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Old Windup Trains
by James Pekarek

This book is an introduction to collecting and operating vintage O gauge windup trains. It highlights windup locomotives from a variety of eras, as well as discusses rolling stock, track and operation. Great for beginner or seasoned toy train collectors.
                                   
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The Exotic New World of Designer Toys
by Bob Brooke

 


Chances are you’ve never heard of designer toys. Ask around, you probably won’t find anyone else who has heard of them, either. But they’re out there waiting to be collected. As one of the newest collectibles, designer toys are on the cutting edge. Collectors comprise a very knowledgeable in-crowd of all ages who frequent “DCONs”—designer conferences—that are popping up all over the country. Like their sister conferences—the more well known “COMICONs,” made popular through the hit T.V. show “Big Bang Theory,” they attract an eclectic group of collectors looking for anything new and different.

And designer toys are certainly different.

What are Designer Toys?
Designer toys are a modern art form more or less based on manufactured forms, but not necessarily. And just like any definition of art, the answer lies very much in the spirit of "art is in the eye of the beholder.” And while the term designer toys primarily covers original artist creations, it doesn't necessarily exclude licensed properties. So while the world of designer toys may be a bit complicated to understand, the common thread throughout is an emphasis on the artist or designer behind the "toy," whether it’s a one-of-a-kind or a manufactured series.

Designer toys have become known by many names
art toys, toy art, urban toys, urban vinyl, vinyl toys, and designer plush, to name a few. These are artistic toys. For artist Heath Duntz of St. John, Kansas, they’re more art than toys. Just like any painter or sculptor, Duntz takes great pride in his work and his craftsmanship. And so do fellow artists Richard Strohmeyer, of St. Paul, Minnesota, Marshall Ballantyne of Englewood, Colorado, and Alexis Rivera of Philadelphia, who like Duntz, spend long hours perfecting their creations.

The term “vinyl toys” specifically links back to the birth of the art form in 1995 with Michael Lau's Gardener figures. The fine art world dubbed this new form “toy art” to describe a new art form with which many collectors were unfamiliar.

The culture which fostered collecting designer toys began with the Star Wars action figures. But George Lucas and toy manufacturer Kenner made this into a multi-million dollar mass-production business. Young artists realized his success and wanted to do something of their own. In George Lucas’ Star Wars universe, each character had a name, a story, and a marketed toy. Whether you’re a Star Wars fan or not, these marketing techniques influenced the way people think about collecting these little plastic toys today.



Though mainstream Star Wars figures aren’t considered art, they are mass-produced licensed properties. Designer toys, however, don’t necessarily refer to licensed properties because the toys, themselves, aren’t the original creation of an artist. And while someone did create the Star Wars figures, that designer became just another part of the process. In designer toys, the artist is the most important part of the process.

A wide assortment of objects can fall under the designer toy umbrella. Basically, a designer toy is any toy that’s sold based on the name and direct authorship of the artist.

Designer toys are almost always limited. Sometimes they’re a single, hand-painted piece, sold in a gallery or auction. This piece, which an artist treated like a blank canvas and crafted something new upon it, is known as a custom. Usually, a custom piece is one-of-a-kind and can even be used as the blueprint for a more widely released figure.

Also included under the designer toy umbrella are some small-run toys. Often artists craft these of resin, produce only a set number, and sometimes sign them. They make them by hand with a high attention to detail. Also, some mass-produced ones can be considered designer toys and are usually made from vinyl. Intended for display rather than play, they’re fairly affordable, and though they’re usually limited, they have a higher number of items produced compared to other designer toys. What keeps these toys in the realm of art is still the artist, who’s still the central voice in the design.

With designer toys, it's all about the artist's vision and what they can create within the constraints of the material. Artists use a variety of materials, such as ABS plastic, vinyl, wood, metal, latex, and resin. Some designer toys are plush toys. Creators often have backgrounds in graphic design, illustration or self-described low brow art while some have classical art and design training. Others are self-taught.

Custom Designer Toys
A custom designer toy is a readymade. In this case, an artist takes an ordinary found object and alters it to present it as a work of art. In the case of designer toys, readymades are known as “platforms”—a basic manufactured form to which they can add ornamentation or sculpt into something original.

Custom toys come in two varieties—an existing toy which is customized to become something new and a basic, and a blank, do-it-yourself platform used as a canvas to create a new work of art.



The process is quite simple. An artist, such as MP Gautheron of Lyon, France, takes an existing toy and modifies it to make it their own. Much like a stretched canvas provides a platform for a painter, the platform toy provides the blank canvas for the toy artist. The process of customizing an existing toy can include painting the figure, adding sculptural elements, or taking away parts to alter its appearance.

