Interviews

Dealer Profile- Rotofugi Gallery: Where Toys and Art Meet

By GINNY VAN ALYEA

At the busy northside intersection of Lincoln and Diversey, floor to ceiling windows on a corner flatiron building reveal a seemingly out-of-nowhere art gallery, filled with unusual toys and bright figures displayed on the high walls. Inside visitors find quality work by both established and emerging artists in the fields of modern pop, illustration art and character/toy design. Everything within Rotofugi Designer Toy Store and Gallery is devoted to the unusual. Below is my conversation with co-founder Kirby Kerr. –GV

CGN: How did the gallery, and Rotofugi Designer Toy Store, get started and how did you come to focus on toys and modern pop?

KK: My wife and I opened Rotofugi in July 2004 because we found this thing called "urban vinyl toys" that no one in Chicago seemed to have. In August 2006 we were lucky enough to take over the building next door to our toy store and officially open Rotofugi Gallery as its own space, giving us more room to do regularly scheduled exhibitions. Before moving next door, our first exhibits were held in the back half of our store and ranged from customized toy shows to more traditional paintings and drawings. While we loved showing work in our store, we began to ache for more space after nearly two years of exhibits in the increasingly cramped space.

The gallery was, to be entirely honest, almost an accident. When we were first starting out we called ourselves "Rotofugi Designer Toy Store & Gallery" primarily because we wanted to get across the idea that the toys we were selling were not just toys, but art toys. What we quickly found out was that if you put the word "Gallery" anywhere as part of your name people will ask if they can have an exhibit in your space. So, in some way, we accidentally became a gallery space in addition to selling toys.

Our focus has always been on showing artwork that we love. In our earliest days we booked a lot of exhibits with friends and customers of the store, and then progressed over time to inviting some of our favorite artists to exhibit in our space. In large part that philosophy has held true...we show things we personally love. These days it's a combination of modern pop, illustration and artwork by folks who are somehow involved in the designer toy world. Our curator, David van Alphen, joined us in 2008 after having owned/operated DvA Gallery for several years. We had long admired the way David curated his own space so when the opportunity arose, we were happy to join forces.

CGN: What do you tell or show people who come into the gallery for the first time?

KK: We're pretty hands off, preferring to let the work speak for itself. We like to think we've got a unique situation where the gallery gives context to the toys and vice versa. Of course if a visitor wants to talk about the work we're always happy to provide as much information and background about the artist as we can.

CGN: Do most of your artists also work as (or with) designers?

KK: It's really all over the place. Some are full-time artists, others work in graphic design or even toy design by profession, and many are professional illustrators.

CGN: How do you see your gallery in relation to the overall Chicago art scene?

KK: I've always struggled with our place in the Chicago art scene. On one hand we're often exhibiting nationally or internationally known artists. On the other hand, because we work in a lesser-known niche, the audience for the work tends to be rather small within Chicago. I'd like to think we're adding a layer of variety and showing work that would otherwise not have a home in Chicago and giving exposure to artists in a positive atmosphere. 

CGN: Does Chicago have a unique place within the modern pop and illustration art scene?

KK: Chicago is home to a number of fantastic modern pop artists and illustrators, many of which we've shown over the years. In particular, we're big fans of both Jeremiah Ketner and Travis Lampe, two Chicago-based artists who have made a good impact with their paintings. Another Chicago artist we love, Jay Ryan, is probably the closest to having help put Chicago on the map, not necessarily for "modern pop" but as a gig-poster artist, another art form we absolutely love.

CGN: Describe the scene of your typical openings.

KK: It's hard to generalize, but they are for the most part pretty casual affairs. Given the nature of our combined toy store and art gallery setup we tend to be pretty family friendly (no alcohol) and we almost always arrange to have the artist available to meet with fans at the opening. 

CGN: Are most of the works shown in the gallery humorous or sinister?  

KK: A little of both actually! We do often show things that could be seen as humorous, but we don't specifically seek that out. A few of our favorite artists tend to explore dark themes too, like Daniel Danger and Derek Hess.

CGN: Is the client market for works exhibited in the gallery different than in the designer toy store?  

KK: Yes...and no. We do have several good clients that purchase artwork but aren't into the toys, but also have many that buy both. In a lot of ways we see the toys we sell, when everything "clicks," as just another way for an artist to reach their collectors. Of course not every toy meets that goal, but we're constantly looking out for artists that are doing interesting things within the designer toy niche.

CGN: Do you ever deal in the secondary market?

KK: We've toyed around (sorry, pun not intended) with selling a few items on consignment for customers, but for the most part we avoid the secondary market...we're interested in what's new and fresh, not what's hot on eBay.

CGN: In the toy store are you essentially selling highly collectible novelty items for adults, or sophisticated toys for kids? Do most of your clients get hooked early on?

KK: For the most part the toys we sell are intended for adult collectors, though you're right, many of our good customers are younger kids or teens who appreciate the design elements. I can't say that we intentionally try to hook customers, but collecting toys is definitely an addiction for many... a fun addiction for sure! 

CGN: Are most of your collectors new to the contemporary art world?

KK: I'd venture to say that a majority of our gallery clients are fairly new to collecting original works of art. We see a lot of people starting out with toys and collectibles that later become regular gallery patrons as they seek out unique examples of artwork. In a lot of ways it's not dissimilar to people starting out collecting inexpensive prints and "graduating" to buying paintings. In the end we're just trying to offer good art and design across a spectrum of media and prices, at least that's what we aspire to!