By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
I hate rich people.
There's designer everything these days. From the obvious—clothing, shoes, handbags—to the not so obvious—kitchenware, cell phones, espresso machines, even cigarettes. Flipping through the pages of your dad's latest Sharper Image catalog (or the gadget-showcase pages of Details or GQ or something) these days seems to be the equivalent of perusing Neiman Marcus' bizarrely lavish Christmas catalog ($15,000 Swarovski-crystal-studded Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, anyone?). There's always something that manages to blow your mind, such as a $150,000 Steinway Lyngdorf Model D sound system or a $4,200 Prague Kolektiv chair (take that, Eames!), which only leaves you wondering who the hell is exorbitant/stupid enough to blow $4,200 on a single chair. (And are they single?)
You can now add "toys" to that not-so-obvious list of designer items—but going for prices that aren't nearly as steep.
The designer-toy trend arguably started in 1997, when Hong Kong artist Michael Lau customized some GI-Joe action figures into street-culture/hip-hop figures and put them on display at a toy show. He sparked a whole new movement in Asia that continues to this day. After the trend migrated to Japan, folks here in the Western Hemisphere started following suit.
Hybrid boutique/gallery stores like LA-based magazine/chain Giant Robot opened up in the late '90s and have become some of the leading designer-toy sources for the greater public. Since then, well-known artists like Lau have transformed into highly recognizable celebrity artists on the scene and beyond, even expanding into other territories such as electronics, clothing and accessories.
These designer toys come in three mediums—plastic, vinyl and plush, although vinyl is usually preferred because it allows for unique touches due to the material's high malleability (which can cause heat-induced cave-ins, if you're not careful). And like everything else that's designer, they're always limited edition and/or pricey (Giant Robot's toys range from $4 to $400). Collectors haul ass to accumulate them all, cursing all the while the very concept of blind assortment.
And hey, stop rolling your eyes at me.
I'm pretty certain you've seen these designer toys before. While more and more specialty businesses are popping up, such as Alpha Cult in Long Beach, the designer-toy movement is so popular now that even non-specialty shops such as Urban Outfitters and record stores such as Fingerprints carry them.
Some of the more popular lines include the Gorillaz figurines (so huge they're currently in their third edition), Tofu-Oyako by the Japan-based Devil Robots and DIY Dunny/Munny unpainted toys you customize yourself.
Even high-end fashion houses have gotten involved with the vinyl-toy craze, pushed by Visionaire. Within recent years, the group has released highly collectible figurines of all the top fashion designers—Karl Lagerfeld, Hedi Slimane, John Louis Dumas, Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana, Viktor & Rolf, Gucci, Vivenne Westwood, and more. Large-sized versions of these toys even made an appearance in Chanel store windows.
So like any other art medium, the subject matter ranges greatly, but the ones Iprefer depict something seriously cute with something seriously violent and/or vicious, like the IWG (Insurgents Wilderness Gruppo) series by STRANGEco and Rocket World, where wonky-eyed rhinos wielding AKs run rampant, otters carry spearguns, and boomerang-toting platypuses (platypusii? Jesus!) exist.
Sure, it might not be something you'll want to give your kid sister or nephew to play with, but neither is a glittery Mr. Potato Head—and you can tell people you collect art.