DALLAS – Toys have always been popular with children and collectors, but now there’s a new breed booming: handmade art toys. These subversive, provocative toys are no teddy bears, and they’re targeted at adults.
Companies such as Ugly Dolls, biggerKrissy and FUSE Industrial Design’s Furilla are major players in the budding market. Ugly Dolls are so sad looking you want to protect them; the biggerKrissy critters bristle with attitude and insane furriness; Furilla looks like a freak of nature with its gorilla-gone-wrong appearance.
Art toys are collectible and have been displayed in museums across the country – from the traveling Plushtastrophe exhibition that started at the Basil Hallward Gallery in Portland, Ore., to the Characters By Design show in July at Dallas’ Gray Matters Gallery.
What makes them collectible is their peculiar appeal, limited availability and affordability compared to other art forms. Toy company Kid Robot, for example, sells designer-made toys ranging from $5 to $400.
Andleed Dawood, director of administration, touts Kid Robot as the first retail company in the United States to sell a large assortment of collectible toys in one place.
Paul Budnitz founded the company as a Web site in 2002 after seeing the art toy movement explode in Hong Kong. Its first store opened in San Francisco in October 2002, the second in New York in September 2003. A third is planned for Los Angeles.
Budnitz doesn’t provide specific demographics about Kid Robot’s customers. Suffice it to say that grown-up enthusiasts with a sense of whimsy, or at least a longing for lost youth, are fueling the trend.
Katsu Tanaka, owner of Just Be Toys in Portland, says when the economy got rough, Nike president Mark Parker kept them afloat. “He’s one of the biggest toy collectors,” Tanaka says. “He has a museum that’s air-conditioned and dust-free” that was a bilevel addition to his home.
In the September/October issue of Juxtapoz magazine, Parker explains his interest: “There are real artists getting involved with toys who aren’t just characters from a Disney film. There’s a real convergence of the art world and the toy world.”
Another avid collector is Mike Richardson, president of the underground comic company Dark Horse, known for “Hellboy” and others. “My mother will tell you that I never threw anything out since I’ve been born,” Richardson says.
He displays his toys in his office, on shelves at home in his study and stored in “boxes and boxes and boxes.”
“Basically I’ve spent my adult life re-creating my childhood,” he says. “I look for toys that you can really see the original hand in the creator. I look for things that feel like they were made just to be there, not to fill up some manufacturer’s orders.”
His interest spilled over into Dark Horse six years ago with the creation of its toy division. Dark Horse makes vinyl and PVC characters such as Popeye, Flash Gordon and Hellboy. Most recently it has created a line called Tragic Toys For Girls and Boys, designed by quirky movie director Tim Burton.
Jason Cohen, who owned the former Forbidden Gallery and Emporium in Dallas and curated Characters By Design, declares himself a passionate and obsessive advocate. “I’ve been collecting for years, and I have a collection of found dolls – things that your grandma would make.”
His own contribution to Characters By Design, a carnival-size plush doll with an obscene name, was inspired by crocheted toys he’s collected from the 1970s.
The process for creating Cohen’s creatures starts in his sketchbook.
“First I’ll draw a sketch, a rendering of it, and then I’ll do a larger sketch on a piece of brown paper. And that becomes the pattern,” he says. He then picks out the fabric, lays out the pattern pieces, and his wife, Barbara, does the sewing.
He says sewing is attractive to artists wanting to make three-dimensional works because it’s easy. “You don’t have to know anything about sculpting or casting.”
Other players in the art toy movement have their own stories:
David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim were some of the first artists in the United States to jump in, designing hand-sewn off-kilter characters that come with cards stating their personalities and proclamations about how they want to be your friend.
The first Ugly Doll was born in 2001 when Kim sewed Wage, a character Horvath drew at the end of his letters.
When Eric Nakamura, publisher of Asian culture magazine Giant Robot, saw Ugly Dolls, he wanted to sell them through his publication’s stores. Kim made more than 1,500 by hand in a few months. They sold rapidly.
Ugly Dolls are now produced in Korea, but are handmade in limited quantities. They are sold at museums and have been exhibited around the world.
“I think people are pleasantly surprised by these international characters – that they don’t have a marketing plan pushed in your face,” Horvath says. “Maybe this will inspire other toymakers not to be afraid and to venture out.”
Krissy Harris was one of the casualties of the bursting tech bubble.
“I was working about 100 hours a week. I needed time off, but I didn’t have any hobbies,” Harris says. She tried knitting, hula dancing, making collages and belly dancing, but eventually settled on dolls.
In May 2002 she started sewing fluffy, organic-shaped dolls to fill the time, simply because she likes toys. After stocking her room with 50 biggerKrissy dolls, she began selling them at a shop called Hand Made in the San Fernando Valley and developed a Web site.
She never intended them for children. “My generation doesn’t really think of themselves as adults for the most part. We want to play,” the 34-year-old says.
Shawn Smith’s Shawnimals was the extension of an art school project he did in 2000. He was inspired by stuffed versions of Japanese cartoons so he started transferring his doodles into a 3-D plush form, eventually selling them on the Web and at stores.
“It just blossomed,” Smith says. “It’s been so fun to see something grow from a humble beginning.”
He says artists are drawn to making toys because of the craft involved and a touch of rebellion. “It comes from a fine art place, but it’s not about that at all. People are coming to the shows in ripped jeans and T-shirts. Maybe it’s not as rebellious as other things, but that’s a part of it.”
Tory Orzeck, an engineer for FUSE, created the Furilla doll in 2002 and entered it in a competition for the Industrial Designers Society of America as a lark. It won, even though, as Orzeck says, the character “looks like he’s been through a dog’s digestive system.”
FUSE began selling Furilla on the Web. A “cool spotter” for the beinghunted.com site touted the toy, and off sales went.
Orzeck figures the art doll boom is the offspring of the dot-com crash. “You have all these graphic designers in a weird point in time, always wanting to do something that’s different,” he says. “People are turned off by technology – they want old-school.”