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  Howie Green Interviews

Interview for Designer Toy project

How did your current obsession with toys get started?

Oh my obsession with toys has been going on my whole life. There is nothing new about it except that I feel like the rest of the world finally caught up with me. I've known other artists and creative people who were toy nuts like me but they used to be few and far between. It's not like that movie "The 40-year Old Virgin" where some dork had a bunch of action figures because they were an investment. This is a life long obsession where dorks, me included, had houses full of toys of all shapes and sizes with no thought to ever sell them. Except plush toys. I was never big on those. They don't age well.

Did anyone find your toy collection odd while you were growing up?

Certainly. But then I'm an artist, which gives me lots of latitude in the personal weird behavior department.

The old adage states that as we grow older we put aside childish things, etc. Nonsense! If you are a creative person you never put aside childish things. If you do you'll never be very creative at all. Any artists looking for inspiration only needs to sit and play with a kid for a while and open themselves up to the free flow of ideas and concepts the way kids do. Unfortunately most people lose that connection as they enter the teen years and never get it back.

What kind of toys did you collect as a kid?

We didn't have much money so I didn't do much collecting. I just always took really good care of toys. I would say that given the overwhelming hormonal flow of the teen years that toys took a backseat to the Beatles, sex and music and the usual stuff when I was a teenager. But when I got into art school I became friends with a guy named Mike Gilbert who was just as much a toy junkie as I was and I was dating my friend Kathy Tuttle who was toy bear fanatic (and who made awesome Sculpy toy figures) so the toy mania came flooding back to me and never went away.

How did you get involved with the new wave of "Designer Toys"?

Kind of in a very roundabout way. In the late 90s I was looking to clean out my house and downsized my rooms full of stuff and Ebay came along as an easy way to do it. So I started selling off my toy collection and managed to get rid of 95% of it. It was fun and I must say I was quite shocked at how valuable my rooms of goofy toys turned out to be.

I had not seen any cool toys in quite a while so I had pretty much stopped collecting and was happy to see my toys find new homes where they would be appreciated. It felt good to unload my lifetime collection and free up a lot of space. So I was pretty much done with my toy collection. I still loved toys but I was done acquiring them. I got my toy "Jones" fulfilled by buying toys for my friends' children.

Then a couple years later I started seeing some blind box toys show up in Newbury Comics which is a chain of very cool stores around Boston I shop in - a lot. They were very expensive and I didn't quite get the concept of what they were all about. As there started to be more and more of them I started paying more attention to them and this was just about the time Kid Robot got started. I kept watching over the next couple years as more and more designer toys appeared and as the Dunny toys became wildly popular. A kid I knew who worked at Newbury Comics and he educated me about the whole designer toy movement - which is exactly what I had been trying to do in the mid 90s when my first book "Jazz Fish Zen" came out. I was about a decade too early. So I was very intrigued and started paying more attention but not buying any yet. After all I had just sold off my massive toy collection and I wasn't about to start all over again, but I certainly was curious.

Tell us about your book? Did you do toys then too?

My Jazz Fish book came out in 1993 as a result of my creating the world of Mamboland and all characters and creatures that inhabit it. I had been doing an ongoing series of paintings of Mamboland and was showing my work in a cool trendy gallery on Boston's trendy Newbury Street. A book publisher saw my stuff and offered me the opportunity to do a book that I jumped at. I wrote a story about my Jazz Fish character and his journey of self-discovery in Mamboland that was all very Zen-like with my goofy cartoon art and it was a big hit. Even made a couple best-seller lists at the time.

And the toys?

In the 90s I had a design studio in Boston with a staff of 8-9 great people and we were doing lots of web sites and interactive presentations and really cool work. I won lots of awards and was doing work for Coke, IT&T, Texas Instruments, Hewlett Packard and many other major players. We had state-of-the-art everything so between projects we started to turn my characters into 3D models and do animations and games and anything I could think of that would be fun.

One of my clients at the time was a small gift company in Boston that hired me to design a line of board games and all the branding and image material for them. I had a ball working on that whole project. The guy who was the liaison then left and went to work for a MAJOR toy company and took my book in with him because he thought what I was doing could be a fun new venture. Maybe a line of toys or books, or games or whatever, how could I miss right?

The MAJOR toy company was interested and we put together a presentation to show how I thought they could expand my world of Mamboland into various product lines and I got really psyched about the possibilities. This was a culmination of a lifetime of ideas and work for me so it was a huge deal. They were intrigued but cautious. What I presented was outside their very narrow comfort zone and that is never a good thing for a big company. I think it just scared them.

