For most of us, collecting toys is a hobby that can consume our youth, holding the excitement of adding to our bounty, finding the next big thing or forging relationships with other collectors. Few carry the pursuit into adulthood, becoming supercollectors to the utmost degree. Selim Varol is one of those exceptions, in a big way.
Varol began collecting toys when he was six, later discovering designer toys in Japan in the 1990s, and growing that into a collection of more than 15,000 artist toys. He's put about a fifth of his collection on display for the public, toys with accompanying artwork, in a new show "At Home I'm A Tourist" at the me Collectors Room Berlin. Varol's collection is a statement in refusing to let go of his childhood passion, and a representation of the cultures of his generation from hip hop to punk, skate culture to urban art. Many of the items are reflections on his favorite childhood toys, comics and TV characters.
Artist toys are both mass-produced and collector's items, a dichotomy that allows a wide breadth of collectors to get in on the action. In 1980 curator Jeffrey Deitch, now director of the MOCA, worked with artists Kiki Smith, Christy Rupp and several of the artists from the famed Times Square Show to create The A. More Store in SoHo. It was one of the first of its kind, focusing on artist's objects and toys, selling Smith's cast finger fragments and Rupp's plaster rats at affordable prices.
But it was Keith Haring in 1986 who revolutionized the artist toy with The Pop Shop SoHo, featuring a range of products created from his distinctive characters all in a setting that felt like walking right into one of his murals. Two years later he opened a Pop Shop in Tokyo. Other graffiti artists like Futura 2000 and Stash and with their Recon store and Haze, with a namesake store in Japan, furthered the evolution of street art into a product anyone could own.
Varol attributes much of the recent resurgence in artist toys to KAWS, who transformed a freelance animation career at Disney into a toy empire, calling him the "American pioneer in the artists toy movement." The exhibition includes more than 160 works from KAWS who Varol values for their friendship as much as for the work.
"To me, life is all about relationships and art is a form of communication," says Varol. "I truly appreciate the friendships I have with the artists I collect, and the fact that they allow me to watch the process of their work. It gives depth and meaning to my collection." Varol considers JR and Phil Frost among those in his circle.
For young collectors, Varol's offers one piece of advice: "They have to have their eyes wide open and to discover the art and the artists quite early on." One need only to look so far as "The Steins Collection" at the Metropolitan Museum in New York to echo this sentiment. The Stein family's close friendships and early support of Matisse and Picasso allowed them to build one of the most famous private collections in history.
When walking into the me Collectors Room, it's hard not to be in awe of the sheer number of pieces and feel the same spirit of youth and excitement necessary to amass such a collection. "It is a revelation to see some of the extensive private collections of Art Products that have been formed during the past ten years and to understand how much artistic energy has been focused on this medium. The museums will soon be taking notice," Deitch contributed, in a catalog commemorating the exhibition.
Varol singles out his Chanel 1000% Be@rbrick as his rarest toy, one he procured for a former Chanel employee. The holy grail of Be@rbricks, Chanel produced the toy in a limited batch as a promotional item in stores in 2006. They've never been put on the market, but a few have shown up in auctions houses Christie's and Phillips de Pury. At the same time, Batman endures as Varol's favorite toy.
"I can't predict anything about the whole movement, but for sure most of the creations will keep getting bigger and bigger," says Varol about the future. "For my collection show it would be great to see it travel: Tokyo, New York, Istanbul—who knows?"
The exhibit runs through 15 September 2012at the me Collectors Room Berlin in Berlin, Germany.