Real Talk About Custom Toys 2: The PLAYSAM 500

Playsam 500

The PLAYSAM Streamliner car is an iconic Swedish desk toy that’s been in production since 1984.  The company describes itself as “a haven for contemporary, cosmopolitan, classic design. Simply put, Playsam are Scandinavian design at its finest.” Wikipedia describes Scandinavian design as “a design movement characterized by simple designs, minimalism, functionality, and low-cost mass production.”

PLAYSAM classics

In 2006, the owners of LA-based Fitzsu Society curated a Fitzu custom PLAYSAM charity auction. Michael Graves, Karim Rashid, Yves Behar and Tim Biskup were among the over 33 designers participating in Fitzsu’s “Grand Prix,” and the finished one-off cars were auctioned to benefit the World Childhood Foundation. Fitzsu chose cars as the “canvas” or platform for their event because of the ubiquity of cars in LA: “Nowhere in the world is the car more celebrated than in Los Angeles. It is said that there are more Porsches in Los Angeles than the rest of the world combined.”


When an object has its own history of 28 years and ties in with a design movement that emerged in the 1950s, it seems to me like that object should be respected. In the 2006 show, industrial designer Khodi Feiz turned his PLAYSAM into an aerodynamic dome as a shout-out to the legendary Buckminster Fuller. Richard Holbrook created his car in the PLAYSAM tradition of woodgrain and gloss, but gave it a simple, yet distinctly Californian upgrade: a rooftop rack with a surfboard. Alfredo Häberli had an internal dialogue about altering the PLAYSAM’s perfection: “For me, with admiration and respect, the only questions that were raised when asked to participate in this event were ‘Should I be allowed to change such an archtype design? Is it not beautiful enough?'” He painted three glossy race cars so he could pick up and go for a drive with PLAYSAM designers Ulf Hanses and Carl Zedig.

Fitzsu PLAYSAM Grand Pris 2006
Custom PLAYSAM cars by designers in the 2006 Fitzsu PLAYSAM Grand Prix

The 2012 PLAYSAM custom show curated by Paul Greenwood at Super7 in San Francisco lacked R&R: reverence and reference. There was no respect for the PLAYSAM brand: no black and red, no shout-outs to Hanses and Zedig. The Los Angeles show had a link to car culture; San Francisco: not so. Fitzsu’s roster included 33+ working designers; Greenwood picked a lineup of 50+ largely hobbyist toy customizers. The effect being that the majority of the PLAYSAM cars were treated like the rest of the neverending traffic of “blank vinyl toys”. They became soulless fodder for the custom show mills: overworked and underwhelming.

There were, however, some exceptions. My award for best in show is a tie between New York-based designer, Andrew Bell and Color Ink Book‘s Adam Washburn.

Andrew Bell
Custom Playsam Streamliner car by Andrew Bell

Rather than forcing a signature style onto the iconic car, Bell and Washburn let the form guide their design. By working with the object, their customs wink with a cleverness that isn’t domineering. The only shame here is the utterly disappointing display: poor lighting, thoughtless layout and repurposed acrylic boxes and risers on a shallow, retail store countertop. These conditions, surrounded by less expensive vinyl toys and “lifestyle” T-shirts, do not sell $600 art objects.

Adam Washburn
Custom PLAYSAM Streamliner car by Adam Washburn

Julie West, Jeremiah Ketner and 64Colors used the PLAYSAM cars as miniature 3D canvases. Their paintings look beautiful from all angles while also exhibiting the natural woodgrain of the classic cars. There’s a pride in the craftsmanship here, and it’s too bad the talent wasn’t properly showcased. It’s worth pointing out that despite this being labeled a charity show (recipients remain unknown), Super7 and Greenwood are taking a percentage of the sales. I absolutely think that art show curators and galleries should be compensated for the extremely hard work that goes into a successful art event; it’s just there was no evidence of any hard work here.

LTR: PLAYSAMS by Julie West, Jeremiah Ketner and 64Colors
Custom PLAYSAM cars by Julie West, Jeremiah Ketner and 64Colors

Gary Ham and Super Cooper Berella each independently thought about where the PLAYSAM cars came from. Their playful pieces recognize the trees from which the cars originated and also celebrated the joy of toys. But Ham’s piece, like those by several other artists, despite having arrived on time, wasn’t on display on Saturday night. (I would have really liked to see Walter “Chauskoskis” Jackott’s PLAYSAM, for instance. He clearly put a lot of work into creating the character, and he spent $80 to ship it from Mexico. It arrived at Super7 three days before the show, yet inexplicably, it remained in a box in the back room during the opening reception.) When asked about the missing PLAYSAMs, Greenwood told Berella that they didn’t have a way to ensure the safety of the “fragile” pieces. He said he’d put them out later on in the evening. This didn’t happen.

Custom PLAYSAMs by Gary Ham and Super Cooper Berella
Custom PLAYSAMs by Gary Ham and Super Cooper Berella

Play value is also one of the founding principles of PLAYSAM. While a few of the cars are a bit overworked in terms of Scandinavian design, these six designers did understand the role of functionality. Josh Mayhem‘s PLAYSAM fired missiles, Task One‘s had working headlights and John “Spanky” Stokes transformed his into an RC car.

However, Greenwood never turned on those headlights and didn’t display Stokes’ car at all. It’s easy to blame the first-time curator (who showed up only hours before the opening), but Super7 should also take some responsibility. They knew this show was coming, but failed to take any action to promote or display the anticipated artwork.

Clockwise PLAYSAMS by Cris Rose, Task One, PlaSeeBo, SpankyStokes, Josh Mayhem and Paul Kaiju
Clockwise by Cris Rose, Task One, PlaSeeBo, SpankyStokes, Josh Mayhem and Paul Kaiju

I think these PLAYSAM cars by Travis Lampe, Reactor-88 and George Gaspar should also be recognized for understanding that sometimes, “less is more”. There’s a tendency among toy customizers to be over-indulgent, as if the sheer amount of Super Sculpey one adds on will make it worth more money. This, of course, is incorrect. The designers for the 2006 PLAYSAM show understood that “design is a process of subtraction”. The fashion world knows this by way of Coco Chanel’s famous advice: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror, and take one thing off”.

Custom PLAYSAMs by Travis Lampe, Reactor-88 and George Gaspar
Custom PLAYSAM cars by Travis Lampe, Reactor-88 and George Gaspar

There were many PLAYSAM cars that could have benefited from subtraction. In the end, PLAYSAM was failed by the curator, the “gallery,” and the artists who treated the iconic wooden toy car like just another slab of disposable vinyl. Sad. Click through for the full lineup.

BONUS: If you made it this far and enjoyed reading me critique a show about custom toys, click here for another one I reviewed back in 2010.