Playtime at the Art Gallery: Why artists make art toys

by Jonathan Clark

Whether you know it or not, we are living in a world where fine art and toys overlap, where the borders between these two realms are porous and blurred.

Sometimes going by the name of designer toys or the much more obscure term urban vinyl, toys designed by artists and produced in limited runs is now a fixed feature in the art world landscape.

Famously, KAWS has developed interesting lines of toys since 1999. This makes a certain kind of sense, as in his previous life he went by Brian Donnelly and illustrated for Disney — yes, the Disney. But some came before and many others have since joined the fold.

There is now a cottage industry of indie toy makers creating lines of toys designed by artists. And what’s more, these items move off the shelves. While in 1990’s Japan, similar items would open to long lines at physical stores, today major artists will sell out their new toys in moments online.

It’s a situation not unlike the recent collaborations between hypebeast clothing lines and fine artists like Takashi Murakami (Murakami himself creates designer toys). Manufacturers of sneakers, t-shirts, and bags are more and more seeking out names from the fine art world to take their own spin on iconic lines.

But with toys, there is something that gets stuck in the craw of many art lovers. Toys aren’t serious enough, they might say. Toys are for children, meant to be bashed around. Others make a slightly more subtle argument. Toys are meant to do something, to serve a need for a child’s imagination, and so they can never be true works of art because they have a use value beyond their aesthetic presentation. In this way, toys are never allowed to escape that dreaded label craft.

Still others, those broad minded enough to entertain new interpretations of art or who themselves have been swept up in the buying craze, argue that toys are a perfectly justifiable medium, not so unlike sculpture. And because of all the added associations with the toy — childhood, manipulability, a porthole to imagined narratives for the user — maybe there is a lot that artists can and should do in this new field.

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So then, what are these artists making? Fancy toys? Artworks? Something in between? The answer might be both, or neither. And at the end of the day, it might not even matter. We don’t need to see the label of “art” as something that must be protected, reserved for only those things that are seen to edify us in the way that people with terminal degrees believe to be proper.

The Art Toy as a Collectible

 Are these limited runs of KAWS or Basquiat toys art? Some say yes, some stick their nose in the air as they emphatically say no.

In today’s world, many turn to the market to make the final call. And what the market for these hybrid objects says is a maybe.

What we see among buyers and sellers is that these objects are being treated as collectibles. Given their limited runs, resale has become a lucrative trade. People who purchased the blue BFF toy designed by KAWS for the original $285 asking price are now able to resell at almost five times their investment.

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That doesn’t necessarily tell us whether it’s art or a toy, but what it means is that people are expecting these items to hold and appreciate in value over time. They’ve at least become collectibles.

The popularity and expectation of future returns means that these are going to be around for a long time. With eager support of toy makers generated by sales trends, there will be plenty of opportunity for more artists to engage with the toy. But that crassly market-driven understanding of value is part of what makes many so uncomfortable with this new trend.

Pop art long ago trampled the line between commercialism and fine art, but we don’t have to default to a pop art explanation to understand a different side of this. When we think of toys, we imagine mass produced plastic targeted at children with sophisticated advertising campaigns, all toward the end goal of getting children to beg their long suffering parents until they give in and spend the $10 just to buy some peace and quiet.

But toys represent something else, something far more ancient and necessary. They represent a kind of magical tool to induce a state of play. And what exactly are artists doing when they create toys? What do these explorations in the form open up?

The Toy as Art Object

By introducing the approach of fine art to the object of the toy, we begin to see both worlds in a new light.

The toy is an odd kind of object when we examine it with fresh eyes. These are tools for play. They aren’t for games, because games have a definite end and fixed rules. We play games, but we also have free form play. In either realm, play has an interesting dichotomy at its heart: we know that it is meaningless and inconsequential but we take it seriously while we are engaged in it.

In a way, the seriousness is what makes play fun. Nothing breaks the spell and ruins the fun like somebody participating in play that does not take it seriously. When we do take it seriously, we create meaningful emotional experiences, learn new skills, develop our relationships with others, and gain insight into life.

The enjoyment of art is, in its own way, a form of play. It is inconsequential in the sense that it does not feed anyone, it does not keep rain out of our bed or keep a fire going. And yet, when we take it seriously, it serves a profound need — a need that makes all that struggle for food and water and a warm, dry place to rest our heads worth it.

The creation of art is also a kind of free form play. There is no set end goal, perhaps there is an outline or a vision, but nothing is fixed. The artist uses their intuition and imagination to realize the activity, not so unlike play.

