17 February 2014




 Photo by Brittney Sproule

In order to kick off the February break right, I decided to make my way to the Design Exchange (DX) for the very first time on Friday and check out their current exhibition This Is Not A Toy. This exhibit opened February 7th and was curated by DX curators John Wee Tom and Sara Nickleson, as well as guest curator Pharrell Williams.

KAWS "Chums," Photo by Brittney Sproule

To give you an idea of the inspiration behind the exhibition, here is a sample of the introductory text from the exhibition pamphlet. Regardless of whether or not you actually see the exhibit, I think this introduction raises some interesting points to ponder regarding the way accepted notions of art, object, and commodity overlap and intertwine to essentially create whole new genres, or at least ways of thinking, in terms of artistic inspiration and design:

"This Is Not A Toy was conceived as a presentation of the design and art toy as a unique medium for artistic expression. The title of the exhibition is inspired by the ubiquitous disclaimer found on product packaging and RenĂ© Magritte's Ceci N'est Pas Un Pipie, one of the most infulential paintings of the 20th century that promotes the commonplace object as a work of art." (Design Exchange, 2014)

Bill McMullen, "Ad-At Giant" (Adidas Stripes), Photo by Brittney Sproule

Among the artists featured in the exhibition were KAWS, Takashi Murakami, Kidrobot, Misaki Kawai and many more. Of course, one of the draws of this particular exhibition is its guest curator, musician Pharrell Williams. According to the DX exhibition pamphlet brief, Williams' involvement with the art world was spawned by his fascination with the art toy. Apart from his commissioning of toys and paintings for his own personal collection as well as his creative collaborations with prominent toy artists, Williams' "penchant for the cross-pollination of creativity" in his own business ventures (music, fashion, design, art) also made him a suitable candidate for the job.

Takashi Murakami and Pharrell Williams, "The Simple Things," Photo by Brittney Sproule

I don't want to give away too much about the exhibition, as I highly recommend you go check it out for yourself, but I will share with you a few thoughts that crossed my mind both during and after my visit.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of this exhibition is the ability of the artworks to embody meaning-- whether it be a commentary on consumerism, society, a particular emotion, etc. -- while at the same time, still retaining a whimsical, fantastical, play-like personality, even if the subject matter is quite dark. This gives the viewer the opportunity to engage with the work on as many levels as they'd like. In other words, one could easily go to this exhibit just to see the beautifully decorated and crafted art toys and simply appreciate them for solely aesthetic reasons, coming away with a feel-good vibe. Kids must certainly have a blast running from case to case, examining all the brightly coloured, sometimes larger-than-life, usually completely adorable toys that function much like tantalizing confections.

Frank Kozik, "Happy Labbit," Photo by Brittney Sproule

However, it is also possible for a viewer to look far beyond the aesthetic allure of these beautifully crafted objects and become inspired to formulate their own interpretation of what exactly these objects are trying to say beyond their cutesy surface. One cannot help but be lured in by the adorable facade of the majority of these objects and discover that indeed, these are not "just toys." Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the way these objects are designed, painted, and arranged are for very specific reasons and/or due to very specific artistic interpretations/collaborations that embody a particular message. Thus, the initial nostalgia-inducing, dream-like quality of these innocent toys functions as a very effective hook for engaging audiences with a new contemporary art form/medium.

As such, I think this is a wonderful opportunity for visitors to avoid the intimidation or perhaps even confusion that can often accompany a contemporary art gallery visit, and have the chance to formulate a personal connection with seemingly familiar objects (i.e. toys) but in a context they may have never considered before.

Misaki Kawai, Photo by Brittney Sproule

I now leave you with one of my personal favourite works from the exhibit and one of the most unique interactives I think I have ever seen! These are two hair sculptures by Misaki Kawai, complete with attached combs for viewers to groom and style the creatures to their liking. These two sculptures, along with Kawai's other works in the exhibit, added a wonderful tactile dimension to the exhibition, which is an experience so often lacking in contemporary museums and galleries.



  1. Great post, Brittney! I've been looking forward to this exhibit and you give a good overview and pose some interesting questions. I'm going to try to visit during Reading Week.

