Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Design Exchange - Hermès Festival des Métiers / This is Not A Toy

While I've have spent a lot of time at Toronto's primary museums and art galleries, only recently have I come to recognize the Design Exchange as a venue that regularly offers interesting exhibits, focusing on Canadian and International design.  I attended several very interesting shows in the past few months.

The high-end French designer boutique Hermès brought their traveling show called Festival des Métiers or Festival of Crafts to the Design Exchange this past October.  Artisans and craftsmen displayed their skills at making and repairing handbags, ties, gloves, watches and more.

The highlight of the exhibition was the silk screen printing demo that resulted in the creation of the beautiful and iconic Hermes scarves.  Starting with a white sheet of silk, dyes of the various colours found in the pattern were applied one by one.  There was a separate panel for each shade of colour found on a scarf, with stenciled cutouts of the parts of the pattern represented by that colour.  The appropriate dye was poured onto the panel and then a scraper (chosen from ones of varying thicknesses) was used to push the paint over the stencil, onto the silk.  It was fascinating to watch the pattern build up as each additional layer of colour was added.

ToBeUs is an Italy toy company known for making toy cars out of blocks of "16 x 7.5 x 7.5 cm Lebanese cedar wood".  The shape of the car is created by two consecutive cuts into the wood, one longitudinal and one transversal (diagonally intersecting the original cut).  ToBeUs invited over 100 designers from around the world to try their hand at creating one of these cars.

The results were astounding and in some of these cases, I cannot see how it is possible that they were accomplished with only two cuts!

Finally, the "This is Not A Toy" exhibit currently on display until May 19, 2014 is curated by rap star/song writer/producer Pharrell Williams.  These designer pieces, ranging from small miniatures to full-sized figures, can cost anywhere from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.  Williams and other collectors treat these objects not as toys but as works of art that comment on pop culture.

It is understandable how these figures can be mistaken for toys at first glance.  They are bright, colourful, whimsical, and many of them are modeled after traditional images of iconic toys.  But look closer and you can see a subversive twist to each of these items.  The Ronald McDonalds have their brains and innards exposed.  Charlie Brown and Bart Simpson are grinning a bit too lasciviously and Lucy has abnormally big boobs. A mouse-like figure brings to mind what Mickey Mouse would look like drag.  Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and the little blue smurfs each have their eyes or the hands covering their eyes "X"-ed out–a signature feature of artist Brian Donnelly, nicknamed KAWS.

There is a definite Japanese influence, even in pieces not designed by Japanese artists.  Many of them are based on Japanese anime, which are hand-drawn or computer generated animations and manga (Japanese comics).  I have found that there is often a somber and slightly creepy, sinister air to source material and this translates into the figures as well.

The series of characters by American artist Huck Gee pays tribute to Samurai lore with specific reference to movies like "The Seven Samurai".  His "Red Shogun" and "Red Geisha" figures can be found on eBay, with an asking price of almost $800 US.

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition was the floor-to-ceiling glass case full of 3-inch "Dunny" figures. Dunny is a curved bunny usually with rabbit ears, made by the company KidRobot, that comes with a blank face which can be  repainted and reinterpreted by different artists. It was fascinating to look closely at the hundreds of little figures, all on loan from a single collector and compare the diverse designs that the various artists came up with for their Dunny.

In sourcing the "not-toys" for this exhibit, Pharell Williams contributed items from his own collection and asked for loans from many of his collector friends.  He also co-designed a large piece called "The Simple Things" with toy designers Takashi Murakami and Jacob Arabo.  Made of multi-coloured fiberglass, the monstrous head with sharp fangs has its mouth open to display bejeweled miniatures of William's favourite items including ketchup, a can of Pepsi, a cupcake, a running shoe and a bag of chips. 

The delightful items in this exhibition may not be toys, but that did not stop me from wanting to play with all of them.

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