Two of the more popular platforms to customize are the Dunny series and a variation of the Dunny known as the Munny.

The Dunny Series
One of the most prominent platforms is the Dunny series, vinyl toy figures created by Paul Budnitz and Tristan Eaton and produced by the American company Kidrobot in 2004. These cute little figures resemble anthropomorphized rabbits with distinctive tubular ears—a design originally illustrated by graffiti, stencil, and comic artists—which come in 3-, 8-, and 20-inch sizes, although artists have customized Dunny models as tall as four feet. The toy has three points of articulation—a 360-degree rotational head and two arms. It’s name comes from a combination of street slang and one of the early "Devil Bunny" prototypes.

A variation of the Dunny figure is the Munny, vinyl figures with movable joints produced by Kidrobot, which resembles a monkey, and is only sold as an unpainted do-it-yourself figure. It’s chubby, humanoid blank shape provides artists with endless options and variations, using pens, pencils, markers, or paint. Alternatively, some people commission artists to design Munnys for them, or artists design them to sell. The original Munny is white, stands 7 inches tall, and weighs about 1 pound while a micro Munny stands 2 inches tall and a mega munny at 18 inches.

However, Kidrobot’s Dunny and Munny aren’t the only platform toys out there. The now defunct HuckGee’s The Blank is another widely popular form.

Other Forms of Customizing
Another form of customizing is “kitbashing,” a technique used by model railroaders to create buildings from pieces that come from different model kits. In this case, some designer toy artists use pieces from model kits to produce art toys.

Still another is a “mashup,” which combines two characters, two genres, or two opposites, paroding popular culture. Artist Jeremy Bourquin uses this technique. Taking two Star Wars figures, Hans Solo and the Tauntaun, and combining them to produce a new form, the Hantaun.

And yet another is the “x-ray, where an artist cuts into a platform toy, such as a Ronald McDonald and shows its workings inside. Artist Heath Duntz often uses old clock and watch gears and parts but others show part of the toy's skeleton.

Though custom toys are usually one-of-a-kind, an artist may create multiples by handcrafting the same design in a series, making minor alterations to each piece, sometimes as simple as changing its color.


Resin toys

Some artists create their toys using synthetic resin material and resin casting. After casting, the resin toy receives adjustments in its details, sometimes being superficially cast on some parts. The toy can be finished using aerosol automotive paint and sometimes receives a varnished layer over the paint layer.



Resin casting allows artists to produce toys in small numbers. Most vinyl factories will only produce toys in large series. Resin toys have become a way for up-and-coming artists to produce a toy without the large financial investment required to produce a vinyl toy. Unlike most vinyl toys, resin toys are usually sculpted, cast, and painted by a single artist. Sometimes, a commercial company like Kidrobot will make a deal with an artist to produce his or her toy in vinyl for the mass market.

Designer Plush
A subcategory of designer toys is Designer Plush, consisting of soft, stuffed dolls created in limited quantities by artists and designers. Common designs include anthropomorphized animals or fantastic human likenesses, although designer plush dolls often feature entirely unique character designs. Designer plush dolls are usually given names and personas, with their distinctive personalities described on their tags or in booklets included in their packaging.

Blind Boxes
The McDonald’s Happy Meal has always has always been a way for kids to get a toy. The excitement on kids’ faces in the anticipation of getting the toys they want is much like that on adult collectors’ faces as they anticipate getting the small designer toy they want from a “blind box.” And if collectors don’t get the toy they desire, they know they can try again and again until they do. Many collectors buy an entire set of blind boxes, usually 12, that possibly contain the toy they want. The set can cost several hundred dollars. Then they sell the pieces from the set that are duplicates of what they already have. The mystery, the anticipation, the joy, and even the disappointment are all part of what makes collecting blind boxes so exciting—and so popular.

Blind boxing is a popular way of selling small designer toys. Blind packaging has been around for some time. But not all the toys in a particular box of blind boxes have the same rarity. Those that are less available than others in the set are known as “chase” figures. Often an unnamed silhouette represents a chase figure’s design. Plus, the chase figure may not even be in a particular set.

A good example of a blind box series are Kidrobot’s series of Dunnys such as "The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror." The boxes are all exactly the same, so collectors have no idea what’s inside.

With designer toys, there’s a close relationship between the artist and the collector, unlike collecting regular art in which the collector purchases works of art but normally doesn’t have a personal relationship with the artist. And just as in the realm of collecting baseball or other cards, trading and reselling are all part of the community feature of the designer toy world.


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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

Book: How to Recognizing and Refinishing Antiques for Pleasure and Profit
Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

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