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Serious about toys: Designer collectibles

Vinyl toy collector Brandon Clark, 23, shows off

Vinyl toy collector Brandon Clark, 23, shows off his collection at his home in Medford. (Feb. 9, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Max Siegelbaum rips open the small box and tears through the foil covering his unknown treasure.

It's 6:30 on a Tuesday night and the 8-year-old has been looking forward to this moment at Genuine Artikle, a designer toy boutique in Lake Ronkonkoma, all day.

"Uh-oh. What did you get?" asks his father, Matthew Siegelbaum, 41, of Lake Grove.

"Oh, this," Max groans. A wave of disappointment is evident as he holds up a 3-inch toy with a skeleton face, two reddish braids and a bandelier of bullets slung over an olive jumpsuit.

Adelita, as the $10 designer toy is called, is one of 14 variations that could have turned up inside the unmarked box, part of Kidrobot's Dunny Azteca II series of artist-designed toys that fanatics are collecting. For Max, the goal is to get the rarest figure in the series. Adelita is not the one.

"Let's not get upset," Matthew says.

"Can I get another one?" asks Max.

Perhaps this is exactly the scene that manufacturers hope to engender, appealing to both kids and adults with the element of surprise and possibility of buying a unique toy worth exponentially more than its price tag.

Blind boxes are just one element of the designer toy culture that has made its way to Long Island, with collectors, designers and locally based retailers all getting in on the action.

WHAT ARE THEY?

Created by artists and illustrators, designer toys are sold in limited quantities - as few as 10 or as many as 2,000 - and often made of vinyl.

The aesthetic ranges from cute and quirky, such as Frank Kozik's Smorkin' Labbit - a chubby white rabbit with black beady eyes, a few black dots on its face (think beard stubble) and a cigarette jutting out of its mouth - to dark and edgy, like Chris Ryniak's forthcoming Bubblegut, a reddish monster with a wart-covered head, large alien eyes, claws and, well, a bubble gut.

The word "toy" is a bit of a misnomer. Most designer toys aren't played with, but kept in pristine cases or displayed in homes or offices. They are collected as pieces of art and prized like baseball cards. Adding to the cool factor, many serve as radical riffs on pop-culture icons like Ron English's MC Supersized - an obese version of Ronald McDonald that depicts how the fast-food icon might look if he ate his own food and wore a blingy dollar-sign necklace.

Still, collectors - a range of art lovers, self-described science-fiction nerds, comic-book aficionados and others - eschew the term "trendy." These are not Precious Moments figurines or Beanie Babies produced in hundreds of thousands of units, after all.

"It's a new and different medium," says Brandon Clark, 24, of Medford, who supplements his art collection with designer toys. "When a new series comes out, I always buy a couple no matter what."

THE HISTORY

Designer toys can be traced to the late-'90s underground culture both in Japan (where designers such as Bounty Hunter created their own monster toy mascots for fashion labels) and in Hong Kong (where Michael Lau modified G.I. Joe figures in an urban style that garnered buzz).

The designer toy culture "was built on word-of-mouth," says Kevin Winnik, CEO of Toy2R USA, the U.S. division of a Hong Kong-based toy manufacturing company. "There wasn't any advertising in this."

Kidrobot, creator of limited-edition art toys and apparel, is often attributed with establishing a broader American audience with its founding in 2002. Since then, more than 10 of Kidrobot's Dunny and MUNNY figures have been added to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Designer toy manufacturing companies have collaborated with major brands such as Target, Starbucks, Marc Jacobs and Playboy.

Why the mass appeal across the globe?

"Everybody likes toys. Everybody had a toy when they were a kid," says Frank Kozik, a San Francisco-based artist who has designed several toys for Kid Robot and other manufacturers.

"It's shiny, it's pretty, it's cool," he says. "It sort of cuts through this whole layer of 'I'm an adult.' "

THE COLLECTORS

Stephanie Warn and Brandon Clark's Medford home is filled with about 400 designer toys, including toy cigarettes on their TV stand and four Hello Kitty figures scattered throughout their daughter's nursery.

