Designer toys… Collectable Figurines… Or a new genre of Art entirely? We take a look at Singapore based, designer toy vendor “Mighty Jaxx”, as well as speak to prolific artists “Whatshisname” and “Jason Freeny” for their take on the emerging market.
Based in Singapore, Mighty Jaxx is an award winning design studio specialising in developing art collectibles and designer toys. Since their inception in 2012, they have gone onto produce over a thousand designs from over 60 artists from around the world. Their results speak for themselves as they have at present, delivered hundreds of thousands of products to collectors across the globe. Multiple times each year, they partner with artists world wide to release limited edition versions of the respective artists most popular pieces, each limited run is exclusive to Might Jaxx, ranging from 25 pieces to 100.
“We also worked with international brands such as DC Comics, Cartoon Network, MTV, New Balance and more, to develop unique projects and worlds that our creations live in.“From the website
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The question is, “How did this relatively niche market come to garner enough interest to warrant its own (multiple) art fairs around the world and a cult following?”. With the surge in popularity towards street culture and its various sectors, the one that has shown the most amount of fan interest (aside from clothing) has certainly been the designer toy market. While designer toys and collectable artist figures have long been a staple in Japanese sub culture, leading this market was Be@rbrick, the collectable toy line produced by Japanese company MediCom Toy Incorporated in early 2001, where its first figure was released as a free gift to visitors of the World Character Convention 12 in Tokyo. Since then Be@rbricks have been released in several different sizes using a variety of materials, including wood, felt, and glow-in-the-dark plastic.
This fascination in designer toys however, did not reach mainstream western audiences until the early 2010’s, thanks in no small part to Be@rbrick, however it is still in in its infancy in terms of wide spread appeal and adoption in terms of serious Art collectors incorporating artist toys into their collections. As it stands, Japan and South Korea are still the hot beds for this art genre, but traction is building within the western world, thanks to dedicated stores like Mighty Jaxx, MyPlasticHeart and others.
Proof of is this can be seen at many of the street culture fairs and “Cons” around the world. Once such example is the newly formed art fair “Culture Cartel” held every year in Singapore since its inception in 2018, and this is where Mighty Jaxx had their own both in the centre of the convention, along with limited edition versions of toys made specifically for this convention. It could be argued that this injection of designer toys inside a street culture convention could help to bring a bigger audience to this relatively small market. At the 2018 Culture Cartel convention, the main panel of speakers was focussed on the designer toys and had none other than Whatshisname as a guest panelist.
In 2018, Whatshisname and Jason Freeny teamed up to combine their respective, iconic pieces into one limited edition work, the result was the Dissected POPek (Red Edition), Quickly selling out in days, the two artists once again united in 2020 to release a new variation of their previously sold out work with the “Dissected POPek (Yellow Edition) (Note: this item is now sold out). Check out the below video from Mighty Jaxx themselves as they perform their own Mighty Unboxx-ing of this limited edition piece.
It is here that it would seem appropriate to get the opinion of a couple of artists who are actively working in this genre and get a sense of what they see the future is for the designer toy market, Enzpired spoke to two such artists who often collaborate with Might Jaxx, Creator of the POPek series, Whatshisname (works can be seen here) and Smartbomb & XXRay creator, Jason Freeny (works can be seen here).
The Artists Opinion: (Whatshisname & Jason Freeny)
Enzpired: Who/what do you attribute the recent surge in the popularity of designer toys? Has the art world officially recognised designer toys as a legitimate contribution to the medium?
Whatshisname: I think the surge in the popularity of designer toys can mostly be attributed to social media which makes it very easy for toy collectors to connect with other collectors as well as designers. On top of that, popular media is also getting involved which fuels popularity even more. We saw a similar effect happening with comic books over the past 20 years ago or so.
Previously graphic novels and superheroes were reserved only for geeks, for example, the first-ever Comic-con in San Diego brought only 300 people and the recent one brought over 130,000. I think that designer toy fans can easily find out likeminded people. They are no longer limited to their local community but have a worldwide reach at the tips of their fingers ie. smartphones. The fine art and gallery scene also plays a part, although they don’t exactly overlap. We can see a surge in designer boutiques selling unique creations which are not available in other shops or art galleries. It is a market that fits in-between the two.
Jason Freeny: I don’t necessarily see a surge, but maybe that’s because I try to remove myself a bit from the hustle and just sit alone in my tiny studio creating. Ive seen several “waves” of peaks and valleys over the years with the popularity of designer toys, Im guessing there is another upswing in interest? I’m not sure the “art world” will ever accept designer toys as legit. I think they see it in the same way as someone modifying their car with spoilers and chrome rims, or a car company presenting a new concept vehicle. Only when the work is presented in a language the “art world” understands do they look at it as a legit movement.
