Whenever I see a friend pay good money for a figurine, I roll my eyes and go, “Surely that money can be put to better use?” Figurines such as the Japanese Be@rbrick and KAWS OriginalFake are expensive toys, and toys to me were things you put away for good after a certain age. People like Nigo and Pharrell Williams may beg to differ with my opinion, but I never fully understood the thrill of the hunt that has many men hooked. For them, scoring a rare figurine is like striking gold. I much prefer the 24k, 22k and 18k variants.
Then I met three guys – a self-taught independent resin sculptor, a young businessman and an advertising guru who moonlights in the toy industry for kicks. They all operate differently, from creating everything in-house to seeking out artists for collaboration. But whether it is an obsession or simply a channel for suppressed creative juices, they have one thing in common, and that is passion. Their messy studios and long weeks are testaments to the amount of hard work put into every toy. The resin sculptor, for example, would slave away for 10 days to create one of the incredibly detailed figures you see at the bottom of this page. It might seem incredible that something so small could set me back $100, but after understanding the amount of work that goes into it, a hundred bucks seems like a bargain. After all, it isn’t just a mere toy. It is a bonafide work of art.
Daniel Yu, 30, Independent Resin Sculptor
These look interesting. Did you make them all by hand?
Yes. I first create the original and make a silicone mould out of it, which works like a negative. Once the silicone dries up, I’ll cut the piece out, pour resin into its cavity and place it in this pressure pot that compresses the resin, minimising the bubbles. When it’s out and dried, I’ll clear the excess plastic and paint. The process takes about 10 days; a week to sculpt, and three days for the rest.
Can I see the sketches?
I don’t sketch. It comes from the head to the hand. It can be hard to picture, but ideas are constantly evolving. I’m also obsessed with tiny details, which I think sometimes the end user does not notice. But at the end of the day, every piece I do has to have some level of satisfaction before I decide to produce it. It is personal integrity.
Who did you learn the art from?
I graduated from business school in 2011, but sculpting has always been a hobby since I was a teen. I spent hours on YouTube learning the craft, and from there, I’d kitbash, turning figures into something new. After graduating, I knew this was my calling and decided to pursue it. I apprenticed for art collectives and collaborated with people like Jackson (Mighty Jaxx) before I came out on my own.
So where do you get inspiration from?
Mostly history, pop culture and literary works from authors like H P Lovecraft and The Brothers Grimm. The underdog has always interested me and I prefer to make things that are more unconventional than popular heroes like Superman, which can be a bit vanilla for me.
How do you value your art?
I’m always looking at them from a collector’s point of view, but I guess it’s mainly based on the time and effort put in. I usually make miniatures and while an unpainted version can go for about $25 to $30, a painted piece could cost you about $100. It is hard-earned money for me, but I’m doing this because I’m passionate about it.
Jackson Aw, 26, Founder and Owner of Mighty Jaxx
Your line of work seems a bit different to Daniel’s.
We do accept commissions, but we’re more focused on developing artists’ works. It starts with an artist illustrating something in 2D and it’s our job to render it in 3D. This fat Batman for example, is an idea of Alex Solis from Chicago. He explains the colours he wants and where the elements should go, and we’ll help perfect the 3D image. When the colour samples are approved, we send it for mass production. The entire process takes about three months.
Is it difficult to put a price on the pieces?
It’s art, so the value is what you put into it, besides our time and effort, of course. Most are limited editions, so there is a certain appreciation in value. We also have to consider the artist. Is he established or emerging? How much does his art usually cost? It must be relative to that. We’ll suggest the price, and if the artist is agreeable, we’re good to go.
What’s the most expensive you’ve sold?
The rabbit by Nychos, an Austrian graffiti illustrator (we held an exhibition of his work last year). It was an edition of 10 hand-painted pieces that went for USD1,500. It sold out. So you see, the value of art really lies in its perception.
Do you look for the artists or do they come to you?
Naturally, we started by approaching them. We wanted to work with the people we looked up to. Phunk Studio, a local contemporary art and design collective, was the first we sought. They were one of the pioneers of graphic design in Singapore. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be enjoying what we are doing now.
What other collaborations have you done?
We just released a New Balance figure. The sports brand re-released a pair of limited edition classic tennis shoes, and we developed a little tennis ball mascot to accompany it. For $139, you can get both the shoe and the toy.
Who buys your toys?
I’d say 10 to 15 per cent are Singaporeans, 40 per cent are Americans and the rest from odd corners of the world like Iran and Russia. Last year, we shipped to 50 countries and made $500,000 in revenue.
So, what have you done for yourself?
Nothing at all. (laughs) I prefer bringing to life the ideas of people I look up to. There’s more satisfaction in that.
Jeffrey Koh, 42, Mastermind at Flabslab
How did Flabslab begin?
In 2001, I started a creative agency called Nerf. As with a lot of corporate jobs, you get brain-dead after a while. So three years ago, I decided, “Heck, whether we make money or not, it’s time to create something fun for ourselves, something to channel our creative frustrations into.” That’s how Flabslab (acronym for ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’) began.
What goes on at Flabslab?
We work with artists half of the time. The other half, we do originals – an area we want to focus more on now. To move forward, we need ownership. Otherwise, we might just be seen as a toy producer and it’ll only be a matter of time when other people start doing the same. But if you have your own ideas and they are good, nobody can replicate them.
Are things done the old-fashioned way – sculpting?
I can’t sculpt for nuts! But when I have an idea, I get an artisan to do a sample for me. When I’m happy with it, we set out to cast a small number of it.
What happens when you have trouble selling something?
I believe in selling things that I will buy. Except for regulars, to whom we give small discounts, our stuff never goes on sale. It devalues the art and kills the people who supported you. So I try to steer clear of such situations. Most of the time, whatever money we make on a sale is usually just enough to fund the next project.
Have you always loved toys and art?
I have been a collector my entire life. Stamps, coke cans, cards, you name it. Back in school, I was part of an art programme but I was never a good student. I was the black sheep. My teacher must have hated me. To me, studies aren’t everything. When we have interns at Nerf, I would tell them, “School sucks, don’t waste your time”.
Who are the artists you admire?
I admire guys like Luke Chueh, who is always hustling and trying to get his name out there. Everyone wants to be the next KAWS (the ex-graffiti artist behind OriginalFake), but a lot of them do not see what he went through to get to where he is now. He was a nobody in the ’90s.
When was the tipping point in the designer toy scene?
It started in the ’90s, and grew over the last decade. However, the scene reached saturation point sometime last year. Kidrobot, a popular toy maker from the USA, recently went bust before getting rescued by NECA. They are now trying to reinvent themselves. It’s something we should learn from. Times have changed and we should adapt with them.
(First published April 2015. Photography by Andy Wong of Rave Photography)