Five years ago, illustrators and designers might have turned to vinyl as the material of choice to bring a character to three-dimensional life as a marketable product. Now, however, artists are increasingly turning to paper to realise their ideas.
“Paper toys have been around for a while, just as vinyl toys were before they burst into the mainstream – but there’s a real excitement about them right now,” says Aidan Onn, owner of London’s Playlounge store, who believes that a current lull in the vinyl toy market might just provide the opportunity for a growing paper toy scene to emerge into popular culture. “I’m beginning to notice more artists are turning away from expensive and protracted negotiations for vinyl production, and toward more and more ‘home-produced’ product,” Onn continues.
Part of the problem regarding vinyl toy manufacturing, he explains, is that in the UK and Europe, artists are reliant on factories in Asia, and to make a toy worth doing, large numbers have to be ordered. It’s expensive and a big financial risk for newcomers to the scene. “And, as is the way with anything that creates such huge popular interest, the vinyl [toy] scene has rapidly become saturated,” claims Onn.“Interest seems to now be tailing off as collectors’ shelves groan under the weight of so much vinyl. So the industry feels very much in a state of flux once more as it tries to evolve.”
For the last few years, an underground paper toy scene has been developing across the world largely thanks to the internet and social media but it has, until recently, had little to do with making money. Character designers have been devising templates of their toy creations (such as the one on the facing page) which can be downloaded, by and large, for free by whoever is interested. The templates can be printed onto art paper (around 170gsm seems to be about right), the shapes then carefully cut out and the various bits are folded and glued accordingly.
“You can take the most 2D thing in the world, a piece of paper, and transform it into a 3D object – that’s the basic magic of the thing that pulled me in,” says Kansas City-based Matt Hawkins of Custom Paper Toys, who has been making paper toys and illustrations with paper since 2007. “Add to that the internet and you can send a 3D object anywhere in the world – like a low rent teleporter. Another thing I love is that it takes out a lot of the hurdles you face when making a traditional toy, no factories, no shipping, no commerce. Just sharing things with people that want to participate.”
Brooklyn-based paper toy maker Chris Beaumont (cubeecraft.com) has exhibited his creations in galleries in recent years and understands how offering templates for free has been vital to the movement’s gathering momentum. “They’re highly accessible to anyone with access to a computer and a printer,” he says. “I get emails from teachers and librarians who use paper toy templates in their lessons and activities, parents who just gush about how their kids have been decorating the house with them. It kind of goes without saying that the more people become aware of it, the more it spreads. Once you build one that comes out well, you’re hooked. Paper toys have been snowballing in popularity through social networks, blogs, and the visibility that books and other media provide. I think the real trick now is how a paper toy designer can monetise ‘free’.”
Graphic designer and paper toy maker Brian Castleforte has come up with one possible way to do just this. His book, Papertoy Monsters (Workman, US$16.95) published earlier this year, gathers together a host of make-them-yourself paper toys devised by 25 of the most popular paper toy designers from around the world, himself included. As well as representing a way of potentially making money out of the kind of toy templates that are so freely shared on the internet, it cleverly looks to give paper toys a new lease of life beyond the perhaps slightly geeky online culture that’s been gathering momentum over the last few years.
“Papertoy Monsters is a book aimed at kids, with most of the tricky craft work taken out of it,” explains Castleforte, “so that the toys can be easily built by children.” Instead of having to use sharp tools, the templates in the book are all perforated, push out designs that fit together using slots and flaps that require no glueing. These toys aren’t simply to sit untouched on the shelves and mantlepieces of graphic designers, despite, Castleforte maintains, still being miniature works of art. They are designed to be made, handled and played with by the kids that make them.
“I think the paper toy experience is a very different beast than a plastic toy,” observes UK-based designer Kenn Munk. “It’s more of a hobby project, but it taps into something important … where you get a good feeling of having accomplished something. That adds a certain value to an object.”
Munk has been experimenting with paper sculptures and toys for several years, and has moved away from creating sculptural paper models, designed to be displayed, towards creating toys in workshops with kids, whereby the fun of making them is celebrated as much as the objects created. “I’ve started an irregular educational project with illustrator Annabelle Hartmann in which there’s a slight shift from making printed and/or printable paper toy templates to actually making paper toys and objects with kids and also grown ups. For the 2010 Port Elliot Festival in Cornwall and the 2011 Aarhus Festival in Denmark we set up a paper medal workshop where kids came in and made medals and trophies using templates and different coloured paper.”
Last year Munk and Hartmann also hosted a Monster For London workshop at London’s V&A involving the creation of paper finger puppets, designed, of course, to be worn and played with, rather than placed on a shelf and displayed. “For me, there’s an interesting shift from art object toys to toys you can play with,” he adds.
Back at Onn’s London Playlounge shop, designers and illustrators are coming in with paper-based products they’d like him to invest in and stock. “We’re starting to see more and more aspiring toy designers bringing in concept designs constructed out of paper and card,” he says. “There are also some exciting developments in paper engineered toys,” he continues. “There’s a range of solar-powered moving paper models ( monkey-design.com.tw), which are pre-cut for ease of construction, and include a solar-dynamo to insert into the paper toy to give it moving parts. A great combination of materials and a very exciting path for the designer toy market to be exploring.”
Whether they move, are on shelves or in the hands of children playing with them, LA-based Castleforte, like Onn, believes that paper toys are destined to emerge into the mainstream at any moment, just like vinyl toys did around a decade ago. Why? “They’re just too cool to be ignored.”
If you’d like you to decorate your own version of the paper toy featured opposite the start of this piece, we’d love to see it. Please email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org