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The Weird, Whimsical, Wondrous World of Art Toys in Vietnam

At the end of 1999, Hong Kong artist and designer Michael Lau presented the “Gardener” toy collection, an amalgamation of his interests in G.I. Joe action figures and street culture. The launch is widely considered the birth of a new movement in toy-making: designer toys, also known as art toys.

Designer toys are a subgenre of specially made knick-knacks that are often released as limited editions. The market for these intricate crafts now include both niche artisans and big names like Medicom and Kidrobot. Creators unveil collections of unique characters to attract the wallets of collectors. In the past two decades, art toys have proven to be more than just a subculture in major markets like China. In 2020, Pop Mart, the largest designer toy company in the country, sold over five million items, despite the pandemic’s economic impact.

Figurines from the classic collection "The Gardener" by Michael Lau. These belong to a special rendition from 2009 to commemorate the collection's 10-year anniversary. Photo via Hypebeast.

Vietnam’s art toy scene is still very young, having been around for just a few years, with one landmark for the community occurring in 2019 when Cơm Hộp, a concept store dedicated to the hobby, opened. As one of the earliest trailblazers in the country, Cơm Hộp organizes events and collaborative projects to connect artists, manufacturers and collectors to promote art toy culture to newcomers. In the past two years, even though public events were hard to come by because of public health restrictions, they managed to hold four exhibitions under the name Cơm Thập Cẩm to showcase collaborative works with local designers.

Jopus with his artworks on display at the National Exhibition of Applied Arts 2014–2019. Photo courtesy of Jopus.

Jopus is a young graphic designer whose tenure in the art toy community started in 2018. He shared how he started dabbling in this nascent art form: “It was 2017. My wife and I were vacationing in Thailand during the Thailand Toy Expo. I was really overwhelmed by the art toys I saw. I initially didn’t know what to call them, simply thinking that they were toy models. Upon more research, I knew what they were, and the more I discovered, the more I loved them. I’m a designer myself, so I love designs with a strong personal creative touch.”

Like Jopus, creating art toys is a new side passion for many young creatives. Nonetheless, he says that the goal is not to make profits, but to satisfy that creative desire to painstakingly craft something that is incredibly detailed. Jopus shares: “To be able to do whatever you want without being constrained by past models or anything, to hold your ‘brainchild’ in your hand, it’s an indescribable joy.”

There isn’t a proper institute or course dedicated to creating designer toys, so aspiring hobbyists often are left to their own devices to practice their skills, do research, and network to come up with their own creation. In an interview with Saigoneer, The O Room, an artist with two years in the designer toy community, said: “For me, the creative process begins from observation, then selecting the best visuals, converting to specific shapes, modifying, and then production.”

'Street Dragon' by The O Room. Photo courtesy of The O Room.

In The O Room’s works, one might encounter quotidian, tongue-in-cheek slices of our normal life. For instance, the character Street Dragon is inspired by the national myth of Con Rồng Cháu Tiên. Street Dragon was born of a hypothetical scenario: what if our fairytale ancestors are alive and living in today’s modern world, engaging in simple pleasures like sitting on the sidewalk with an iced tea shooting the breeze with friends?

He explains his own production process: “It starts with shaping the figures by hand, then resin casting, surface treatment, painting, and packaging. I personally find it hardest to force myself to go through with everything until the end, because to be honest, every step of the way has its own challenges.” He also stresses that each artist has their own process and materials.

A character from the Huguu series by Thảo Xeko. Photo by Hấu Niêu.

In a market as humbly sized as Vietnam, art toys usually hold more artistic and cultural values for collectors than monetary value. Each piece is handmade by the artists, so often they exist as a one-of-a-kind creation. Holding an art toy in your hand means handling something unique and special. Most buyers are collectors who share the same aesthetic sensibility with creators, so they purchase the toys to fill up their collection or to beautify their home.

After chatting with four art toy designers, I’ve come to a personal realization, that perhaps the art toy is among the few art forms that are very difficult to fake in Vietnam. Each figure is intricate, with a strong personality. Bùi Thế Hiển is fond of Lovecraftian creatures with haunting orifices; Jopus puts his personal flair on the “octopus planet;” The O Room is more playful, with slice-of-life creations; and Thảo Xeko has a special penchant for cherubic figures with unique quirks.

'Phong Linh' by Bùi Thế Hiển. Photo courtesy of Bùi Thế Hiển. 

The O Room asserts that creativity is a strong point for toy artists in Vietnam: “Even though it’s not widely known, the local community has great potential for growth, as Vietnamese aesthetics are not inferior to any major market out there. Moreover, artists come from diverse fields, and this contributes to the broad range of subject matters in their products.”

At the moment, perhaps it’s too early to assess the monetary trajectory of this art form. Most artists agree that the output is not consistent; creators still have to rely on their own personal connections and online presence to market their works, and few see this as a livable career path. Thảo Xeko, who created the adorable Huguu figures, opines: “I think the art toy communities in Saigon and Vietnam still haven't gained enough understanding from the public deserving of the values it created.”

It’s hard to brush aside the limitations of this rather young subculture, but it’s also true that local artists have achieved a lot in just two years, so we have all the proof we need to place trust in their ability to build a more professional network, organize more exhibitions, strengthen a “Vietnam'' style of design, and even reach out to the regional arena. Of course, expanding the community is a foremost goal for art toy enthusiasts, but educating the public and collectors on the true value of designer toys is no less important. Vietnamese toys can be quotidian or avant-garde, but not necessarily cheap.

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