Real Talk About Custom Toys 2: The 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Bravo! Great piece. I’m glad you wrote something with substance and not just another bash-job on Paul as I would have done. You have tact and skill, sir, bravo.
That said, Jesus man, that was a disaster of a show! I wasn’t there obviously but listening to Paul’s excuses about the fragility of the pieces makes even less sense to me now that I’ve seen your pictures and can see all the empty space, or at least available working space, on those shelves. Especially the lower, deeper shelves.
I’m glad you brought in the info about the history of the Playsam form, it’s something I knew nothing about. I wasn’t sure why this little wooden car was being used for a show at all. And no disrespect to any of the artists invited, but I don’t know of many of them that had worked with wood in the past so it all seemed strange to begin with.
But anyway, I appreciate the history lesson and I’m sure there are a lot of other people in my ignorance boat so thank you for the information.
Thanks Matt. I didn’t actually know much about PLAYSAM either, but like you, little wooden cars as a “platform” for customizing struck me as curious. That’s when I decided to visit my friend, Google.
I guess I wish more of the artists had done this as well. When people call something “iconic,” and it arrives in your mailbox nicely packaged in a luxe black box, it just seems like the recipient ought to take a moment and think: Where is this from? Why is this “iconic”? Who made this? Why did they make these?
I have been in contact with Alex at Super7 and am happy to report my custom was located, albeit … it looked to have never been unwrapped. Super7 intends to take over and see that this event does follow through on the show’s good intentions.
Like everyone else, I knew nothing about Playsam. Nor did I know that there was a similar show (at least insofar as the platform was concerned) several years ago.
I think you bring up a good point about the artist researching the platform and thinking about it (as opposed to simply how to put their style on something new). I hadn’t really thought about that before but it makes total sense. If I were an artist, wouldn’t the background of a piece help provide inspiration for me to further explore?
And I know nothing about curating an art exhibit, but if the platform is a car and you’re worried about something rolling and falling (and enclosed display cases are not an option), why not have little wheel chocks to keep the cars in place? I can see that an argument against that would be that it might detract from the piece but it’s better than not displaying pieces thought to be too fragile and it might make some folks smile.
Perhaps this scene needs a better way to categorize the people that create within it because as you pointed out, there are varying levels of skills (and I’m speaking in general, not with regard to this show). I’ve “created” a couple things (one of which was turning a few doppelgangers into brain slugs from Futurama complete with magnets to hang off the side of your fridge). But I’m no artist and don’t deserve to be any sort of show… At best, I’d call myself a hobbyist because I don’t have much artistic skill. I can do simple, paint by numbers stuff but ask me to draw you something from memory and you’ll probably get a stick figure. I don’t know enough about real art to really delve into this though. Clearly there’s hobbyists (which I think are people like me that shouldn’t be hawking customized toys to anyone). You also have customizers that can paint and perhaps sculpt pop culture characters and undoubtedly have skill at what they do. Then there’s those people who make original creations with a whole spectrum of different skill sets within this group (meaning some have their characters or styles they’re known for and like to recreate and then there’s those that I think transcend the simplicities of the toy scene).
Just my two cents and I’m admittedly not really one whose opinion should be taken to heart since I don’t know much about art. (Also, sorry for any typos; I didn’t proofread this.)
Great article. I admire your honesty. It was great to read your insight as both an attendee of the event and through the eyes of a curator of some fantastic shows.
The history lesson about Playsam was a great addition.
This post is exactly my feeling about pre-show images people started to post some time ago — too much everything, too little of Playsam – design and quality icon in toy making.
I agree with most of what you said, but you really shouldn’t be saying what artist should do (or not do) with their art, nor what each platform should have on it. This is just a slurry of opinion. I totally think Paul deserves an EPIC failure metal for this one (and maybe he should be launched out into space, naked).
What a lovely and intriguing website. I have a dim sort of burgeoning interest in vinyl toys and artwork, and this appears to be exactly the site I should peruse.
A thoughtful article, Jeremy.
I have one gripe though: “Fitzsu’s roster included 33+ working designers; Greenwood picked a lineup of 50+ largely hobbyist toy customizers.”
I’ve taken a look at the contributions to the 2006 show and honestly, I can find just as many customs that are about pushing an agenda and not about the design itself. Tim Biskup and Touma did about as good as a job regarding that as Travis Lampe did in this show. The designers of 2006 and the hobbyists of 2012 are by no means different. The fact that they are working designers doesn’t make their contributions more thoughtful or better. Fact is, designers have as much trouble finding recognition and money to live by as writers or (toy) artists.
Even Playsam are just as good as every other toy designer when sending out blank wooden toys for other (hopefully famous) people to customize with the intent of getting some new customers. To me a blank wooden toy (even if its 50 years old) is no better than a blank vinyl toy.
I believe the show(s) would have been a lot better if these had had a theme. Maybe something like “the future of mobility”. Something that makes designers and audience think.
Well, I agree with a lot but disagree with some, I’m feeling Daniel response was close to what I think… I write something just now at circus posterus, so if you allow me, I will copy and paste here:
I been a fan of the playsam toys for some years (never had one) still I consider my self a fan
I don’t think the curator should teach us all lessons about design, or about the toy or the company, I mean, will be great if we had received a PDF with a backstory or a link to the website, that could be a cool detail from him, but not necessary much less an obligation, why I say this, because if you don’t realize the beauty and importance of the design right at the moment you receive that beautiful black box with silver letters, and then you find inside nicely wrapped in a nice bag a beautiful, clean awesome wooden car, then believe me something is wrong with you. I’d not need background history about certain singer to like their songs…
And I do believe that if we had receive that info, pretty much everyone on the artist roll would and should make the something they do. Because that’s what they do! So maybe the problem was the selection of artists?
I do agree in part with Jeremy article, but but in some this not so much, he puts like example the previous playsam show, if you look at all the pieces on that show, you will find at least 10 designs that treat the car the same way as it was a vinyl toy is treated on our scene. Yes there are beautiful designs way simpler, because the nature of the artists involved, but same as this show, there were more successful pieces than bad ones (or “disrespectful” pieces) agree there were a few that went to the extreme and agree , I don’t like some of them at all, and honestly I think are bad pieces. But again, also happen on the previous show, that’s were I think Jeremy went little to far with his affirmation. Definitely the problem is the choice of artists. Not the lack of information about the car. But again I think were an handful who went too crazy to little effective working on this piece.
Personally, I didn’t want to even touch the car… So cool little thing. But hey I was invited and I was excited to be part of this show, and If I take a show, I’m going to go in chauskoskis mode hehe so I came up with this idea, I pant the car pretty clean and simple, yet I think it looks fantastic by it self, but that beautiful car needed a base to display it properly, so the body is the base. And there’s the little twist, I fully respect my style, but also fully preserve the beauty and simplicity of the streamliner.
Damn! Just read some crappy auto correction that change words… Bare with me guys…
More than half of this show pieces can look pretty nice along some of the pieces on the previous show. I think much of this is the context, if you display the cheese with the rabbit among to of the really unsuccessful pieces, poorly displayed, illuminated etc, then you won’t like it. But the same cheese you put it nex to a couple of the cool designs on the Fitzsu show, on a nice white background etc, It would look pretty cool and I bet your perspective about it will change.
(personally I like the cheese and many others but , agree, next to others they tend to blend in the wrong way… Is all about the context it think.
But yes, was a poor curating, take out the un effective ones and you will get a 25-30 pieces fantastic show.
Thank you for your blog.