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Inevitably, it starts like this: You walk into a storefront, studio or house. The store is run by men in plaid shirts and sneakers; the studio is ran by men in plaid shirts, sneakers, and glasses; the house is full of art prints, sneakers, and people who look like they belong in a studio/storefront. There are shelves in these places, and on the shelves are toys. They are not toys for boys (or girls) — they have not been made to battle each other, or buried in a sandbox, or forced to kiss Barbie — these are man-toys (wo/man- toys), and they represent something entirely different, refreshingly new, and disgustingly addicting.

The vinyl toy movement (also referred to as the art toy movement; sometimes referred to as the urban vinyl movement) has been creeping through the US for years now, but only recently has it reached such gratifying levels of familiarity. At the head of this movement (or more accurately; at one of it’s many heads, each of which are covered in eyeballs and separately designed by artists the world over) is STRANGEco, a company founded in 2002 by college chums Jim Crawford and Gregory Blum.

Joshspear.com: When, how, and why was STRANGEco founded?

Jim Crawford: STRANGEco was founded in 2002 by myself (Jim Crawford) and Gregory Blum. We’ve known each other for a long time; we were college roommates, which goes back quite a ways now (gulp!).

Gregory stumbled upon and began collecting originally designed vinyl figures from Asia (Hong Kong and Japan, in particular) — Michael Lau, James Jarvis’s original Silas vinyls, Bounty Hunter, Eric So and a few others. We both saw how cool this was — like a limited edition print, but in sculpture form. We started importing and selling a lot of these products in 2001 through Kidrobot, a business developed as a spin-off from the niche electronics retailer we were both working for at the time. The potential for production and distribution of original toys was most appealing to Gregory and me, so in 2002 we started our own toy company with an ambition to replicate here in the States the market that we saw happening overseas. So far, so good!

JS: Art toys were considered a bit “stranger” when STRANGEco first began. Today, the movement is incredibly widespread. How have things progressed since STRANGEco’s founding?

JC: Worldwide, this whole genre has grown exponentially since when we first started. It was a serious cottage industry when we began, and in the scheme of things, we were more part of a second wave of businesses that got started. Some companies have fallen off — and a lot have jumped on — the bandwagon, but I still think that there’s originality happening in this weird market. Since the 80′s, the majority of all toy projects needed the backing of a film or TV show to get made. Since the late 90′s, however, artists and other creatives have been able to access that manufacturing stream and get their own projects out there. It’s an exciting change!

I think that the new toy market is part of a larger movement in which fine art, popular culture and commercial products have begun to seriously blend together. A large number of young American consumers, for the first time (at least in my life) are noticing and caring about the art and design of the goods they buy. People are seeking out and collecting products because of their aesthetic rather than the brand name. Many artists and designers have large followings, which is a phenomenon mostly restricted to couture fashion in the past — certainly not popular culture.

JS: The concept of art toys grew from — among other things — a desire for affordable art. How are vinyl toys bringing art into the hands of people who could not afford it otherwise?

JC: At their best, artist-based toys faithfully capture the character design of artists whose work leaps out of two dimensions into affordable art sculpture. Many of the artists we work with have burgeoning, successful art careers, showing in galleries all over the world. Their paintings may range into the thousands. Vinyl toys are a very affordable entrance into the world of art collecting. You may not have $1500 for an original painting, but you may have $20, $60 or $100 for a collectible toy. There are a lot of collectors that started with vinyls and have moved into collecting original art — toys are a good gateway drug.

JS: Your own product line has allowed you to work with several of today’s best urban artists and designers — people like tokidoki, MARS-1, and Bob Dob. How do you hunt them down?

JC: When we first started, we met artists through mutual friends, or by simply contacting artist basically out of the blue. We met Mars-1, for example, through a mutual friend, and Jim Woodring we contacted directly. One project generally led to another in a more or less organic way.

These days, we thankfully have enough of a name and track record that, when we meet an artist we’re interested in working with, we usually get a favorable response. How cool is that?

JS: How much artistic freedom are these artists given?

JC: Quite a lot, actually. We generally don’t move to the next stage of production until everyone is happy with how things look. Sometimes this delays release dates, but it’s better to have a home run, where everyone involved feels that the end result is something to be proud of.

JS: What is the process of creating and producing another new toy like?

JC: It can take a lot of development and is very collaborative. Many of the artists we’ve worked with have never done this kind of thing before. We’ve become quite proficient at turning 2D character ideas into 3D.

JS: There are big differences between toy “collectors” and those who buy toys more casually. Which customer is more important to you, and how do you appeal to both?

JC: We’re stoked when anyone responds well to our toys! It’s important to have both. We try to make toys that cover the desires of both. They’re not always mutually exclusive, although core collectors aren’t afraid of a higher price point if the design rocks. Right now, there’s such a flood of art toy collectibles being released that collectors have an overwhelming number of choices. So, no matter who what the product is, from a $5 mini figure to a $100 limited edition vinyl, we try to make the highest quality toys we can, that reflect a real art value.

JS: What is going on in places like Hong Kong — where art toys are already an established trend — that has yet to hit the US?

JC: Hong Kong’s market has atrophied quite a bit in the past few years. There’s still a lot of serious talent there, but for a domestic market it seems pretty small now. I’m personally excited about some of the toys powered by USB connections coming out of Japan, though.

JS: I’m sort of hoping for the day when I can buy a box of Lucky Charms and find a Cactus Pup inside. Is the idea of something that mass-produced appealing to you, or not?

JC: I’m Irish, so I’m not sure how I feel about Lucky Charms. Leprechauns are actually quite nasty, and man I’d hate to bite a Cactus Pup! But seriously, I think this depends largely on the interest of the designer/licensor and producer… and of course the market demand. We actually like the idea of creating inexpensive toys that are very strong aesthetically and that designed for kids. The gross majority of kid’s toys today are based on entertainment licenses — characters they know from movies, TV, etc. — and don’t leave a lot up to the imagination.

As far as most designer/art toys you see today, we expect that they will continue to worm their way into the mass market, but many are just too challenging or unusual to have widespread appeal. We’ve been seeing the designer toy market segment into sub-niches for a few years now, and expect that the less expensive and aesthetically more palatable toys will find their way into big block stores. With that said, there’s quite a network of Designer Toy stores out there now, so there will likely be an ongoing market for the edgier stuff, too.

JS: What can we look for from STRANGEco in 2008?

JC: We have a pretty full schedule for the coming year: More from tokidoki; a very exciting mini figure project with FriendsWithYou; a co-branded toy series with the Museum of Modern Art featuring a very talented Croatian artist named Goran Lelas; some ongoing projects with seriously established names in the subculture art world; and the introduction of some new artists whose work we like quite a lot.

We’re also very excited for the release of the Vivisect Playset mini figure series project — our first multi-artist toy series since 2004′s Neo Kaiju Project — which gets its premiere later this month in Los Angeles. And, hopefully, some of our own in-house designs, too.