Presenting these designs out of scale, giant, dwarfing us, and filling an exhibit space they take notice, such as I recently did in Shanghai and Taipei. By doing this it strips the “Toy” aspect and turns it into an “experience”, nothing wrong with that of course but at some point its no longer a “toy”.
“I’m not realy sure where designer toys will go from here, I think it all comes down to weather artists can push the medium without making them so expensive they aren’t affordable to the general public”– Jason Freeny
Enzpired: Which part of the world do you find expresses the biggest interest in artist/designer toys, is this a cultural thing much like Japan?
Whatshisname: Unlike other countries, Japan has an extensive history with designer toys. This market is much younger in western countries, therefore, its cultural influences are often related to history, local culture or global POP art. Local artists, much like myself often draw inspiration from their childhood and upbringing which can be quite specific in style to that particular country.
Jason Freeny: I certainly get the largest turnout in Asia. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Philippines and Thailand are very enthusiastic. China is blowing up with a huge growing fan base. Japan is a very particular market as they are very passionate about Japanese characters and platforms, its a bit of an uphill struggle for outside designs.
Enzpired: What was your original inspiration to pursue this form of media?
Jason Freeny: Right around 2002 I discovered a Hong Kong designer toy series called “Qee”. I was working a day job at a traditional toy design company that was very much a feature driven industry. As an artist the discovery of a toy platform that was almost entirely design driven got my juices very excited. Ironically, at the time, I had been freelance illustrating adult themed editorials for magazines like Penthouse and Hustler on the side and had created a fictional anatomical schematic for an incubus.
A few years later I applied this concept to a balloon dog I was using in a series of illustrations, presenting a balloon animal as a living creature in an anatomy chart similar to what you would find at a veterinarians office. It took on its own life after that.
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Enzpired: Do you find an overlap between buyers of art as a whole and those that buy collectable toys?
Whatshisname: Many of my collectors would have one or two of the larger fine art sculptures featured prominently at their homes and often surrounded by a collection of smaller figures. Those collectables are here to make their owners happy regardless if the figures are large or small in size. Those two markets definitely overlap.
Collectors have their own styles in the way they live, dress and how their homes look and feel. I know a few that has my large POPek Balloon dog at home and small version at work. This is what brings them joy and makes them feel good. The two pieces provide a link between life and work as well as a way of personal expression.
Jason Freeny: I do but not to a large extent. I find there is a special breed of Toy collectors that see designer toy offerings as toys elevated to “art”. Designer toys are special in that its a medium that expresses a very wide spectrum of attitudes from super cute to creepy and gory. Every character from any genre will find its way into the mix, just about anyone can find a piece they can connect with.
“I think the surge in the popularity of designer toys can mostly be attributed to social media which makes it very easy for toy collectors to connect with other collectors as well as designers.”-Whatshisname
Enzpired: Where do you see your medium evolving to in the next 5-10 years, will designer toys be its own movements like Pop art or Contemporary art?
Whatshisname: As artists and designers grow in popularity and become more recognisable on the global scale, the medium will evolve much like comic books. I can see the designer toys expanding onto new markets like print or fashion ie clothing, sneakers etc.
Artist like to collaborate with other well-established brands, as well as brands, like to appeal to new audiences by collaborating with artists. I think we will see more of those types of relationships. A good example is KAWS collaboration with UNIQLO and Sesame Street.
Jason Freeny: My anatomical pieces are what grew my fan base and originally they heavily relied on utilizing popular characters. Now that I have a sizable fan-base, this has allowed me to start moving more towards original pieces and cutting the umbilical. Ive been so pleased that my original works and concepts are now garnering way more “Likes” that my past appropriated pieces. I’m a sculptor at heart and my love for form and surface now has outlet and I’m taking full advantage of that, this is where I am moving towards. My anatomical pieces will mainly stay in the production area as licenses become available, but that’s not to say I wont throw in an anatomical sculpt from time to time.
I’m not realy sure where designer toys will go from here, I think it all comes down to weather artists can push the medium without making them so expensive they aren’t affordable to the general public which is a prerequisite for the “Toy” label IMHO.
Interested in the origins of Mighty Jaxx themselves? Then let Jackson Aw tell you more about how he founded Mighty Jaxx.
When KAWS made his exhibition debut at the National Gallery of Victoria for his showcase “KAWS: Companionship In The Age Of Loneliness At NGV“, the accompanying vinyl toys sold out within hours on the day of release, which shows just how in demand and desirable Artist toys are becoming in recent years. Even artist such as Alex Face and the world renowned Banksy (while the authenticity of Banksy branded toys is questionable, taking the artists history in mind) have started to foray into the Art toy market. With that said, it is clear that this is somewhat niche market will continue to grow and bring in a wider audience thanks in part to established artists making the transition to creating designer toys, and with stores like Mighty Jaxx at the helm.
For more information about the artists included in this article, or if you would like to support them on social media, please see the below links to their respective pages.
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