One of the most widespread human hobbies is collecting things. Assembling a collection of some items may become the deal of one’s life which takes not only time and effort but also a great deal of financial investment.
In the recent decades there has emerged one of such expensive collecting hobbies which is has already developed into a whole subculture — and is now growing into a mainstream trend. This popular trend is focused around collecting the so-called designer toys, a range of exclusive toys that are produced in quantities of not more than two thousand pieces by specialized companies.
The unique feature of designer toys is that they have re-defined the meaning of ‘toy’ as such and appear to have combined toys with the notions of art and design. Designers and collectors see this kind of toys as art pieces to be carefully kept in their boxes and not to be played with.
Collecting limited editions has become an everyday goal, and keeping them clean on their shelves a daily chore. Investigating the history and the meaning of designer toys may open an eye to their mysterious powers that have influenced the art world and dramatically changed the world’s attitude to toy.
To gain an understanding of how designer toys succeeded in winning the hearts of millions, it is essential to delve in their history and origins. The germs of the modern designer toy concept can be traced back to as early as the post-World War II period when Ideal Novelty and Toy Company started producing the first plastic dolls (Phoenix).
The remarkable feature of their production was that along with traditional toys like teddy bears and car and train models, the company’s biggest sales success were toys based on popular images. Characters of comic books, films, and television programs scored top positions in sales ratings. Later on, with the development of science fiction topic in popular culture, robots, ray guns, and flying saucers were much in demand among the general consumers.
In the 1940s-1950s, a large share of commercial success was secured by the so-called mascots, or character merchandizing. Customers were charmed by certain characters that possessed an attractive personality in promoting goods or services.
The achievements of commercial television and animation in the United States helped to bring those characters closer to the audience by transforming them from mere cardboard figures into talking, singing, and dancing mascots. Attracted by the character itself, consumers would purchase the product for the sake of possessing the funny toy in it.
This created a certain mascot addiction among consumer society and naturally benefited the manufacturers. The perfect expression of a mascot is found in the breakfast cereal packages of the 1950s-1960s, when “companies such as Nabisco, General Mills, and Kellogg’s used small plastic toys as in-box prizes to attract children” (Phoenix 29).
Driven by desire to possess another cute toy, children would convince their parents to buy another pack of cereal for them. Since that time such strategy has been successfully utilized by McDonald’s company. The amount of free toys given away with the Happy Meal menus has turned McDonald’s into one of the world’s largest toy distributors and sufficiently increased its profits.
In Japan, the role of plastic toys as mascots dramatically increased in 1980s, when reproductions of anime characters were made by amateur enthusiasts and the ‘otaku’, or love to a certain anime personage defined the interest of the Japanese society. In the late 1990s, this trend gradually developed into production of Choco Egg, containing a miniature toy — an idea so popular among the fans that they started exchanging duplicating and rare figures (Phoenix).
At the same time, a brilliant idea dawned upon a Hong Kong painter and designer Michael Lau. Working for a musical band Anidoze, he received the task of making a cover for their new album. But instead of traditional two-dimensional sketches, Lau decided to make a vinyl figure and take a photo of it (Jager). The idea enjoyed such a success that Lau started a whole Urban Vinyl line of exclusive toys which got the name Gardeners. Since that time starts the official history of designer toys.
As it appears historically, Urban Vinyl was the first trend in the ever-growing variety of designer toys. Although the terms urban vinyl and designer toys are frequently used interchangeably, it is important to differentiate between them: not all designer toys are necessarily vinyl, and not all urban vinyl figures are designer toys since they may also be produced in mass quantities.
The initiator of Urban Vinyl movement, Michael Lau created his first 99 Gardeners as a reflection on a popular comic-strip. The collection included “skateboarders, surfers and snowboarders, decked out in baggy shorts, camouflage jackets, tent-like sweatshirts and of-the-moment sneakers, adorned with chains, earrings and tattoos, their hair in dreadlocks or pressed beneath bright-colored caps” (Lubow).
The figures were absolutely hot with the public, since as Lau confessed in an interview, “Street culture and hip-hop culture and skateboard style were coming up. The culture included fashion, music, graffiti. It seemed really fresh. It is just like a uniform — people in Hong Kong and Tokyo and Britain and the States all look the same” (Lubow).
The success of Lau’s Gardeners was so enormous that it immediately swept Hong Kong society in an Urban Vinyl craze. Artists, graphic designers, comics illustrators all engaged in enthusiastic making of their own vinyl toys, which over the next half decade spread not only over Hong Kong but to Japan and subsequently to the Western world. The specific feature of those toys is that they are meant “not for play but for display” (Lubow).
With the price not infrequently reaching $100 or $200 for piece, those limited editions are so valuable to their devoted fans that the latter simply leave their sought-after purchase in the box as a true collection item. Founded in 2002, the world’s largest supply chain of designer toys, Kidrobot has its outlets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and London, and sells out its collections in less than few days.
Kidrobot reports cooperation with such designers as “USA artists Frank Kozik, Tim Biskup, Huck Gee, Joe Ledbetter, Tristan Eaton, Paul Budnitz, and Tara McPherson; the German design collective eBoy; Japan’s Devilrobots & Mad Barbarians; French street artists Tilt & Mist; the UK’s TADO and ilovedust; Australia’s Nathan Jurevicius; Argentina’s DOMA; and many, many others” (Kidrobot.com).
In addition, the company collaborates with such leading brands as Marc Jacobs, Barneys New York, Playboy, Visionaire Magazine, Burton, Lacoste, Nike, etc. for creating unique limited editions.
The most famous Kidrobot toys that have won the hearts of millions are Dunny and Munny. Dunny is a rabbit-like figure that got its name from combining the words ‘devil bunny’. It comes in three sizes — three, eight, and twenty inch — and has rotational head and two arms with sockets that may hold various objects. The curious thing about Dunnies is that they are packages in a sealed wrapper that prevents the buyers to see which exactly figure is inside.
