Anyone who recalls childhood toys as innocent playthings is likely misremembering. Figurines, cutesy or otherwise, are often just avatars for exploring the world, both its good and bad bits. I used to remove my stuffed animals' appendices (white batting everywhere) in an effort to save their disease-addled lives. And I know people who twisted their Kens and Barbies into compromising positions (fine, that was me, too), well before any ideas of sex were fully concretized.
It's with this spirit – that toys convey a complex, often adult, set of ideas – that the Design Exchange, a.k.a. DX, Canada's national design museum, has launched its latest show. Provocatively titled This Is Not A Toy, and co-curated by Pharrell Williams – one of the world's most influential tastemakers in music, fashion and everything, really – the exhibit is a vibrant, often funny, sometimes grotesque, slightly sadistic (one doll is covered in little needles) survey of limited-edition art toys by innovative, small-batch designers.
In many ways, the popularity of these toys – often called urban vinyl, as a nod to where they come from and what they're made of – is a trend that has been percolating underground for much of the last two decades. The aesthetic, a mash-up of mass media (Mickey Mouse is a mainstay) and various subgenres (manga, hip hop, graffiti), originated in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, then gradually spread. Passionate collectors – some actual kids, sure, but mainly 20- and 30-somethings – pay anywhere from $10 to many thousands for their favourite figurines. "I'm about to turn 41," says collector Williams, "but I still look at the world as though I was 21."
The fact that the record producer, who collaborated on the show with the DX's ambitious new director, Shauna Levy, is giving the movement his blessing likely means that the trend, like everything else he endorses, is about to blow up.
The Toronto show is a sheer joy to walk through. Where else would it be is it possible to see something like the L.A.-based art collective FriendWithYou's Rainbow Vortex, a room-sized, explosively colourful, rotating beach ball with a giant, almost menacingly cute, smiling face? Or a Chanel-clad, mouse-eared lady on loan from Jeanne Beker?
It also represents a pivotal moment for the Design Exchange, and for Levy. When she was appointed DX president in March, 2012 – after 15 years running the Interior Design Show – she was given the mandate to broaden the institution's appeal from esoteric (one of the last shows before she took over was dedicated to something called the Universal Pin Connector) to populist. This Is Not A Toy does exactly that, appealing to fervent fans, as well as to anyone who just really likes sculpture, graphics and colourful design. As Chris Tsang, a Toronto-based collector with more 300 pieces, who also runs a vinyl-toy store called Mindzai, explains, "The pieces are like art, but more accessible. They are more affordable. And often times you can hold them in your hands."
But however adorable and engaging the show may be, it is also a risk for Levy. Although she has brought a couple populist shows to the DX in the last year – most notably a 20-year retrospective of shoe designer Christian Louboutin, featuring a fetish room co-produced by David Lynch – this is the first exhibit she has built herself, from the ground up.
The idea was a suggestion from a friend, Toronto hotelier John Wee Tom, a toy collector who helped curate the show. But bringing Williams on board was Levy's stroke of genius. He's a friend of a friend, and has a toy collection himself. "He said 'Yes' instantly," Levy explained nonchalantly earlier this week.
Williams, who is technically a first-time curator, but whose whole career as an entertainer can be seen as a master class in impeccable taste, isn't just lending his moniker to help build buzz. Many of This Is Not A Toy's artists are friends and collaborators he wants to promote. FriendsWithYou, for example, once decked out a Rolls-Royce for one of his music videos, Hot-n-Fun. And one of the most astounding pieces in the exhibit, called, semi-ironically, The Simple Things, was co-created by Williams and renowned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. It's a massive monster's head with a snaggle-toothed open mouth filled with nods to Williams's favourite pleasures: a can of Pepsi, a bag of Doritos, a condom, a cupcake – all bedazzled in rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds.
Simply put, he was instrumental in making the show happen. He helped make invaluable introductions between Levy and important collectors and crafters. He also let Levy, Tom and DX Associate Curator Sara Nickleson walk through his Los Angeles home, picking out the pieces they wanted for the show. (There are five on display from his collection.) A metre-high statue called Milo on the Rocking Horse, by Japanese fashion company Bape, is straight out of Williams's family room. A painting of Smurfs and another of SpongeBob, both by New York artist Kaws, are from his hallways.
Still, Williams is modest about his toy acumen. "I'm not an expert. My education is remedial," he tells me, via a cold-rasped voice, over the phone from Britain. He was introduced to designer toys through Nigo, the DJ and fashion designer who founded Bape and who has collaborated on William's Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream clothing lines. He started his own collection simply because he found pieces that "speak to me."
But he also sees his toys as more than just objects, and his responsibility to the genre as much more than just buying up valuables. He thinks about it all poetically, maybe a bit altruistically. "I don't look at things and think 'I have to have it,'" he says. "The most important thing is the experience. I've been lucky enough to participate, to learn … from people like Murakami."
For the DX expo, he hopes to communicate the sense of happiness the toys instill in him. "People only leave childhood behind because they chose to," he says. "This show is like a reset button."