Vinyl Fantasy

A showcase of designer toys

By Pedro Mendes | Photographs by Steve Carty
May 11, 2005
Gloomy Bear and Halfsies. Gloomy Bear: Mori Chack, Japan (2004); Halfsies: Roman Dirge, USA (2005).

Gloomy Bear and Halfsies. Gloomy Bear: Mori Chack, Japan (2004); Halfsies: Roman Dirge, USA (2005).

At first, they inspire awww; upon closer inspection, however, these bright, seemingly innocuous toys reveal a more subversive slant. Some are devious; some are diabolical; some are flat-out bizarre; every one is a work of art. Welcome to the world of “designer toys.”

Whereas traditional action figures are manufactured by toy companies as tie-ins with blockbuster movies or TV shows, designer toys are created by bona fide artists who see the action figure as an exciting new medium of expression. Designer toys first appeared in Asian art galleries and toy stores in the late 1990s. Initially, they were referred to as “urban vinyl,” a reference to the material they were constructed from (injection-moulded vinyl) and the fact that early figures were often anonymous city dwellers. As the concept migrated to Europe and North America, designs became more eclectic, drawing on pop culture, graffiti and visual art for inspiration.

Designer toys like Gloomy Bear (pictured), created by Japan’s Mori Chack, are both cute and scary. Maybe that’s because in Japanese, the words “cute” (kawaii) and “scary” (kowai) are only a vowel apart.

Most designer toys tend to have a very limited production run, because independent artists don’t have the financial resources of the big toy manufacturers. A small run ensures the toy’s rarity and prestige. It also contributes to an inflated price tag: a single figure can command anywhere from $50 to upwards of $500.

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