Sales of art toys, also called designer toys or urban vinyl, are booming right now.
by Tina Manzer
In an era when nontraditional items – rare whiskey, for example – are being bought and sold for ever-increasing amounts, acquiring designer toys gives their collectors something to brag about.
Art toys are, in fact, a strange combination of sculpture and painting. The artists who create them constitute a small, independent and tight-knit global community, reports writer and researcher Shanti Escalante-De Mattei in ARTnews. Boutique factories produce the toys in a variety of materials and colorways in limited supply, and therein lies their appeal as a collectible.
Many of today’s designers began as art-toy collectors themselves, including Mark Nagata, an artist, illustrator, and founder of Max Toy Company (maxtoyco.com). According to ARTnews, Mark was a fan of Disneyland, comic books, and classic Japanese television shows and movies as a kid growing up in California. He started collecting vintage Japanese toys in the 1980s, and founded his toy company in 2005. Today he works with some of the same soft-vinyl toy factories that created his childhood favorites.
“When I say ‘factory,’ it’s usually one guy,” he told ARTnews. His Japanese monster characters, or kaiju, sell for $45 to $200.
Designer Candie Bolton has collected Hello Kitty merchandise since she was a child, so when she was approached to create a Hello Kitty art toy, she was thrilled. Art toy and Sanrio collectors have something in common, she believes. “They like the things that they liked from their childhood and they don’t want to let go of those things,” she told ARTnews.
The teen-aged Hello Kitty figure she created became a limited-edition released by Kidrobot, the premier creator and dealer of designer art toys. A 20-inch version available on kidrobot.com sells for $500. Candie’s own art-toy creations cost between $90 and $400. They sell out quickly.
In the last five years, former street artist KAWS (Brian Donnelly) took art toys to a whole new level. “His zombified Mickey-Mouse-esque figures are enticing fare for the millennial art collector,” notes ARTnews, “but the ability to mass produce his pieces blurs the line between art and toy.”
In 2017, the demand for KAWS toys famously crashed the MoMA Design Store website, after the museum promoted his “Companion” action figures it was selling for $200 each. Since then, Kaws has released several limited-edition lines of Companion, including a 4-foot-tall version that sells for tens of thousands of dollars. Other KAWS art sells for millions.
So while some in the independent art-toy world are chasing high-rolling collectors with KAWs-like characters, others continue to create their own toys inspired by a variety of genres, ranging from Japanese “Godzilla” films to 1990’s cartoons.
Play Creates Delight in Life at Every Age
What Mardie Rhodes, an artist and museum docent, began as “just an art gallery, a Barbie’s art gallery,” turned into “Barbieville,” a community with characters and creations beyond anything sold in stores, reports NBC affiliate KING-TV in Seattle. It has a dog park, a community kitchen, and two art galleries (one is Asian art only) with superhero security.
“I started to think about what it would be like to create a whole Barbie world, and then the pandemic hit,” she explained.
Mardie received her first doll when she was 9. Today her collection includes more than 60. Based on Barbieville’s most recent census, there are 38 MTM Barbies, five retirees, six GI Joes, 14 Kens and four unisex Creatible World dolls. She’s created a story for each one. Joey the social worker has poor taste in men. Yuri the museum director is pompous, especially when he’s mansplaining art to a Frido Kahlo docent Barbie. Rosa Parks is there, too. She’s a time-travelling lady who loves to incorporate roses into her fashions.
“We are female-led, gender fluid, where all are welcomed. Except fascists,” Mardie explains. “That’s in our mission statement.
“When someone new arrives, we give them a cupcake and an optional makeover,” she explains during an 18-minute Barbieville tour, available on her website, laughingmamastudio.com. She thinks it should be the global immigration policy and hopes the U.S. congress will consider it.
She considers Barbie the ultimate feminist role model. After all, she’s run for president seven times, and has had more than 200 careers, ranging from astronaut to ballerina. “She sends a message you can be whatever you want to be.”
During significant moments in Mardie’s life, Barbie was there for her. “Sure, she spent a decade or so wrapped in tissue paper in my mother’s sewing room closet, but she would not be ignored,” says Mardie. “Like so many women I know from the early 1960s, she threw off her tissue of oppression and came out of the closet. For me, her lessons are right there in black and white, or in Barbie’s case bright pink.”
When her two sons were little, Mardie would play with them and their plastic action figure toys. “They were attractive enough but had two definite shortcomings: you couldn’t change their clothes and they had no accessories (except Batman),” she wrote. One day, she incorporated her old Barbies into their play. They didn’t have capes or cool weapons, “but they could pass as superheroes once Zak fashioned helmets from playdough.”
A docent at the Bellevue Art Museum, Mardie found play again during the abundance of free time caused by the pandemic. “As a retiree, I started reading about staying active and healthy. And one of the things that hasn’t been documented much is the importance of a sense of play. You know we’re told how to eat, how to exercise, how to see the doctor, but not how to have joy and delight in one’s life.”
I think she’s found a way.