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The Rise of the Disposable Designer Toy

Kathleen De Vere | 27 Oct 2011 14:00
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Papercraft is suddenly very cool. You can tell because over the past year everything from tiny Minecraft creepers to nearly life size Marios have begun cropping up in the news. Thanks to papercraft, fan art is now distinctly more three dimensional, but the art form isn't just limited to videogame fandom, nor did it start there.

Looking more like art projects than cereal box giveaways, this new breed of toy was unique, and harnessed the hip-hop meets art-school esthetic of vinyl toys.

A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of different websites dedicated to the creation, customization and trading of what their creators simply call "paper toys."If you go onto Amazon you can order at least half a dozen books of templates, but every one of them has two things in common... they're thick on projects and thin on information.

The problem seems to stem from the very nature of the art form. Paper is by its nature, impermanent. Start digging into the genesis of papercraft and you'll find speculation that the art form began in China, and was brought to Europe by the Moors in the middle ages. We know for sure that Japanese poems from the Edo period reference origami and ceremonial paper folding, but experts believe we were folding paper for fun much sooner than that.

Regardless of how old they may be, paper toys have always been a dependable, if not particularly exciting, mainstay of the toy industry. Barnacle Press has an excellent archive of paper toy templates from the early 1920s, and paper toys are still found today as military models, cereal box giveaways and advertising gimmicks in women's magazines.

That said, the paper toys that advertise feminine hygiene products in Elle Magazine are a far cry from the intricate creations of Matt Hawkins or the adorable Red Panda toys Mozilla commissioned promote Firefox 4.

2005 was the year the fortunes of the utilitarian paper toy changed and paper toys started appearing on the internet. Looking more like art projects than cereal box giveaways, this new breed of toy was unique, and harnessed the hip-hop meets art-school esthetic of vinyl toys.

Like so many things, the modern papercraft movement was born because of a completely unrelated passion: shoes.

The shoes in question were Nike Air Force 1s. The collectible sneakers were coveted by a Japanese student named Shin Tanaka. Unable to afford real versions of the AF1s, Tanaka started making incredibly complex paper models of them instead. The models were an immediate hit in Japan and motivated by his success, Tanaka expanded his repertoire, designing more paper toys that incorporated his love of hip-hop and urban culture into the designs.

What Tanaka would do next turned out to be the catalyst for the new art form. Lacking formal training but wanting to reach out to other designers, Tanaka invented the collaboration system that has come to define the paper toy world; he put blank versions of his toys online and encouraged other people to download the templates, customize the design and make their own versions.

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