Maybe you've noticed that Strawberry Shortcake is back--only this time she's on tiny T-shirts worn by adults instead of on TV. The trappings of Reagan-era childhood are being embraced all over again by consumers between the ages of 18 and 49 who, according to Nielsen Media Research, watch more Cartoon Network than CNN. These grown-up kids are not only looking back to the Saturday-morning icons of their youth. They're also playing Grand Theft Auto 3, reading graphic novels, and getting friendly with a new breed of toy made just for them: designer creations such as Furilla, a monocular, furry creature who comes bizarrely packaged in a FoodSaver vacuum-sealed bag. Exceptionally bendy, Furilla's designed to be manipulated into a variety of poses. But most designer toys aren't made to be played with. They're better loved on display, on the workstations or bookshelves of people who feel better about buying toys when they're called collectibles, or art.
"Our parents grew up watching cartoons, but they stopped. We grew up watching cartoons and we never quit," says Whitney Kerr, the 30-year-old co-owner of Rotofugi, a new West Town store and gallery that specializes in toys like Furilla. "I think a lot of it is that for people my age, everything after childhood is just so serious. Everything from the time you're in junior high is going to affect your college transcript; everything you do in college is going to affect your life. It's like we're refusing to give up the joy of toys we had as kids."
So you won't find any Gameboys or Spider-Man figures at Rotofugi, which Whitney runs with her 32-year-old husband, Kirby. The cheapest thrills in the store are the Los Locos minifigures by Frank Kozik, a well-known rock-poster artist, which cost a dollar apiece. At the other end of the spectrum are the Brothersworkers--a series of 12-inch action figures made by the Hong Kong-based designers Brothersfree that tops out at $222 for Baby, a welder and part-time bartender (and one of a limited edition of 400). Their painstaking detail partially justifies the price: the teensy clasps on the war correspondent's camera bag actually work, and her one-inch spare zoom lenses connect to her 3/8-inch-long camera.
In the $10-$60 range you get other "urban vinyl" toys like Titus, a brown bear with a serious underbite, one endearing fang, and a sniper rifle, who stands sentry on a shelf not far from a posse of James Jarvis's In-Crowd characters, affable-looking punk rockers with eggplant-shaped heads. Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware's forlorn antihero, stands alone. Scary Girl's there too, her smile a stitched gash, her right hand replaced by a hook, her left eye sporting a patch.
Toward the back of the store, a sort of sub-toy movement, plush art, is represented by a family of characters created by local artist Spasmodica (aka Grace Montemar), who writes quirky bios for each. For example, Fofolokkins, a pale blue rectangular figure with stubby legs and a small patch of green hair, "always brings you cigarettes and hamburgers when you're broke. You can trust Fofolokkins with your spare key. Be nice and tell her that you like her hair color, even if it isn't true."
The Kerrs funded Rotofugi with money from the sale of their three-bedroom house in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they lived for two years before returning to Chicago this spring (they also lived here from the late 90s till mid-2002). While working as art director for the Little Rock Monthly, Kirby was turned on to kidrobot.com, the biggest Web retailer of designer toys (now with stores in San Francisco and New York), by a coworker. Already fans of toys and kitschy collectibles--their Bronzeville loft is occupied by several other collections, including more than 30 snow globes, a dozen vintage lunchboxes, around 70 vintage cameras, and two "very prized" crazy-eyed donkeys--the Kerrs were soon hooked on urban vinyl.
Many urban vinyl artists are based in Asia, including Michael Lau, a Hong Kong designer who spurred the movement with his series of modified G.I. Joes decked out in hip-hop garb. American underground figures such as Kozik, comic artist Jim Woodring, and graffiti artist Dalek are also working in the medium of molded soft vinyl. The toys can be manufactured relatively inexpensively in small batches via a process called rotocasting, in which the inside of a spinning mold is coated with molten plastic. (The same technique is used to make hollow chocolate Easter bunnies.) The Kerrs' store's name combines roto, for rotocasting, with the name of one of their two dogs.
The Kerrs had amassed a modest collection of designer toys when Kirby got a job offer in Chicago--he's now a photo retoucher at Giannini Creative Imaging. He and Whitney were surprised to find a dearth of designer toys here. There were only "a few local retailers that had two or three pieces," Kirby says. "We just didn't find anyplace to buy the kind of stuff we wanted to buy."
"I honestly believe--and we've been told this by at least a dozen people already--we needed this store here," Whitney says. The Kerrs had been batting around small-business ideas for four years, but until they sold their house they never had the capital. They decided this was the one.
Rotofugi had a whirlwind gestation period: the Kerrs came up with the idea for the store in early April and opened on July 3. While tracking down vendors in mid-May, they came across a related opportunity. Eddi Yip, owner of adFunture, a Shanghai-based producer of designer toys, responded to an inquiry e-mail from the Kerrs regarding his products. Yip asked if they might be interested in hosting his "Monkey Show," a traveling exhibition of customized Fling figures, which look like monkeys crossbred with robots. "The Monkey Show" has so far hit Hong Kong, Paris, and the San Diego Comicon convention.
The Kerrs said yes and asked if they could design their own Fling. Yip said sure--if they could come up with the design in 24 hours, which would allow time for it to be manufactured and shipped for the show. The Rotofugi Fling, made in a limited edition of 150, is pale blue, wears an eye patch, and has Abe Lincoln's face (also wearing an eye patch) on its belly. "[Lincoln's face] is the one symbol of Illinois that's everywhere, and I wanted to do something Illinois-based to kind of commemorate that we're the first store in Chicago and even in the midwest to do this kind of stuff," Kirby says.
Kirby estimates there are 10 to 15 stores like his in the United States so far (mostly in San Francisco and New York). Like many collectibles, designer toys are easy enough to find on eBay. (In their rush to acquire inventory for Rotofugi's opening, even the Kerrs resorted to buying a case through the site--of which toy they won't say.) But the couple don't believe designer toys will go the way of the Beanie Baby. They're a burgeoning artistic movement, says Kirby, in which art meets mass production on an affordable scale. "I mean, you can argue that $95 for a toy is not affordable," he says, "but you know you're buying a limited edition, one of a couple hundred or maybe a thousand at most, that's not going to be made again, that's made by an artist who has a body of work. In that way it's not much different from buying a screen print, or a limited edition print of a photograph. It's just a different medium."
Not surprisingly, urban vinyl isn't very popular with children. "One time a family came in here from Kansas City," says Whitney. "It was weird. The kids were kind of not interested, and the dad just bought a ton. And then there's this one group of neighborhood girls--they're like eight or nine--who come in all the time just to laugh at how expensive everything is."
"The Monkey Show: A Collection of Customized Fling the Monkeys" opens on July 30 with a reception at 7 PM. The show runs till August 29. Rotofugi Flings will be on sale during the show for $59 each. Rotofugi is at 1953 W. Chicago, 312-491-9501.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.