By: V'Ming Chew
Stepping into Red Hot Robot at Camelback and Central is like entering the colorful and often wicked imaginations of illustrators, designers and practitioners of self-described “lowbrow” art.
“At the most basic level, these toys make you laugh,” said the store’s owner Jason Kiningham, gesturing to his quirky menagerie of rabbits, bears, squids, robots, monsters and other oddities. Artists usually design and produce these vinyl or plush toys in limited runs, ranging from 50 to 2,000.
The designer toy scene is a relatively new in Phoenix, but in the short time it has been around, it has grown from a scene limited to collectors and the “hip crowd,” to families and children. If you ask Kiningham, he’ll tell you that the opening of Red Hot Robot in June of 2007 has had a lot to do with that.
“I’m seeing about 30 people at my release events, and recently we have fourth to sixth-graders coming in with their parents,” Kiningham said. It’s definitely gaining momentum.”
Designer toys can be traced back to the mid-90s, when artists in Japan and Hong Kong reinvented mainstream toys like G.I.Joe and Barbie by melting, remolding and augmenting them.
“Artists were taking toys that I remembered from my childhood and imposing an adult aesthetic on them,” writes Paul Budnitz in his book “I am Plastic: The Designer Toy Explosion.” "They were cute, scary, hip, violent, scarce, expensive, and beautiful."
Aside from writing books, Budnitz started Kidrobot in 2002 and it has turned out to be one of the biggest retailers of designer toys in the US. Since then, artists like Tristan Eaton, Frank Kozik and local boys Roy Wasson Valle and Gary Ham have been pushing the envelope of creativity in this unique sculptural medium and redefining what toys are. The net effect is a distinctly eastern pop style of clean lines and bright colors, fused with western sensibilities.
“My toys have been described as Mexican Hello Kitty,” said artist Roy Wasson Valle in reference to his fledgling line of egg-shaped figures originally showcased in his “Yummy Things and Stupid Little Animals” show. Like other design toy artists, Wasson Valle is an “incidental” toy designer; creating them initially so that people at his shows “had something to bring home.” The figures he makes are three-dimensional representations of his strange but endearing cast of two-dimensional characters that include Raul, “the skeletal bear in a bear costume.”
Gary Ham, designer for an educational company by day and toy creator by night, is anxiously waiting for “Carrot Shake Jake” a curious, carrot-orange caricature of a rabbit to return from China with “offspring.” “I’m dealing with this manufacturer in China directly to produce them for me,” Ham said.
While the production cost of small runs is not prohibitive, there is still a degree of financial risk for independent artists.
“I’m paying for it on my own,” said Ham. “My advice is: don’t do it for money, do it for the fun and satisfaction of seeing your work in the hands of appreciative people.”
It is interesting to note that while “urban vinyl,” a style of designer toy popularized by Hong Kong artist Michael Lau in the late-90s, is heavily influenced by hip-hop and American street culture, the dominant trend today seems to take its cues from Japanese “kaiju” meaning “strange beast.” The best known kaiju is Godzilla, but the word has evolved to encompass all manner of creatures and even anthropomorphized fruits.
“Their appeal is that they are straight out of artists’ imaginations,” explained Kiningham. Given the limited runs of designer toys, there is always something fresh and original on the shelves. Some toys are sold in the “blindbox” format for prices as low as $4 – you don’t know which design you’re getting until you open the box – leading to a flourishing secondary market where rare items can fetch hundreds, or even thousands of dollars. Collectors also meet at social events to trade their duplicates often in a bid to assemble a set.
This phenomenon is not unlike the Star Wars action figure craze in the 80s.
“Many artists and collectors today have grown up with those action figures,” noted Kiningham. With designer toys the allure is more sophisticated and personal considering the sheer variety of designs and how few of each design is produced. The prospect of owning a “one-of-a-kind” piece is enticing. Having a popular designer name behind your toy doesn’t hurt either.
Designer toys commonly come in the form of figures cast out of soft vinyl ranging from tiny key chains to massive, furniture-sized showpieces. A popular example is KidRobot’s Dunny series where a 3” or 8” figure resembling a rabbit is sold in a infinite variety of styles, designed and accessorized by artists. The figure serves as a “platform” and depending on the artist, can be made to look like anything from the grim reaper to a space alien.
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The popularity of Dunnies has prompted Kidrobot to make the smooth vinyl platform available to everyone in the form of the blank “Munny” echoing the spirit of do-it-yourself toys of old like Mr. Potato Head. Local studio Synthetic Compound at Roosevelt and 1st street began showcasing artists flaunting their creativity on 4” Mini Munnies. The exhibition called “Mini Munnys” began in March and will continue through May 31.
Designer toys also include stuffed dolls known as “designer plush”. One particularly successful example is Uglydolls, a line of handmade cute-ugly dolls started in 2002 by David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim. It has now made its way onto the shelves of mainstream toy stores like FAO-Schwarz, and even the hearts of boys – unlikely candidates for toys openly marketed as “dolls”. In a recent New York Times story, “Guys and Dolls: An Ugly Remake” by Donald McNiel Jr., Marcelo Jaimes-Lukes, who got his first Ugly as a third-grader, was quoted: “No, you didn’t get teased for having one. In my class, you’d be teased not to have one.”
Like curios and other precious collectibles, designer toys are usually displayed as showpieces in cases or cabinets, although some collectors have admitted to “playing” with them. “Parents may buy some of these toys for their kids, but most people just display the more fragile or expensive pieces,” said Jason.
It’s hardly a surprise as many of these toys are limited in pose-ability and articulation. They may not “do” much of anything at all to qualify as playthings, but their whimsical designs and otherworldly appeal do for big kids what traditional toys have done for children for centuries – they make you smile.