Toy story II

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2006, 12:00am

This week, New York appears, on the surface, to have been in a playful mood: more than 60cm of snow, thousands of canines at a dog show and two toy fairs. The toy shows compete in some common categories such as dolls and kites, but that's where the similarity ends. One attracted thousands of businesspeople from all over the world while the other enjoyed more of a local artistic audience. One drew broad media coverage while the other took place quietly. One was so dull it made me sleepy; the other is likely to keep me awake at night.

The first one is the American International Toy Fair, the largest toy trade show in the western hemisphere. It has been held in New York annually since 1903 and this year it boasted 1,500 toymakers, 5,000 new toys and 20,000 buyers from around the world. Sounds exciting? Maybe not. After you've passed your 30th booth with similar looking dolls or stuffed animals, and seen serious-looking staff riding tiny bicycles or jumping up and down in oversized spongy shoes, the novelty soon wears off. This is big business, not kids' stuff. Indeed, those under 18 are not even allowed in.

Many of the newly patented toys looked little different from the traditional toys that have been around for generations. The newly added e-play section for the digital generation was full of sparkling lights and machinery noise that was too alien to spark any childhood memories.

I started to suspect I might be getting too old to find the charm in these toys. But it seems children, or at least their parents, feel the same: US toy sales have been falling for three years.

Artist and toy collector Emma Louise, who was also bored when she visited the show two years ago, started her own alternative event, the Terrible Toy Fair. Most of the 150 pieces, produced by 115 local artists, seem like they have escaped from a child's nightmare. A basket with broken eggs and a kite made from material that looks remarkably like human skin are just two mild examples. The dolls either have a broken belly, a bloody face or two heads. The bunnies and teddy bears enjoy themselves in ways that wouldn't be suitable in front of the children.

Louise admits the toys are not really for children - not those under 12, anyway. With the most expensive piece priced at US$10,000, people buy for their art collection more than for play. The number of visitors to the exhibition and the resulting sales have been increasing each year.

I am not saying scaring adults is the magic pill for the sliding US toy market. But the concept behind these toys may be worth considering. 'All of these toys are unique,' says Louise. 'You won't be able to buy them anywhere else.'

Childhood is not mass-produced, after all. And, at least the alternative fair will create work for New York's large population of shrinks.