Local toy designers

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Despite the hardships faced by many creative industries in our city there’s one that’s currently thriving – toys. Arthur Tam checks out some local design companies that make cute, frightening, imaginative and thoughtful things to appreciate

Hong Kong is often criticised for lacking a solid creative scene – blame egregious rents and government policies. But it’s not all doom and gloom. If you’re a toy designer, Hong Kong might be just the place for you. Ever since artists like Michael Lau and Eric So arrived on the scene at the turn of the century, Hong Kong has emerged on the global stage as a major influence on toy design. “Designer toys didn’t start here,’ says Howard Lee, creative director of toy producer How2Work. “But it definitely exploded here and really took the world by storm. Designers in Hong Kong added a lot of street culture, fashion, pop art and trendy elements into their designs.”

If you’re a Marvel or Star Wars geek, chances are you’ve probably heard of Hot Toys (check out our interview with director Howard Chan at timeout.com.hk/shopping). This Hong Kong designer toy company basically spearheaded the kidult movement in the city with its approach to creating top-notch quality collectibles for fans.  

It’s clear that HK has heaps of talent when it comes to toy and figurine design and the industry is thriving. If you’re into collector items or seeking to get involved in toy design, here are the most important brands and companies to keep an eye out for. 

COARSE
These toys – more akin to pieces of art – are anything but coarse. The brand began back in 2003, but here in 2016 Coarse are immensely popular thanks to their unique perspective and the thoughtfulness put into their designs. “I was inspired by various journeys to Japan,” says Landwehr. “I began developing the style, for which Coarse is known today, by blending an Asian collector’s figure aesthetic with German simplicity, clean lines and a pure feeling. Our work might look like a children’s toy at first glance, but people quickly notice that this work can’t be meant for kids with the subtly disturbing undertones.” 

Despite being unnerving and sometimes socially provocative, in 2014 Amnesty International asked Coarse to design some meaningful freedom candles (pictured above). One of the candles is a gun that melts to reveal a pen; for another, a handcuffed man melts to reveal a mother holding his son. “We were so honoured that Amnesty International considered us for the project, and it meant so much to raise money for something so meaningful,” says Landwehr.

Many of Coarse’s sculptures emerge from deeply personal stories relating to friendship, loneliness, betrayal, denial, pain and sadness – a whole spectrum of complicated themes. A large part of their appeal is the vulnerability that comes across with their toys. It’s something honest that people can relate to. Landwher’s favourite is The Passage (pictured below). “It tells a very complex story of how adults take charge of children’s destinies,” he tells us. “This is probably the darkest sculpture we have ever made. I think we crafted something that really made people stop and try to understand what is going on.”

Coarse Available at Superman Toys, Shop 222, 2/F, CTMA Centre, Sai Yeung Choi St, Mong Kok, 2366 2688; coarselife.com.

ARTION
Artion is an artist collective comprised of Ben Lam, Ryan Lee, William Tsang, Leo Sze and Eric So. Each of the designers creates their own unique products that range from something out of a fairytale to something more nightmarish.

Sze used to be a prototype designer for electronic, medical and automotive devices before he created his toy production company, Unbox Industries. For him, the shift toward developing toys was easy. “You don’t have to consider function with toys,” states Sze. “It’s not like making a chair, it’s more fun and there are no limitations on your creativity.

Artion’s latest series, the Real Artion Puzzle is a collection of toys with interchangeable parts created by the entire team. This allows customers to appreciate the collective aesthetic of the Artion team while being able to mix and match the toys in order to come up with their own custom creations.

The ultimate goal of Artion is to develop this interactive experience. They want to create a platform for toy designers to collaborate and promote their products on Artion’s website and social media platforms ultimately, bringing the toy design community in Hong Kong together.

Artion Room A, 9/F, Island Industrial Bldg, 81-87 Tung Chau St, Tai Kok Tsui, 3568 1427; artionassociation.com.

HOW2WORK
With great passion and expertise, How2Work create extremely well designed and detailed toys. They do such a good job that artists like Yoshitomo Nara and Santa Inoue have collaborated with the brand, not to mention they’ve had the chance to craft toys of popular animated characters like the Moomins and Le Petit Prince. They also make it a point to find emerging local artists and have worked with Fion Ko (the real name of artist Le Petite Mu Mu), Kasing Lung, Yeung Hok-tak and Rockin’ Jelly Bean.

Creative director Howard Lee is extremely proud of his team and the level of talent he sees in Hong Kong. He explains why the designer toy industry has become so big in our city. “We have a lot of artists in Hong Kong that were heavily influenced by manga and anime during the 70s and 80s. After they grew up, they started working for commercial agencies, but soon realised there wasn’t much satisfaction to be had in their jobs. So, now that they are older and have the means and expertise to create something on their own, they’ve left their old companies and started creating something that was familiar to them. Thus we saw the emergence of many toy designers in the early 2000s.”

How2Work is currently celebrating their 15th anniversary and they plan to release a collection with all the artists they’ve collaborated with in the past. “Hong Kong produced toys are something we can truly be proud of,” says Lee. “It’s really at the quality of the Japanese and we can add more details and attributes to the toys.”

How2Work Available at Superman Toys, Shop 222, 2/F, CTMA Centre, Sai Yeung Choi St, Mong Kok, 2366 2688; how2work.com.hk.

ANGEL ABBY
If you’re looking for something weird, creepy, cute and monstrous all at the same time, drop by Angel Abby – Hong Kong’s very first store promoting the neo kaiju toy movement. The kaiju (Japanese for ‘strange beast’) toy movement began early back in the 1940s and was all the rage until it suffered a drop in popularity after the 70s. These days, the world of monsters is experiencing something of a revival and Angel Abby is helping it along in Hong Kong. “Do you think monsters are frightening?” reads the company’s profile. “We say no! When you love them, they become angels.”

At the store you’ll find toys from Japanese designers like PP Pudding, Koraters and Nagamoto, as well toys made in-house. If you want to up your kaiju collection, head on over.

Angel Abby Shop 22, 1/F, Tin Hau Apple Mall, 14 King’s Rd, 9674 3956; angelabby.hk.

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