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February 7th, 2007 Ethan Smith | Featured Stories
 

SAY UNKL

Local toy designers make art for grownup playtime.

     
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From the center of a spherical head, just above a gasmask respirator, a single glossy, black eye stares out. The eye of a hazardous cleanup specialist. A trained assassin. A 12-inch-tall vinyl toy.

Derek Welch picks up the bright yellow figure. It's cartoonish yet cold and stenciled with graffiti, simultaneously ominous and cute—like some early video-game villain.

"HazMaPo is the first one UNKL made," says Welch. "We did a run of 1,800 figures." Welch is dressed simply, except for several weighty silver rings on each hand. Casually hip. True to Portland, he could as easily be a barista as a successful designer.

Those first 1,800 UNKL figures sold in less than a month and put the Portland-based toy designers on the map. UNKL brought "urban vinyl"—trendy toys for adults—to Portland. Six years, four characters and a business plan later, UNKL toys—ranging in price from $8 to over $1,000—are selling in the hot shops of Tokyo, Paris and Moscow.

"I got in at 3 this morning from the Netherlands," says Welch's business partner, Jason Bacon.

He's sitting on a slick, modern couch in a partitioned corner of a Northwest Portland office. Against the opposite wall, UNKL characters stare out from makeshift display shelves—sanded-down IKEA coffee tables, stacked four high. Cables snake across the floor, from PlayStation controllers to console, which is tucked, along with video games and DVDs, under a small TV in the corner. Some hip, new band is playing from unseen speakers. It's like the cool kid's dorm in a college movie. It's UNKL's headquarters.

Bacon was in the Hague to run UNKL's booth at Black Wonderland, a designer-toy convention. UNKL's line was a hit, but he's glad to be home. He'll be pimping his products with Welch in a different way Thursday night at the Someday Lounge, when the duo explains UNKL and urban vinyl for a sold-out local crowd at Core77 Offsite, a lecture/party event series thrown by online "industrial design supersite" Core 77.

"Portland is a little out of the way, but I think that's a good thing," says Bacon. "It allows us to define ourselves."

Welch and Bacon first defined UNKL in 2000, as a spinoff of Big-Giant, the successful design firm they also own. UNKL's characters began as doodles in sketchbooks, drawn repeatedly until they couldn't be ignored. These former art students wanted an art project—UNKL was it.

"With Big-Giant, most of our clients are big corporations," says Bacon, who has worked with both Nike and Starbucks. "UNKL was a way for us to do something non-marketing, non-client-based. Sort of free expression."

UNKL may have started in sketchbooks, but is urban vinyl actually art, or just toys?

"UNKL is art for the masses," says Bacon. "In 50 years, I think urban vinyl will be viewed as a new genre. Painting at the turn of the century was very academic. Then people like Picasso busted out of that and completely altered the way we view painting. I think urban vinyl does the same thing for sculpture."

So, urban vinyl is the new cubism? And the UNKL guys are heirs to Picasso? Not quite, and Bacon would concede this. He tends toward the grandiose, but he's more excited than arrogant.

"It's a movement," says Bacon, his voice climbing. "At some point it won't be a movement anymore because it will hit the masses."

It hasn't hit the masses yet. Right now, urban vinyl has a growing cult following of twenty- and thirtysomething professionals, mostly male and often working in creative fields. Around 2002, toymaker Kidrobot brought urban vinyl from Asia to the states. Since then, these designer toys, rooted in street art and anime, have caught on rapidly. Katsu Tanaka's Just Be Complex in Chinatown was Portland's first urban-vinyl outpost, followed more recently by local stores like Missing Link.

But Just Be isn't just a toy store. Throwback sneakers—mostly brightly colored Nikes and Adidas—wrap around one clean, white corner. On racks hang hoodies and T-shirts dotted with ironic bullets and dollar signs. Wild all-over patterns are in this season. Anime DVDs hide

behind the staircase that leads up to the Compound Gallery—Just Be's internal art space.

Despite being a designer-toy junkie, Tanaka draws a clear distinction between what hangs in his gallery and what stocks his shelves.

"Urban vinyl is definitely not all art," says Tanaka, who's one of the Core77 Offsite event's local organizers.

Tanaka compares the store's toys to its shoes and clothes: cool, visually appealing and often collectible, but not art. He acknowledges, however, that calling it art can help adults explain their toy collections—though the need to explain is fading fast.

"The action of buying toys is definitely changing," says Tanaka. "When we started, designers from Nike would come in, and it was kind of a shameful thing. Like, 'Oh, I'm 27, but I'm buying toys. What am I doing?'"

But now his friends at Nike have toys lining their cubicles.

"Now being into the culture is hip," says Tanaka.

Ten years ago, urban vinyl was only for toy geeks. Now, validated with degrees, salaries and plenty of like-minded peers, that once-geeky passion is artsy and hip.

But as urban vinyl catches on, production goes up and big companies cash in, the quality and credibility may suffer. UNKL is already branching into product licensing, with skate shoes and snowboard gloves. Everything, from animated movies to flashlights, is on the table.

"We don't look at a wider audience as a negative thing," says Welch. UNKL, he says, strikes a balance between art and business by keeping some characters very limited.

"UNKL has different tiers." HazMaPo, UNKL's first character, is on the top tier—for the "core market of urban vinyl collectors."

"We wouldn't take HazMaPo to Target and say, 'Hey, do you want 100,000 of these?'" says Welch.

But other characters may indeed be churned out in the five figures and stocked, between G.I. Joes and RC cars, at superstores like Target.

"It makes art accessible," says Welch. "It's a way for people to express themselves through what they buy."

Consumption as expression, purchases that say something about the buyer—that may be the best explanation of urban vinyl yet. The concept is full of contradictions—toys for grownups? Mass-produced art? But whatever it is, people buy urban vinyl for the same reasons they buy retro sneakers and flashy hoodies, and maybe Picasso paintings, for that matter: It looks cool, and it makes them look cool. And, for now, once-geeky tastemakers like what urban vinyl says about them.


UNKL products are sold at Just Be Complex, 107 NW 5th Ave., 796-2733; Missing Link, 3314 SE Belmont St., 235-0032; and Office, 2204 NE Alberta St., 888-355-7467. Find more info at unklbrand.com. Core77 Offsite takes place at the Someday Lounge, 125 NW 5th Ave., 248-1030. Thursday, Feb. 8. 6 pm. SOLD OUT. More info at core77.com/offsite.
 
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