By uniting these two worlds, we also enjoy a levity in the art space. The art world is many things, and pretentious is certainly one of its common pitfalls. Consider the hallowed ground of the art museum, the insistence that people stay behind lines and do not touch the art work, the hushed tones one speaks in at a gallery. There are good reasons for these rules, but they slowly build to a mistaken idea that to take art seriously we must not have fun.

But as play reminds us, fun is deeply tied to serious engagement.

These concepts can be explored with toys as art objects. And these go beyond any single new designer toy. They drive into the heart of what artists are exploring when they move into the relatively new waters of creating toys.

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Artists Working in Toys Today

We’ve explored the conceptual side of things, now let’s examine how artists are actually taking up the toy as a form.

This will help us see where this interesting combination has taken us already, and it might even point the way for areas that have yet to be explored.

We’ll examine four artists working in the United States, but keep an eye out for upcoming articles examining artists from other parts of the world who are taking the leap into toys.

KAWS

KAWS is today seen as the undisputed king of the designer toy world.

His “Companions” series began in 1999. Borrowing heavily from the imaginarium of his former employer Disney, these vinyl figures became massively successful. KAWS was one of the first artists outside of Japan to work in toys, and his first collaboration was with the Japanese retailer Bounty Hunter, where his Companions were sold.

In the decades since, KAWS has expanded his toy designs. When his toys became available through the Museum of Modern Art’s design store, demand crashed the website. And the artist routinely enjoys his latest toy runs selling out within seconds of going online.

What makes his work in the field so compelling are the subverted expectations of characters who seem to come out of the golden age of American animation. These characters display depression, guilt, and in some cases they even display their inner organs.

The sensibility, then, fully leans into the childhood associations with the toy, but they deliver emotional content with a more adult worldview.

But as for the controversy of art toys, there is perhaps no more explosive a figure to sit on the throne of the movement. KAWS has made many inroads with consumerist enterprises like clothing companies, and he is unapologetic on the subject.

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Tara McPherson

Tara McPherson is a multidisciplinary artist as well as an award winning creator of designer toys.

Her expansive oeuvre of toys have brought her in collaboration with some of the biggest brands in the genre, like: Kidrobot, Tomenosuke, Circus Posterus, and ToyQube. Her work has been celebrated for its strong point-of-view. Her Lilitu figure won Toy of the Year in 2012. It depicts Lilith from Sumerian mythology, a demon goddess figure. McPherson’s rendering of the character is dark, sensual, and genuinely terrifying.

She won an award for Best Licensed Toy in 2018, this time for her interpretation of Wonder Woman.

McPherson’s work runs the gamut of fantasy, from cutesy vampires to cheerful beasts. And while she is a prominent name in the world of designer toys, you can still find her work for less than $100.

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Ron English

Ron English’s self-styled popaganda merges the high and low with what seems like reckless abandon but is often more sophisticated and targeted than it lets on. That energy and mission carries through all of his work, including his designer toys.

More than any other major artist working in the field, he has taken to reinventing the cartoon characters from our Madison Avenue designed childhood. His Cereal Killers series reimagines children’s cereal mascots in three dimensions, complete with cereal box packaging. The full spectrum presentation creates an uncanny feeling of both returning to a childhood experience while also recognizing the grim reality of enormous corporations peddling sugar to kids.

English revels in the detournement of everything in our visual culture, and his toys are an extension of that greater drive. His work, more than most of the prominent toy designers, is a direct confrontation with the habits of consumerism that laid the foundation for the designer toy market in the first place: adult art collectors being drawn to the elements of childhood they are unwilling, or unable, to let go of.

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Tristan Eaton

Tristan Eaton is an artist with a strikingly broad list of accomplishments. He painted murals for a Universal Studios theme park, made posters for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, and he even designed the tickets for the Super Bowl in 2020. And yes, he also makes designer toys.

His work features returning characters, notably KidRobot, which he made with Paul Budnitz, as well as Dunny and Munny. Many of these characters are adorned in the same kind of hallucinatory mirage of pop images that make up many of his mural and poster designs.

Other Eaton figures are aggressive takes on the cartoonish. The proportions and features are disturbing, everything taken to the endpoints. This maximalist approach is all part of the charm.

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Whither the Art Toy?

These major artists working in art toys are navigating a world of questions. Is this art? Should we be celebrating it? Why are grown adults still buying toys? What does all this say about our culture?

What most of the major names have done so far is approach the field through a pop art lens. Whether they are criticizing consumerism or uncritically playing with its images, they rarely go beyond this one level.

Where the art toy goes next, no one can say. Maybe it will try for deeper questions, reach greater depths. All we do know is that there will be a long future ahead. Where it leads depends on how artists continue to play with the form.