Fandom and toys have always gone hand in hand. Collectible toys come in a range of forms, from action figures that line the shelves of toy stores, to high-end models and figure kits. While some only see toys as playthings for kids, for many, toys are an art form. Adults looking to display toys like artwork often find themselves in the world of designer toys.

Designer art toys combine creative modern art with a childhood love of action figures, dolls, and models. And with the popularization of fandom culture in the mainstream, it’s easy to see how the art world has been influenced by fandom, especially in the designer toy market. As this art form stems from collecting and displaying beloved toys, the relationship between fandom and art manifests in incredibly unique forms.

What Are Designer Art Toys?

Designer art toys generally refer to a figure (usually vinyl) designed by an independent artist for the purpose of collecting and displaying. But larger companies such as Kidrobot produce and sell these figures. Many of the figures have pop-art influences, with pop culture themes, eye-catching designs, and bright colors. Artists channel the colorful world of children’s toys and blend it with more adult designs and quality materials. While some figures can be extremely expensive, generally designer art toys are a more accessible form of art than other types of fine art. Designer toys are geared towards a wider range of fans and collectors.

Designer art toys of Batman, Harley Quinn, and The Joker designed to resemble calavera sugar skulls.
Jose Pulido, Sideshow Collectables, and DC

The participation and culture of art toys truly are to recapture the childhood enthusiasm for picking out and collecting toys. Many art toys are fantasy or sci-fi inspired; there is no shortage of original robots, aliens, monsters, and kaiju. At the same time, many franchises have paired up with designers to create brand-inspired figures. Unlike figure kits or models, designer toys that feature franchises usually reimagine characters. 

The Rise Of Fandom Designer Art & Putting A Price On Nostalgia

Art figure of Venom as a Labbit, a rabbit-like creature
Frank Kozik, Kidrobot, Marvel

Pop culture and art have always coexisted in some form.  So, as fandom culture has continued to hit the mainstream, it has also had a mutual relationship with the art world, especially the designer toy market. And while fan art is a huge source of creativity and inspiration in fandoms, art toys take on the form of that communal reimagining. Designer art toys celebrate pop culture as a source of inspiration and bonding between fans, collectors, and artists alike.

Line up of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle art toys made to resemble original action figures.
Super 7, Mirage Studios

It makes sense that a huge draw of designer art toys depends on nostalgia. Collecting toys in itself is a way of interacting with childhood memories. As a huge portion of designer toy artists and collectors are millennials, many of the franchises teaming up with designers to create products from the 80s and 90s. It’s common to see figures from Hello Kitty, Nicktoons, The Transformers, He-Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being offered by designer art retailers alongside original pieces. Some art figures go even further and recapture the action figure blister packs — a great alternative to the very different world of collecting vintage toys.

Accessibility: Blind Boxes, Mini Figures, And Plushies Make For Casual Collecting 

Both fine art and toy collecting are pricey endeavors and can be difficult to get into. Designer art toys are made for collecting and created to be at an accessible price point.  Hardcore collectors and casual fans alike have a shot at the figures of their favorite characters.   Probably the most mainstream art toy would be Funko Pop figures. 

A collection of Funko Pop art toy figures.
Funko Pop collection by Pop Fun To Play

Set at a reasonable price point and offering figures of every character under the sun, it’s easy to see why Funko Pops have become such a phenomenon. However, there are many other lines of affordable figures gaining popularity. 

Build A Collection With Blind Boxes

Blind boxes are the designer art world’s version of addictive mystery prizes. In the spirit of gashapon machines, booster-packs, or “collect them all” cereal box prizes, each line of blind boxes has a different theme with mystery prizes to collect. Mini-figures, pins, and keychains are the usual prizes, with some being common and others being quite rare. 

Blind boxes of Godzilla miniature designer art toys.
Godzilla Blind boxes from Kidrobot

And recently, many of these blind boxes tie in with a franchise or artist (or both!)  Nicktoons, Adult Swim, The Simpsons, DC, and Marvel have all had lines of blind boxes featuring beloved characters. Blind boxes capture the fun surprise element of many nostalgic toy experiences.  

Designer Art Toys Support Small Artists

The wonderful thing about designer art toys and franchises collaboration with them is the support of independent artists.  Larger art toy companies like Kidrobot work with graphic designers and artists to reimagine different franchises.  The art toy world is open to fully independent artists as well.  Conventions like Designer-Con basically expand Artist Alley (the part of a comic or anime convention where independent artists showcase and sell their work) into an entire vendor hall, with original and fan art by smaller, independent artists.  

A blank figure of a chibi version of the Vocaloid Miku, intended for customizing.
A Vinyl Blank- Clutter Studios, Crypton Future Media

Blank DYI figures encourage independent artists to be creative with recognizable figures. These recognizable canvases allow many different artists to interpret a familiar shape and customize a unique piece of artwork. Many times, several artists are called upon at once to customize a blank (which can be any shape) for an art show. Additionally, these blanks are available for anyone to customize. Many of these blanks are recognizable by shape and name (the widely used and accessible Dunny, for example) in the art community. As the blanks are often known by name, tagging one’s customized piece of art is easy on social media and lends to visibility in a more specific group of artists. This encourages artistic participation, an openness to all skill levels, and blurs the line between creator and consumer.

The Art Of Fandom

The art toy community is an fandom in itself.  It is a subcultural community bonding through a shared love of art, creation, and participation. One of the best parts about being in fandom is seeing beloved characters reimagined by artists. Designer art toys allow fans of all types to have a unique interpretation of their favorite character on display. Additionally, designer art toys offer an accessible opening into the world of art, toys, and everything in-between.