IMG_7370If you were to pick up one of the many small, white, Japanese-stylized rabbit figurines in the gift shop at the Design Exchange, you would discover a black and white label attached to the $35 price tag which reads:

“WARNING! This is NOT a toy.  It is an Art object and should be handled accordingly.”

It may look like a toy to most people, but to others it’s a distinctive expression of art.

These days, the line between what’s considered art and commoditized product is certainly vague. Since Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup can (which launched the pop art movement), artwork tended to veer off of conventional practice to focus on commodity, commerce, and models of consumerism.

Above all, it is the uniqueness emanating from each figure that holds the observer. 

What’s the difference between what we traditionally look at as a plaything, and a piece of artwork?That’s the question the newest exhibit at the Design Exchange, This is Not a Toy, hopes to answer.

On display until May 19th, visitors of the exhibit (co-curated by singer Pharrell Williams), will become completely immersed in the realm of designer toys as the Exhibition Hall of the Design Exchange is transformed into a colourful and quirky showcase, filled with forms ranging from “tiny trinkets to enormous free-standing pieces,” according to the exhibit’s website.

The exhibition examines the conceptual toy – a form created uniquely as an expression of an “aesthetic, concept or idea” – as an art and design object, as well as a modern cultural signifier.  The art toy is an ever-evolving amalgamation of popular, contemporary ideas.

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Photo by Ema Walters

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Photo by Ema Walters

It is not surprising that co-curator Pharrell Williams is drawn to the toy-art domain. His diverse talents outside of his music career and his interests in furniture, fashion, jewelry and design, manifest in the many pieces drawn from his collection for This is Not a Toy.

Pharrell has cultivated relationships with many of the artists in the exhibit, and played a pivotal role in securing their involvement.

Pop art has influenced the art world for decades, but what’s become new is the ability for artists to make a name for themselves through independent (sometimes digital) branding, rather than through traditional channels of art marketing. Take for example graffiti artist Bansky, or even amateur artists on Tumblr.

The art toy is an ever-evolving amalgamation of popular, contemporary ideas.

As the artist’s popularity expands, forward-thinking art consumers take notice, bringing these artists and designers recognition, exhibition, and explosive product sales.

“The accessibility of the designer toy – in cost and cultural relevance – has made it appealing to a wide range of collectors and artists.  The aesthetic appreciation of a designer toy is immediate and visceral,” is printed on the exhibit’s walls.

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Photo by Ema Walters

Both the young and the young at heart can instinctively enjoy the physical properties of an art toy: bright colours, clean design, and pleasing, stylized forms. Above all, it is the uniqueness emanating from each figure that holds the observer.

The effortless connection that’s created with an art toy is what makes it such a democratic art form, relying on an awareness for engagement and physical accessibility.

“However, deeper contemplations of everything from consumerism, politics, faith, love and vulnerability are available if one takes the time to dig deeper,” explains the museum.