This trick leads to a thrilling chase after the rare models and increases the buying fever. Since many customers would like to create their own design Dunny, a toy called Munny is produced. By large, it is the same as Dunny but then without any decoration. The customer can use pens, pencils, paint, and markers on the initially white doll to make whatever pattern is desired. The set may also include accessories such as hat or carrot to personify the toy.
Another company specializing in designer toys is Toy2R. The company name means ‘Toy to Raymond’ and reflects the dream of its founder, Raymond Choy. The first and the most symbolic product of Toy2R is the so-called ‘Toyer’, resembling a human skull. Toyer became not only the company logo but also the inspirational ground for the second popular product of Toy2R, the Qee keychain figure.
Causing an absolute hype among the designer toy fans, the Qee is represented by eighteen various characters that can be both used as a key chain and kept as a collector’s item. The popularity of Toyer and Qee among the fans developed the company into a brand of world significance and allowed for its cooperation with such renowned brands as Adidas, DKNY, Mitsubishi, Nokia, Sony, and Starbucks, creating unique Qee figures for them.
The third large corporation that specializes on designer toys is the Japanese company MediCom Toy Inc. The key feature of their toys is the special block style of their figures which has got the name of Kubrick, to honour The Clockwork Orange filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.
Reminding Playmobil or Lego figures, Kubricks are produced in a vast variety of themes. One of the most famous and sought-after designs is [email protected], a plastic figure of a bear that consists of nine parts joined by hinges. Each series of [email protected] comprises eighteen figures realized in ten different themes.
The latter may vary from national flags, to popular horror movies, to animals. Constantly enlarging their production range, MediCom Toy issues Kubricks and [email protected] dedicated to certain events of mass importance. For example, in 2010 they marked the coming of Valentine Day by producing a Valentine [email protected], all covered in red heart pattern.
Tim Burton’s screening of “Alice in Wonderland” had barely been launched in the world cinema halls when MediCom Toy already sold a [email protected] Cheshire Cat. Likewise are the trends in modern cinematography reflected through figures of such movie characters as Shrek, Batman, Mickey Mouse, Edward Scissor Hands, Monsters Inc., Planet of the Apes, Sesame Street, Spiderman, Star Wars, and many others.
What makes designer toys so unique is that they are not actually taken as toys to utilize in everyday child activities. Rather, they are viewed collective items to be admired and treated as precious. Kidrobot.com breaks into a passionate call to their customers that emphasizes the emotional side of their toys: “Remember, our toys are works of art! Treat them with love and respect!”.
By personifying the toys, their producers raise the status of designer toys from a simple object of everyday life to something unique and valuable. The stir created around urban vinyl sets the collectors’ hearts racing. One of the factors contributing to designer toys uniqueness is their scarce number.
By limiting the amount of toys produced, quality control is maintained which assures that each designer toy is a unique creation of a high grade. Some of the limited editions are available only in particular countries and outlets. Customers’ anxiety is additionally increased by the cunning games of the toy retailers. For example, they may choose specific signals to announce the availability of a particular toy.
According to Paul Budnitz, the president of Kidrobot corporation, “There was one toy that was available only if it was raining out. ‘Another toy was available on Mondays only. It makes it really fun. I suppose it is good marketing for everyone. Everything here sells out” (Lubow).
With marketing tactics being one reason for creating a unique image of designer toys, another factor for their perception as art can be viewed in their conceptual meaning. There is be a whole range of possible meanings to decipher behind the ingenious form of a designer toy.
Some may see them as an artistic representation of modern “plastic throw-away society”; others envision the mold of the figures as a symbol of standardization and de-individualization of our world. Sill another artistic idea evoked by designer toys can be bringing other arts, such as graffiti, to three-dimensional life. Designer toy are unique expressions of individual outlook, views, and feelings of each designer — which art is as well.
But while standardly art is perceived as something that is kept in museums and galleries, creators of designer toys possess a wider understanding of art. They want to make it more available to the general public, and although preserving the unique status of designer toys, the bring art closer to people by actually selling items of toy art at more realistic prices than those standardly practiced.
This inclusion of the general public in the previously sacred sphere of the art is one of the key factors for the utmost popularity of designer toys. By collecting designer toys, people get feeling that they are becoming more relevant to the mysterious world of art and that art becomes more understandable to them, in return.
Designer toys reflect the major cultural trends and obsessions of the time in accessible, unsophisticated way. The presentation of the art through designer toys is carried out via pop-culture mechanisms: toys and key chains, T-shirts and stickers are objects familiar to anyone.
The special feature of designer toys in this case is that they are not mere reproductions of the art but the art itself. Moreover, the typical collectors of designer toys can not only buy them but involve in the creative process by designing their own toy identity with such figures as, for example, Munny (Lau). Active participation in making art is another factor for designer toys success.
Originating as a lucky idea of a Hong Kong designer, within a decade designer toys swept the world in an exciting euphoria. Prominent designers, major brands, and collectors all over the planet joined in one creative surge, establishing the culture of designer toy which is a unique reflection of modern world. Designer toy is art, but this art is understandable to millions and therefore valuable for its spontaneity and sincerity.
Kidrobot.com. 2010. Web.
Jager. “A Look at Urban Vinyl and Where it Came From“. MillionairePlayboy.com. 2004. Web.
Lau, Kimberly. “Designer Toys Go Mainstream.” TD Monthly 4.7 (2005). ToyDirectory.com. 2005. Web.
Lubow, Arthur. “Cult Figures.” The New York Times. 2004. Web.
Phoenix, Woodrow. Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered the World. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2006. Print.