Designer toys find home in Chicago

By Brianna Wellen

Forces of good and evil reside in countries like Hot Dog Kingdom and Pantsylvania, guarded by the protectors in Ninja Town. In another world, furry six-legged creatures, known as FluffyYukYuks, chomp through everything they can get their teeth on, with loyal FluffyBooBoos and FluffyBadBads by their sides. With scenes and storylines derived from the imaginations of artists, the fictitious characters enter the world in the form of vinyl and plush toys.

The toy designing culture came to Chicago in the early 2000s, according to Kirby Kerr, owner of Rotofugi Designer Toy Store and Gallery, 2780 N. Lincoln Ave., and the community has flourished since. This year, more local toy designers are represented at national events and collaborating with artists and designers from around the world, putting a spotlight on Chicago. As more toy designers emerge from the city, so do galleries associated with them to highlight the art behind the characters and stories.

Recognized alongside a specific movement of illustrative and modern pop art, designer toys are not played with but enjoyed for their aesthetic appeal. While the movement has Japanese influences, the characters differ in origin.

According to local designer and creator of Shawnimals, Shawn Smith, in Japan, the designer toys are often mascots based on a product, company or movie, while their American counterparts are creating characters from scratch.

“The things we sell are generally designed by artists and independent toy companies, and the idea is they’re the vision of an artist and not so much a licensed character or something from a movie,” Kerr said. “The idea of having a story behind it, creating the character first and creating a story after the fact is the exact opposite of how most toys work. Most toys are the result of a story, not the impetus of the story. I find that a very interesting twist on where this whole little genre goes.”

The style of designer toys is often simple, starting with rounded edges and bright colors. It’s in the artistic details and narrative that the personality of each character comes to life. Smith’s new designs are essentially stuffed animals shaped like moustaches with eyes attached. They were created to populate the fictitious Moustachio Territory, which, according to Smith, has a ground made of shag carpet and constant funk soundtrack. But the design process wasn’t as simple as it may seem, he said.

“Everyone has to bring 25 moustache ideas to the table,” Smith said. “We leave with 200 different moustache possibilities, and all of a sudden we have to whittle these down to the top 25. There are ridiculous meetings about why this moustache is better than the next and how it would be a better character and what other characters are its friends [and] does it have enemies?”

Narrative aside, the toys are meant to be viewed as art, Kerr said. Rotofugi started showcasing the drawings and paintings of designers in a gallery adjoining their store. While the art isn’t always directly related to toys, there is a lot of crossover in style, and the worlds are very comparable, according to Kerr.

The designers of the OhNo!Doom art collective, 1800 N. Milwaukee Ave., took the ideas they use in their illustration and character-based art and translated that into toy making. According to Jordan Owen, co-founder of the collective, the original concept of OhNo!Doom was to act as a place artists could come to pass around ideas and express themselves creatively. From there, it evolved into a studio and gallery space, where artists began showcasing toys and other work.

Those toys derive from artwork,” Owen said. “That’s how they happen, they’re forms of art. We love toys from the get go as kids, until now, it’s just this undying love. Being designers and artists, finding this whole niche industry of that type of toy as a form of expression, we really connected with that.”

When Owen and his OhNo!Doom team began making toys, there wasn’t really a precedent for the genre, so they had no one to turn for advice on how to construct their creatures. After creating the concept behind FluffyFriends—plush toy monsters whose teeth actually chomp—Owen had to try his methods to bring his creatures to life.

“How do you make a toy? That was a really basic problem we had a long time ago, and it takes a lot of time,” said Andrew Thompson, another OhNo!Doom co-founder. “We’ve gone through a lot of trial and error and roadblocks, but you learn from it, and now [Owen has] 10 ways he knows how to make it.”

Plush is a fairly new concept for toys regarded as art, Kerr said. Designer toys originated as vinyl objects, more as collector’s items, costing anywhere from $50 into the thousands. Now with plush, a subgenre was created reverting the toys back to something one can actually play with and is slightly more affordable while keeping with the Eastern style the toys originated from.

Another popular subgenre heralding back to Japanese influence called Neo Kaiju, or new strange beast, prompts artists to create Godzilla-like monsters not necessarily from a movie or based on an existing character. When the earthquake hit Japan on March 11, Rotofugi sold these toys in an effort to raise their own relief funds for the Red Cross.

“Over the years, [we’ve] gotten to know a lot of Japanese artists and Japanese toy companies,” Kerr said. “So when that happened, we thought it was one small thing we could do to raise a little money.”

In the past, artists and designers connected with fans through the Internet, but this year, Shawnimals and OhNo!Doom had booths at Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo and have plans to attend various Comic-Cons across the country. Smith and Owen agree that being able to physically interact with people and tell them about the stories behind the toys helps fans connect to the artistic value on another level.

Keeping in step with the 21st century, many of these characters are branded in technology. Smith’s Ninja characters are the subject of Nintendo DS and iPhone games “Ninjatown” and “Trees of Doom.”

According to Smith, it all aids the cause of drawing people into the art form.

“I really love when I see people who are just finding out about it,” Smith said. “Some just enjoy it visually, and then there [are] the people who like it initially but are also very curious about what’s going on here. Whether they buy something or not sort of doesn’t matter as much. We see the level of enthusiasm, and we have a fan [who] is getting into the world and digging deeper.”