For anybody familiar with the designer toy vinyl scene, Hong Kong’s Michael Lau evokes numerous thoughts of contribution and innovation. Largely considered one of the forefather’s of the designer toy movement, his work has extended far and beyond the realm of toys into both art and sneakers. 2009 marks the 10th anniversary of his ground-breaking Gardener toy franchise. Inspired by his own interest in street culture, Gardener has taken on many forms since its debut. We took the opportunity to speak with him regarding this monumental occasion in addition to the plans behind the celebration of a decade of Gardener, which includes a multi-day exhibition in association with Los Angeles’ De La Barracuda and MINDstyle.
Interview: Season Chan/Jason Chow
Photography: Season Chan
Interview with Michael Lau
Hey Michael, first off congratulations on Gardener’s 10th Anniversary. For those unaware, what exactly is Gardener and how did Gardener begin?
Thanks a lot… Gardener began back in 1998. I had a friend at Touch Magazine who asked me if I would be interested in having my own comic column at the magazine. At the time, I found the whole realm of street culture pretty fascinating and I was inspired by the likes of LMF (popular now defunct Hip-Hop group from Hong Kong), tattoo culture and skateboarders. This essentially formed the basis of Gardener.
What does the 10th Anniversary of Gardener mean to you?
The 10th Anniversary is ultimately very important and meaningful to me. I don’t think its that easy for any toy franchise to make it to 10 years these days, given that the whole designer toy market is relatively saturated and many toys out there aren’t doing all that well. On a personal level, I think it brought light to the vinyl toy scene. Gardener really helped launch me to that next level, if it wasn’t for Gardner, I wouldn’t be here today. This 10th anniversary is something important to me as I can help educate the younger generation regarding what Gardener represents as a lot of my first fans have now grown older.
What have you got planned for the 10th anniversary of Gardener?
For Gardener’s 10th Anniversary, we have a series of things planned. They include a limited edition shoe with Nike SB, a skateboard, limited edition figures with entities like The Hundreds, De La Barracuda and Slam X Hype and a book which includes sketches, layouts and the whole design process behind Gardener. The book goes into detail about many of my projects such as the conceptualization of toys as well as photography of my previous releases. The Nike collaboration involves Nike SB and the Zoom Janoski signature model. If you recall, I did a previous wood-inspired Nike SB Dunk Low back in 2006 but this time around I went with a lighter tone and a stronger wood texture. The concept of the trim was based on that of a skatedeck with the different wood tones. All in all, the Janoski model is a nice simple shoe, which was a pleasure to work with.
How did you align yourself with De La Barracuda, for your upcoming Los Angeles event? How do you feel about showing in the US for the first time?
I’ve been involved with my friends over at MINDstyle for many years, however we’ve never really found the right venue to present my work and nothing really came to fruition. I’ve waited a long time before presenting my work in the United States. It’s sort of ironic, I would have figured upon Gardener’s conceptualization 10 years ago, that I would present him in the US a lot sooner seeing as so much of street culture’s roots come from the US.
How did MINDstyle get involved?
Originally MINDstyle was sourcing for factories to make their own toys, on a similar theme to my personal style, and they contacted my factory which led to our current relationship. As well, MINDstyle has a strong US-based network so it helped me in connecting the dots as I wasn’t that familiar with the US-market.Going forward, expanding in the US is something I’m definitely interested in exploring.
How has the toy/art industry changed in the last 10 years, in your opinion? Do places such as Hong Kong and the United States have distinctly different toy cultures?
In Hong Kong, the toy culture scene is too fast and lacks a certain artistic respect. Everything is quite trend-driven and people will pay these ridiculous sums of money to get “that toy” when the trend is popular, but as things die out, all of a sudden they lose that appreciation. The trend aspect of toys is no different than other things locally such as cameras and cars. There’s only a small dedicated group of fans that continue to collect and get excited about new drops. Conversely, in the United States, the market is much larger and for the most part people are better educated about the toy scene. With it comes a greater respect and admiration for toys. The toy scene is no different than other product markets, it gets saturated, but quality will still emerge on top.
What initially attracted you to toys, do any other things captivate you in the same way? Do you prefer creating more realistic toys or something more abstract?
My initial love of art came from drawing and sketching. As a kid, I wasn’t well off so I couldn’t afford any toys. As I grew older, I really enjoyed designing furniture and things in 3D, as I felt obviously 2D is too flat and lacks a certain perspective. I would trace out the lines on a piece of paper only to take them and fold them into actual 3D models. After awhile, I would start playing and experimenting with clay. I still have this great fascination with working in 3D. Eventually, I would take my work earnings and put them towards things such as Play Mobil and G.I. Joe. As for real vs. abstract, I would have to side more with abstract design. It enables you to have a freer reign in terms of creativity and imagination, when it comes to design.
What has been your most memorable collaboration to date? What is your favorite toy?
My favorite collaborations are probably T-Garden and Mr. Shoe. With Mr. Shoe, I was able to see him tour around various parts of the world. My favorite toys are probably my earliest ones like my G.I. Joes and my Play Mobil sets.
Can you outline your process of design for toys?
I sketch a ridiculous amount every day and it often piles up, and more often than not there’s an exact science to it. It really depends on my mood at the time and how these particular settings work their way into my design. The production time for toys is often quite long, so there are quite a few sketches that have never made it to light as a toy.
Can you reveal a little about your upcoming projects/plans?
I don’t want to reveal too much, so please stay tuned!
Do you ever feel bored looking at Gardener?
Sometimes, but to be honest, the minute I take it out of the box, I have this fresh new feeling come over me and it sort of renews everything with Gardener.