February 14, 2014

Pharrell Williams Co-Curates Massive Toy Exhibition

Who says toys are only for kids? Design Exchange, Canada’s design museum in Toronto, answers this question with its latest exhibit “This Is Not A Toy,” on view until May 19. The largest exhibition in the museum’s 20-year history will transform the main hall into a Technicolor dreamland replete with a multitude of “toys”—actually a subset of the group known as urban vinyl, collectors’ items bridging art and play.

Guest curated by music and fashion mogul Pharrell Williams, artists such as Brooklyn’s KAWS and Japan’s Takashi Murakami have come together to display their wares. For both of these artists, it will be the first time their work is shown in a design museum. Other recognizable works include figurines from Kidrobot and Medicom Toy. These design firms, which have partnered with companies such as Disney in the past, work with stylized versions of recognizable pop icons such as Mickey Mouse.

The pronounced centerpiece of the exhibit is a piece called The Simple Things. The striking sculpture is an imposing presence created by Williams, Murakami, and Jacob Arabo. A fiberglass and steel head grins widely at the audience, displaying blinged-out versions of everyday objects such as a Pepsi can, a cupcake, a sneaker, and a Heinz ketchup bottle. More than anything, these pieces seem to highlight the commodification of design items over practicality or play.

The small release toy, the central focus of this exhibit, traces its origins to 80s and 90s graffiti culture, with the first urban vinyl appearing in the late 90s from artist Michael Lau. Simultaneously showing rebelliousness and playfulness, it was long considered an underground or low art form. Rejecting or manipulating familiar consumer imagery became a characteristic of the movement, and it is still evidenced even in the commercial form of these works. Their appeal came from not only their aesthetic but also their limited availability. While some items may retail at $50-100, rarer objects can reach the upper thousands. And let’s face it—when it’s that expensive, you’re probably not going to play with it all too much.

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