japan, the nation that showed the big industrialized world of the postwar years that toys are literally a serious business.
Ron Tanner (”Toy Robots in America, 1955-75: How Japan Really Won the War”) examined retrospectively the toyscape of the XXth century: Nowadays, among the world community of toy collectors, Japan’s tin toys of the 1950s and 1960s are considered some of the most ingenious and well-wrought inventions of twentieth century manufacture.(…) Toys helped the Empire of the Rising Sun to rise from the ashes of wartime ruin. That was because, unlike the American „short-sighted vision” toys that went for immediate success on the market, Japan was exploring the future prospects with patience and skill. Robots like Mr. Atomic, Iron Man No. 28 or Mr. Mercury were the epitome of Japan’s optimism towards the future, a popular dream.
If we take a little sneak peek, we notice with reverence that many themes of the urban vinyl toys have Japanese ancestors: transformer toys from the ‘70s and ’80s, spaceships, the insect features of physiognomies, the idea of building a creature anatomy, the sophisticated details of unbranded characters, the polymorphous structure of the subject, the traits of miniaturized characters (see how the platform toys resemble Japanese chibis with a big head and tiny body, some even with very big eyes and absent nose).
The underground scenery of toy collectors and street artists that initiated the Urban Vinyl Movement followed a certain path that changed the course of events after the Japanese supremacy and influence. Starting from the 1960s, Hong Kong began to undersell Japan and won a reputation on the toy market, after several Japanese toy factories sold their designs to Hong Kong factories that started to use the much cheaper hard plastic. The level of detail was inferior, because the material used did not allow refined designs.
Some decades later, in the 1990s, when Lau and So exhibited their customized toys in an improvised gallery provided by the independent animator and toy collector Neco Lo Che Ying, the use of plastic material changed dramatically. So created realistic figurines of his everlasting love, the Jeet Kune Do God Bruce Lee, while Lau preferred to customize G.I. Joe dolls into a cartoon adaptation of the five members of a local band called Anodize. Both were action figure and vintage toy fanatics. Soon enough after that (and the toycons that followed), Lau fired up what we could call the dawn of customizations.
But there were lots of finishing touches left. In 1999, when guru Lo organized an impressive toycon where Lau exhibited his ten 3-D figurines called ”Gardeners”, the public was so exhilarated by his creations that in months’ time, Lau created another 89 Gardeners, but they were not for sale and street culture desired to add them to their collections.
Arthur Lubow (”Cult Figures”) accurately examined this situation: the figures were made of hard ABS plastic, which is solidified in an expensive mold – making them too expensive to custom-fabricate anything larger than heads, hands or feet. Another way to produce plastic toys is the rotocast vinyl method: vinyl plastic is injected into a cheaper mold and spun, producing a hollow object, which is then painted. Although rotovinyl toys can’t exhibit the fine detail of ABS plastic, they are far cheaper and easier to produce. Because the mold is less expensive, designers can reconfigure the entire shape; they then have the advantage of not being constrained by the 12-inch anatomical form. Looking to transform the designer-toy movement into something commercially viable, Lau landed on vinyl.
Very rapidly, other toy designers started using the same material to produce their toys. Other friendly materials were resin, metal, plastic or wood. Although not as accessible to the global market like mainstream corporate toys, the designer toys were becoming increasingly available after being produced by companies such as Toy2R, Kidrobot or Medicom in factories based in China. That helped cut the prices and broaden the market, but also generated speculation and opportunism.
Labeled as ”an art genre” (Michael O’Sullivan, Lowbrow, but often lovely) and described as such (every Kidrobot toybox tells us that “This is a work of art, not a toy.”), the limited number of designer toys and their addictive potential as collectible art object fueled the interest of certain so-called ”investors” that sell them many times their original price. It is debatable whether these toys are meant mostly for display, not for play, especially now, when the market is no longer scarce.
Having such a short history, the reports and written material about designer toys were quite brief at first, but now, their reputation have attracted more and more stories and visual documentation. You can hear about them from sources such as Jeremyville’s Vinyl Will Kill, in issues from the quarterly publication Clutter Magazine (that calls itself „the indispensible guide to the world of designer toys”), in some issues of Play, Toys: New Designs from the Art Toy Revolution, from the weekly internet show Toy Break, the television show Vinyl Addiction or in various articles from The Journal of Popular Culture. Today, the urban playscape can’t do without them.
Artists like Luke Chueh, Gary Ham, Martin Hsu, Stuart Witter, Shawn Carlton Barnes, Amanda Louise Spayd, JC Rivera, Ian Calleja, Kevin Gosselin, Chris Rose, Kathie Olivas, Sherri Damlo, Tristan Eaton, Angry Woebots, Tim Biskup and many others have explored this irresistible microcosmos of designer toys, creating characters essentially different from those of the mass market. Some of them relate to the so-called lowbrow art, an art genre inspired by skateboarding, music, comics, graffiti and tattoo art. The toys’ names reflect that same ingeniousness: Cosmos Mongolion (Lamour Supreme), Jaguar Knight (Jesse Hernandez), Origins of the Forest (Amanda Louise Spayd), Gummi Bear Anatomy (Jason Freeny), Symptoms (Wunderland War) etc.
Currently, these toys and their enthusiastic community have developed the potential of reaching a larger market without losing their appeal. Some series have become quite famous outside their subculture: Qee Series, created by Toy2R in Hong Kong, the Dunny Series from Kidrobot (in the US) or Be@rbrick, by MediCom Toy Incorporated. These series have established the concept of “platform”, a 3-D shape to which artists bring their customizations: The Japanese company Medicom is said to have produced the first platform with its ‘Kubrick’ in 2000, quickly followed by its ‘Be@rbrick’ in 2001. Subsequently many designer toy companies developed their own platforms: Toy2R its ‘Qee’, Kidrobot its‘Dunny’, Play Imaginative its ‘Trexi’, UNKL its ‘UniPo’, and so on (Marc Steinberg, A Vinyl Platform for Dissent: Designer Toys and Character Merchandising).
Today, after almost 30 years of existence, the general trend of this movement seem to have shifted from the idea of inaccessible to that of availability, therefore, from display to play. Arthur Lubow quotes Jakuan, a toy designer and collector from New York that reduces the matter to its bare bones: In Hong Kong you have all these companies now that are mass-producing but trying to make it seem as if they’re putting out limited-edition collectibles. (…) The market is saturated. You don’t know what’s good and what’s not. That’s what killed the comic-book market and the ‘Star Wars’ toys market. I think they’re deceiving the customers. They’re trying to market it as collectible, when it’s really just a toy.
Photo credits: Guian Bolisay, Carrie Kellenberger, Osaka Tin Toy Institute, thotfulspot, My Toy Museum, Sweetsofa
Monica works as a writer and translator, and is a passionate researcher of pop-culture, anthropology and cinema. In her spare time she also enjoys toy photography and often searches for old Japanese art toys to enlarge her collection. She also loves to discover monsters from old movies, folk tales, myths and legends of various cultures.