    One interesting related tidbit: the DX had a Kickstarter page to raise $75,000 to support the exhibit. They did not reach their goal. I think a lot of people wondered (myself included) why Pharrell Williams didn't just donate the funds DX needed, as he can certainly afford it. Check out the Kickstarted page and the note DX added: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/997984742/this-is-not-a-toy-urban-vinyl-as-design-and-art-fo

    1. Thanks for the comment Jordan-na! That is indeed a very interesting tidbit...considering the amount the DX really promoted the fact Pharrell was a celebrity guest curator who donated so much of his time and collections (and the works donated by him are certainly not the less valuable ones...), you would think he could just spot them the extra $75,000. Like you said, I'm curious to know why he didn't just do that. Perhaps that's not a fair assumption for us to make that, since Pharrell is certainly not lacking in funds he should just front some money from his own pocket because he has it, but since this exhibition reflects a genre that is (apparently) very near and dear to him, you'd think he would have no problem with it. Even if Pharrell didn't donate the entire amount himself, you'd think he could appeal to some of his famous artist friends for assistance (both those in featured in the exhibit and those outside).
      While I highly recommend checking out the exhibition, it certainly isn't cheap. The admission price is comparable to that of many other special exhibitions like those at the AGO or ROM, however the DX does not have a permanent collection on display regularly to give you the chance to get a bit more for your money. Because of this, I know I would maybe be a bit more leery with giving even more money to them to help fund an exhibition they had already promoted so widely.
      Regardless, I enjoyed my experience in the end :) Great food for thought, thank you!

  2. What a great exhibition Brittney! I'm so happy you had a chance to experience it in person! I like your idea that the objects enable more public accessibility and interpretation rather than intimidation and confusion, often induced by standard contemporary art exhibitions.

    Thanks for sharing your personal photos too. I love the rabbit with the ice cream! Well done! :-)

    Also, thanks Jordan-na for sharing that information. It certainly adds another dimension to the exhibition.

    1. thanks for your comment too jaime! It was certainly a fun atmosphere in the exhibit...they had some very cutesy music (I don't know how else to describe it other than cute!) almost like circus or fanfare music playing in the background complete with bubbly, giggly little sound effects that sound as if they are coming from the toys. Definitely contributed to the overall feel of the exhibition, along with the room's decoration of rainbow stripes on the walls and hot pink stripes on the floor. Certainly not your standard "white cube" contemporary art exhibit that's for sure.

  3. I am glad to see discussion about the DX because this is such a different cultural institutions where the boundaries between museum display and consumer/capitalist culture are always blurred and combined (which makes this my kind of museum :). I think the DX puts on shows which through their content have a popular appeal (which also bring in the theme of everyday, which of course brings us back to the idea of the consumer culture). Does the transparency about difficulties financing the show or about the fact that money do matter in the case of display make an exhibition less successful or powerful? Is it important for audiences to know that museums do need money too? Some extra food for thought on top of a great post and some equally reflective comments!

  4. Hello Brittney,

    I enjoyed your review of This Is Not A Toy and as a co-curator of the exhibition, I am heartened that our themes clearly resonated with you. I would just like to offer a bit more insight into our Kickstarter campaign.

    Given the subject matter of the show, the similarity in demographic of the urban vinyl and Kickstarter audiences and the potential for creating a new source of funding for cultural programming, we thought that launching a KS campaign would be a useful experiment. Of course, going in we were aware that the "celebrity" aspect of our campaign could be detrimental for precisely the same reasons raised in some of the comments here - namely, why doesn't/didn't Pharrell simply kick in the funds himself. What people don't realize is that from the inception of his involvement, Pharrell and his team have been - and continue to be - extremely supportive and generous with their time, efforts and influence in helping the exhibition come to fruition. He introduced us personally to several of the most important artists in the exhibition and of course, he has even loaned several pieces from his personal collection to the show. This is why several pieces from artists like KAWS and Murakami are being shown for the first time in Canada. And Pharrell has never asked for anything in return. We are simply grateful that he has seen fit to support This Is Not A Toy and the DX.

    Additionally, it seems that the common impression is that since the KS was being launched by an institution, museums such as the DX are well-funded and don't need financial assistance for shows like these. Of course, the reality is that cultural institutions in general always face funding challenges since culture is perceived as a luxury, especially in uncertain economic times such as these. The fact is that as a not-for-profit, relatively small cultural institution in Canada's largest city, the DX always faces an uphill battle in presenting shows of the scale and ambition of This Is Not A Toy. Although the Kickstarter campaign was not successful, it dared to seek a contemporary method of funding which will hopefully inspire other such campaigns in the future.

    1. Thank you very much for offering further insight into the discussion regarding the DX's Kickstarter campaign! I can certainly respect the DX's decision to take a risk and seek out new methods of generating funding. As you said, the experience with this Kickstarter campaign will no doubt help inform future campaigns and hopefully inspire new and creative methods for the Design Exchange and perhaps other non-profit arts/cultural institutions to utilize in order to gain the financial resources they need to do their job.

      It's always very exciting to be able to open up the floor for dialogue and interpretation regarding topics in arts, culture, and history by means of our blog posts and it is certainly wonderful that every so often we get the opportunity to hear from "insiders," such as yourself, who are directly involved with the projects/events discussed here on Musings.