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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Early in September 2002, Malfi showed up at the Berlin offices of Die Gestalten Verlag (DGV), the graphic design publishing house that in 2000 released Pictoplasma, a groundbreaking book of contemporary character design featuring cutting-edge logos, cartoons, icons, puppets, and dolls. Friends with You happened to send a package of samples just as the DGV staff was collecting stuff in preparation for the debut issue of Übersee -- a magazine also dedicated to today's character design. Since then the Malfi doll, X-eyed and grim, has presided over the DGV conference room. In an e-mail to New Times, DGV publisher and editor-in-chief Robert Klanten reports, "You might say that it supervises our meetings."
Pictoplasma editor Peter Thaler includes Friends with You in the recently released followup, Pictoplasma 2. Friends, writes Klanten, "are a good example of next generation plush toys in that their designs play with the aesthetic of what 'monsters' should and could be." For the German publisher, new-generation plush is subversive stuff: "Disney-like aesthetics are replaced by the bizarre. High tech by high touch."
When today's designers were kids, notes Klanten, they spent more time with illustrated characters on television and in video games than with their parents, teachers, or friends in the "real" world. They don't want to give up those relationships just because they've supposedly grown up. Instead there is what Klanten calls a "Peter Pan effect," as the artists react against a culture obsessed with looking, but not acting, young. The people who buy these bizarro toys, like the designers who make them, want to tear down the screens between themselves and their friends on television and the Web.
By all accounts, the prime mover of the plush underground is New York-based artist Mumbleboy, a.k.a. Kinya Hanada, a 34-year-old Japanese American who began selling handmade Mumble Dolls out of his apartment in 1996. From Manhattan the artist tells New Times that he started making the dolls as early as 1992 or 1993 because he wanted a break from painting while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. With oversized bulges for heads and pointy arms and legs, the Mumble Dolls look like aliens escaped from one of Mumbleboy's computer animated movies, where flat, futuristic figures constantly shape-shift to throbbing electronic music, like characters in a video game gone insane. Mumble Dolls can be found wherever freaky grown-up toys are sold. Last Christmas animated versions of the little guys sprouted wings for a holiday light show sponsored by the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority and, the artist mumbles, "kind of flew around on the ceiling" of Grand Central Station.
While in Europe last April, Mumbleboy dropped in on the DGV offices and stumbled upon Malfi. He snapped a picture in the conference room, then Photoshopped the doll into a photograph of the city, hovering over the buildings Godzilla-style. He posted the collage on mumbleboy.com with the title "Malfi vs. Berlin."
"You guys are on the Mumbleboy site!" an ecstatic friend e-mailed Sam.
"No way," Sam gushed. "He's the best!"
"Man, how'd you see Malfi attacking Berlin?" Sam e-mailed Mumbleboy. "I'm glad you caught him."
By sending out quirky e-mails, Friends get to know pretty much everybody else making indie plush in the Americas. "It's a very small community," observes Chad Phillips, the 30-year-old buyer for Kid Robot, a San Francisco store and Internet site that carries roughly 800 Asian and Asian-inspired art toys. "The people we deal with in America all pretty much know each other."
"I notice all of the people who make the plushes are really nice people," adds Eric Nakamura, founding editor of the hip Asian culture magazine Giant Robot and co-owner of the Internet retail site and two Los Angeles boutiques, also called Giant Robot. Nakamura says that in the more established world of vinyl art toys, dominated by Asian designers like Hong Kong's Michael Lau and Eric So and the Japanese team Medicom, he sees much more jealousy and infighting. "I don't know if that's because they're making cute stuff, but I don't see people being negative in the plush world."
In 1999, when Mumble Dolls were beginning to appear on the new art toy sites and selling along with CDs at a few underground electronic music outlets, another pair of computer animators/toymakers in their twenties, Alisa McRonald and Keith Knittel of the duo Dynamo, opened their store in Manhattan called Dynamo-Ville. The sweet, nearly shapeless pastel critters of Dynamo-ville couldn't look more different from Mumbleboy's aliens or Friends' freaks; and at a retail price upward of $100, these are not toys for the casually cool. Yet in an interview over the phone from the couple's current home in Los Angeles, where they are now part-owners of the art toy-friendly Millicent Gallery, Knittel says he finds "common ground" among the plush pushers in their "love for art that's comforting and interactive."
Dynamo struggles to have its dolls recognized as art, but the confusion of art with commerce in toymaking is what excites Argentine animator/toymaker Julian Gatto. An Internet pal of Friends with You, Gatto designs super-cute characters and dolls that look like they were made by and for babies -- except they are so blissful, flat, and simple they seem somehow twisted. "When something that is generally seen as a commercial product is put in another context," Gatto e-mails from Buenos Aires, "it opens a whole spectrum of experimental possibilities."