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Sep 21, 2009

Michael Lau – Ten Years, Ten Questions


Photo: Milk Magazine

[During a great trip to Asia this summer, Vinyl Pulse had a rare one-on-one interview with toy pioneer Michael Lau who has set the course and helped define vinyl toys for a full decade.   Meeting Michael was a great experience.  I’ve admired his artistry expressed through the vinyl toy medium from afar for years, so to be able to visit his gallery and chat with him in a relaxed setting was truly a treat.  While I was prepared to ask a few questions in person and have the  rest  done through email due to time considerations, Michael gladly answered all of them and took the time to really consider the relevance of each.  I left  with a better insight into the man behind the Gardeners, a witty and wickedly creative visionary.

To celebrate Ten Years of the Gardeners, we asked Michael ten questions during our visit to his gallery.  Through the gracious interpretation of Florance Yip, we covered a range of topics from  Michael’s experiences over the last decade to his milestone 10th Anniversary show which opens with an invite-only VIP event on September 29th 2009 at De La Barracuda in Los Angeles.    Today we bring you part one of our exclusive Interview.  We’ll follow up with part two next Monday. Enjoy. ]

1. Congratulations on the upcoming 10 year anniversary of the Gardeners series. As one of the only artists to be able to  sustain success with vinyl toys for a full decade, you've seen it all.  Any surprises in the way vinyl toys have progressed and developed?

When I started ten years ago, I did not know that it would develop into what it is now.  I made vinyl toys because I liked them, had a passion for it.  I never thought the toys would be such a commercial success.  I’m still doing it for the same reason as ten years ago – passion. 

When I look back on the development of the vinyl market over these past ten years, I’ve seen it have ups and downs.  It has its good times and its down period.  It seems to have stabilized.  There are definitely a set of people who have become collectors and true supporters of vinyl toys. Maybe some newcomers.  I don’t see the market peaking again, we’ve reached a stable point. 

2. As an artist you've chosen the medium of vinyl toys as you primary form of expression.  Are there any other artists' work you admire or that inspires you ?

Some artists who have inspired me include --

Jean Marie Pigeon - the French artist who did the Tintin sculptures.  I traveled to France and was inspired by his form and structure.

Mike Mignola – the artist behind Hellboy.

Tim Burton – He creates characters that are special and unique. Dynamic and life-like. 

When I create characters, I want them to tell a story – not just a door without a life.   Not something remote or distant.  When you’re holding one of my characters it’s like he or she is talking to you and he or she has a character of their own.

3. You are a rarity among artists in that you create the concept design, sketch, sculpt, and paint your own figures.

A. Which part of the process do you find most challenging?

For me, the most challenging aspect is the conceptualization of a character. When I start to figure out what to put into a sketch, it’s the most challenging.  You’re sort of playing the role of god – creating something from nothing.

Beyond the conceptualization, sculpting is very interesting to me. When I sculpt the miniatures, it gives me the feeling of being an artist. It’s very tangible.   Beyond that, what’s left is execution.

For package design, I’m basically a graphic designer.  Through the development I transform from one role into another.  That’s rewarding because I don’t want to do just one thing but everything.  To be able to do each aspect of a character is much more satisfying.   Of course once a product is done and released, you hear the response and feedback, that is very satisfying.  The fans will tell me if they like it or hate it – either way as long as they tell me something.   It shows people still care about the work, about vinyl and designer toys.

B. Is there any figure that stands out in your mind as being particularly challenging to create and develop? What was the sticking point?

There isn’t one particular character that stands out as extremely difficult.  The most difficult aspect is timing.  I am often crunched for time when creating.

Looking back to my start ten years ago, I didn’t really know what was involved in making vinyl figures and neither did the factory. Both myself and Jack (factory) were arguing all the time, we both had our own missions but neither of us knew the process. It was an exciting time because I started to learn how to create something I had never done before. I think our path of development was very interesting.


4. For better or worse, the concept of limited-edition is for many deeply linked to vinyl toys.  You don't publish edition run sizes for your figures.  Do you feel such information is irrelevant or that it detracts from the intrinsic value of your toys?

The distribution of my figures is very limited – maybe two or three new product releases a year. That is already extremely limited.  I don’t feel a need to communicate the edition size – if you follow an artist and he only releases product two or three times a year that’s only sold at a gallery or very select distribution points, then fans should appreciate their limited nature.  The edition size whether it’s 300 or 500, should not bother them much.  Also, if you wanted to number each figure… that’s a lot of work (laughs).

I’m not much of a numbers person, I’m a visual person.  I don’t want to remember and work with a lot of  numbers.  If you like it and appreciate it, that’s nice.  I don’t want to necessarily put a number on the box and tell you that it’s limited – if you really know what I’m doing, then you should know it’s limited.

I think serious collectors and people who know the vinyl toy scene, should know that this market is limited and for a very limited niche of collectors.  You know that I’m not releasing 10,000 pieces.  If you’re a fan and are used to buying this product, then you already know.


5. You've released 6" versions of many of your Gardeners.  Given limited time and resources how do you choose which characters to create smaller versions of? Do you have a rough order in mind that guides you?

When I first started with the 6”, I had a very clear plan laid out.   I figured in two years time I would release all the figures.   Of course the plan changed. I had new products coming in and the plan got disrupted.  In fact after the 2nd release the original plan was pretty much gone. 

Now, the choice of which characters to make into 6” versions is purely random.  When I sketch something, I think oh this one is good, so I pick it.  So far I’ve only released like 30 of the 106.  To the fans out there, Gardeners of course have a special meaning but for the 6” Gardeners, fans might think “Oh, it’s Gardener again…”.  They might misinterpret Gardener as a platform toy like a Be@rbrick.  In fact it’s not. Each time I do a new 6” figure, it’s a completely new thing.   It’s not like just changing the clothes or something like that. 

Since the plan has lingered on for so long, maybe I won’t produce any more 6” Gardeners.  I want to do new things and have only limited time.  If I spend time on the 6”s it will take time away from creating new ideas. I think the fans might want something new, so maybe I will not do any more 6” Gardeners.  I’m still thinking about it, but that’s how I feel now.  Deep down I really want to finish it – all the six inches for all the characters, but I’m not sure I can do it in my lifetime.

Maybe in the future I will ask people to vote via my upcoming website on which Gardener you want to see made into 6”.  So people could vote and then we would make them.


[Be sure to check back with Vinyl Pulse next Monday (10.28), for part two of our exclusive interview with Michael Lau on the eve of the opening of the 10th show in LA.]

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