Warn, 26, an executive assistant, says she gets bored staring at paintings in galleries.

"With a toy, it's something more tangible. You can hold it. You can touch it. You can do different things with it," she says. "It fascinates me more than something I can't touch."

She also follows particular designers.

"There's a certain mark that every artist has. You can say that's definitely that person," says Warn. "Just like any artist, you can tell a Monet. You can tell a van Gogh. You can tell a Pollock. There's a style to it."

That graphic style made a fan out of Albert Lee, 31, a Port Jefferson photographer who owns about 200 blind-box figures and 20 custom pieces. Many toys are based on an artist's paintings, which can be expensive, Lee says.

"I can't afford a $10,000 Mark Ryden painting, but I can afford a $250 Mark Ryden toy," he says.

With three sons collecting designer toys over the last two years, Matthew Siegelbaum had to create a Genuine Artikle budget.

"We used to come once a week," says Zachary Siegelbaum, 14, of Lake Grove. "Pretty expensive."

Still, the allure of hitting the designer toy jackpot remains strong.

"See that one," Zachary says, pointing to a unicorn in a glass case at the toy boutique. "It's one of 400. . . . The first day we came in here, I got one box and got that one [for $10]. I went home and put it on eBay and got $250 for it."

THE RETAILERS AND DESIGNERS

Genuine Artikle, one of the only brick-and-mortar stores on Long Island where designer toys are amply stocked and sold, is situated on a busy stretch of road, sandwiched between a tattoo shop and a restaurant. Some patrons - like parents of young toy enthusiasts - walk in and have no clue about designer toys or their costs, which range from $5 to $500, says employee and artist Ian Ziobrowski, 25, of Medford.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are art collectors who collect designer toys.

"They catch artists early as they're emerging," he says. "If they see something, they might be like, 'Get it now because in two or three years, it's going to be really hard to get a piece.' "

And with so-called DIY art toys - a blank figure that manufacturing companies produce for consumers to paint and customize - on the shelves, many people get a chance to emerge.

"Here's this consumer product that is a two-way street. You don't just go buy it . . . you can make your own version in the garage if you want to," Kozik says. "A lot of really interesting stuff appears that would never appear otherwise."

But producing a finished product is no easy task. It can take eight hours to multiple days, depending on what you're making, says Denny "Mr. Den" Ramos, 38, of Central Islip, a graphic and product designer at Elite Gudz - a Farmingdale design studio that specializes in comics, street art, toys and software.

Jamie Fales, 29, of East Islip, created a figure that looked like a demon pulled its head open by cutting open the back of a MUNNY head, inserting a zipper and sculpting a demon on top.

"I definitely think there are more artists and I think there are more shows giving people the opportunity to exhibit," says Fales, who sells her toys online. "Just five years ago it seemed like there was nothing on the Island related to vinyl. . . . I hope it has staying power."

 

Where to buy

 

 

Genuine Artikle

 

527 Hawkins Ave., Lake Ronkonkoma, 631-615-2830, genuineartikle.com

Retail designer toy boutique stocks several series of blind-box vinyl toys as well as limited-edition designer brands.

 

Elite Gudz

 

elitegudz.com

The Farmingdale-based studio specializes in toys, comics, art and software.

 

Immortal Beloved Toys

 

immortalbelovedtoys.flyingcart.com

Online vinyl toy store owned by PJ Williams of Centereach.

 

Noosedkitty - Art by Jamie Fales

 

noosedkitty.bigcartel.com

East Islip artist Jamie Fales sells her vinyl creations and other art online.

 

A price sampler

 

Sampling of designer toys recently sold on eBay:

-Kidrobot sealed cases of four sold-out series: Dunny 4, Colette, 2Tone and Endangered; New; Sold for $1,200

-1977 Star Wars Loose Vinyl Cape Jawa AFA 90; N/A; Sold for $950

-Mark Ryden Black and White YHWH Set Vinyl Figures; New; Sold for $589

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