However they were impressed enough to hire me to do some concept and development work with a few of their brands including some classic toys that everyone knows and probably played with as a kid

My staff and I spent a few months working up some awesome ideas for interactive games. We created personalities and back-stories, and sample animations and lots of artwork. We came up with really strong ideas and cool art and the presentations were something I was really proud of. I thought we would hit a homerun and boy was I wrong. The folks from the MAJOR toy company looked at our presentations and basically said nothing. There was no reaction - they just didn't get it. One of the crusty old guys said "we just make toys for 5-8 year old kids." They were that clueless.

I was crushed. It was just heartbreaking to realize that if one of the largest toy companies in the country didn't get it then who would? So we just put all our great ideas on the shelf and went back to work on our other projects. Then a year or so later the MAJOR toy company called back and wanted to talk again because some new people had come on board and were interested in my work. Again nothing came of it. Sigh...

Yea, but what about the toys?

OK back to the toys. Part of what I proposed was to create a line of toy figures and plush toys with my Mamboland characters. Since we already had 3-D models of some of my guys I figured it would be easy to do and I had a client in Boston who had created an early 3-D printing machine who offered to "print" my characters for me as a test of their equipment. Now those machines are quite common and used by everyone and there is even a website where you can make your own custom-printed toy figure. For whatever reason we never got around to doing them which I sincerely regret.

I had also done tons of prototypes of other products with my characters and artwork so my studio space started to look like Santa's workshop. I think now, with the designer toy genre being a firmly established global initiative, that I would have received a very different reception at the MAJOR toy company. Hey life is all a matter of timing, right?

What was the first designer toy you got?

It was one of James Marshall's Dalek spacebot figures. I didn't know what the hell it was but it was cool and I loved it and it glowed in the dark. What's better than that? Then I started looking online and I was like Alice falling through the looking glass and down the hole - except I don't want to go back.

Now I'm totally obsessed with toys again and, like everybody else, I started making and painting my own. When I saw the first DIY Munny toy it took my breath away. Brilliant. Genius. The best toy idea ever! I bought one and looked at it for months before I figured out what to do with it. I destroyed quite a few Munnys experimenting with different paints, inks, markers, techniques, and styles until I hit on a couple approaches that I love and that are fun to do. I kept looking at photos online and trying to figure out how they were done. Some of the Munnys and other toys I saw were amazing and I was quite intimidated so it took me a while to start painting my own figures. Now I can't stop and I have started selling some so off I go.

What do you like most about the designer toy phenomenon?

For the best thing is that it has opened up the possibilities of what an artist is and does. I think its pretty clear that Keith Haring is everyone's role model and had he lived I'm sure he would have been leading the charge. He changed everything for this current generation of artists in the same way that Warhol had done for my generation. Keith was a success totally outside the traditional art world. He had a shop, did t-shirts and toys and art and murals, gallery shows, museum shows and whatever.

Carrying on that role model, the designer toy movement is a whole new genre of art that was created totally by artists who are outside the traditional world of the "Art" establishment and it doesn't follow any of the old rules. There is none of the stylistic similarity that usually defines an art movement. The styles vary all over the map from the iconic symbolism of Reactor 88 and Jesse Hernandez to the slapstick comedy of Mr. Kozik to the elegant delicate off-kilter beauty of Jeremiah Ketner and Tara Macpherson to whatever. Even Hello Kitty has been welcomed into this crazy world with open arms. It is the most inventive creative movement I have seen since the wild and crazy psychedelic movement in the 60s. Anything goes. But the big difference is that with the Internet serving as the main means of communication this is a global phenomenon with artists from anywhere able to share and sell their work. I have been selling a lot of work to collectors all over the planet. It's awesome. It makes me wish I was 20 again, but smarter.

Do you have any favorite toy artists?

I think it's hilarious that almost no one uses their real name and you're not really cool unless you have a goofy street name. If I had to pick just one it would be 'Buff Monster' but really there are too many to name. I have a LOT of toys. This whole designer toy thing has exposed me to a new generation of artists that I was totally unaware of. It is so much fun to have been able to discover all the artists who have come to public attention through their toys. My list of favorites is a very long one and I keep adding more and more.

Where do you think the designer toy movement is headed?

I think its just a matter of time before the "Art" world opens its doors and lets us all in with our toys. Many of the artists including Thomas Han, Buff Monster and Sket One have pieces in museum collections and with all the small toy shop galleries having shows its becoming an accepted event to have an art toy show.

Bob Conge, who makes all those bizarre and wonderful Placebo toys/figures, was a teacher of mine for my first couple years in art school way back in the last century. He was an early influence on me as an impressionable young lad and its funny for me to see that he's come fully over to the fun side and is doing art toy sculpture things now. I think it's inevitable that more and more artist will take a stab at toys.

Any last words?

Like any crazy collector my motto is why have one when you can have 1000?

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