The importance of play is almost immeasurable. An essential part of childhood development, it also reaches out through our entire lives, providing a recreational value almost as basic and requisite as sleep. Sure, we could survive without it, but who’d want to?
At Designer Con, the annual toy, art and design convention which runs the weekend of Nov. 21 and 22 at the Pasadena Convention Center’s Exhibition Hall, the significance of play is elevated to an out of this world status.
Designer Con stakes out wild territory, where the visual, mechanical and tactile (think plush) converge to form an intoxicating array of exotic, eccentric items.
Here, toy vendors, manufacturers and artists convene to present their freshest and best works available worldwide.
Now in its 10th year, it began as one day the Vinyl Toy Network biannual show, grew into a one-day annual event and by 2013 grew into its current iteration, a 48-hour thrill fest that covers more than 70,000 square feet and features some 300 participants.
Curated by lifelong toy aficionados Ayleen Gaspar and Ben Goretsky, Design Con is a one-of-a-kind affair, which began life as whimsical fantasy but quickly became a self-propelled reality.
“I started collecting back in 2001-2002. That’s what drew me in,” Goretsky said. “The whole art toy scene from Hong Kong and Tokyo had just hit here in America and they were just so cool. A company called Kid Robot started selling them to the public, and I just wanted to help get these out and thought, well I may as sell them also. Eventually I became friendly with the artists and met Ayleen Gaspar and started to find out what it takes to make a toy. And I with Ayleen’s company, October Toys, we started making them.”
“I started my own company, 3D Retro. We sell collectible toys, figures, art — the same things Designer Con focuses on, and I realized that there was nothing in the area that allowed people to see all this,” Goretsky said. “And I looked at San Diego’s Comic Con, where all the art and toy aspects are very small compared to the cartoons and comic book stuff, and I just thought, ‘Let’s get all the people — the designers, the manufacturers, the toy makers, the people who provide the tools these artists need from 3D printers to basic supplies — all in one place,’ and that’s how it started.”
With a global swath of vendors who share such evocative monikers as Cuddly Destruction, Beasties, Middle of Beyond, Squishes, Hyperactive Monkey and Furrybones and encompasses everything from plush zombies to strange, pickled-in-the-jar vinyl critters to elaborate graphic renderings and prints on wood, Designer Con’s gamut of visuals, playthings and offbeat clothing lines is both exhaustive and engaging.
“Seeing families together at the show is fantastic, because of course all the kids love it and Mom and Dad are enjoying it just as much,” Goretsky said. “And it’s not like they are walking with their kids through a Toys R Us, because all of this stuff is made for them. And it’s not just toys, it’s art, and it’s apparel and now they, as grown-ups, can afford to buy it.”
For Goretsky, it remains a very personal pursuit. “I am still a huge fan and a collector,” he said. “These things remind us of what it was like as kids and that memory is wonderful. As adults we have to try and find a way to escape and toys are the number one thing to take us back, to give us that feeling. They send us back to the pop culture we grew up with, and anything that brings that feeling back is fantastic.”
“It’s got to be fun or it’s not worth doing. I just wanted to bring together all these aspects of design. It’s so cool, and it’s not just a toy show, because a lot of people wouldn’t be interested in that. And it’s not just apparel, a lot of people wouldn’t care for that, but when you take it all and put it together, with all the design aspects, it’s a show for just about everybody. And it’s always a great experience.”
Who: Designer Con
Where: Pasadena Convention Center’s Exhibit Hall, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena
When: Nov. 21 and 22, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (on Saturday); 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (on Sunday)
Cost: $5 one day; $10 two-day advance tickets; $7 a day at the door
More info: (626) 449-7360, designercon.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin’ Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”