Founded in 2000 by Derek Welch and Jason Bacon, UNKL Brand was initially a side project created to keep the partnerâ€™s independent and artistic spirits in check while slaving away for their corporate clients. UNKL originally started on projects including skateboards and furniture, but they soon found that their niche was in the urban vinyl toy market. The UNKL designs reflect their imaginative mind space, spiked with social satire and creative fantasy.
â€œâ€œmy kids have friends whose parents tell me that their kids think Iâ€™m cool because I make toys. And their kids think theyâ€™re a drag because they are accountants, bankers, and lawyersâ€â€
Format: Where does the name UNKL come from?
Derek: One day at our studio, Big-Giant, we were joking around that what we were doing was sort of like an uncle, related but separate.
Format: What exactly is a TinPo?
Jason: The Tinpo character initially started with just a sketch of a single character, very simplified form and we added four legs. Po ultimately became our designation for any character with four legs. Tinpoâ€™s, Hazmapoâ€™s, UniPoâ€™s, JunPos, all have four legs.
Derek: We like to say we cloned TinPos by using gerbil DNA, which is why theyâ€™re so small. At the time we were creating the TinPos, cloning was a big issue so there was a lot of discussion about the ethics of the practice. We went the other direction with it, rather than approaching it as a serious matter, we decided to have fun with it
Format: What kind of future world do you envisage for Tinpos, Hazmapos and all your other creations? What is their world like?
Jason: We envision a world in the not too distant future in which the world is under the control of Hazmapoâ€™s and Tinpoâ€™s, with minions of UniPos acting as the storm troopers.
Derek: Power has so many negative connotations. Our plan is to show the world that power can be good, at least for those that have it. Once our guys take over, weâ€™ll kick back and relax, maybe even retire. Really, if we control the planet what else will there be to do?
Format: Your toys always have some social awareness. Could you comment on that?
Derek: Our projects usually shed light on some sort of social issue because what we do is a reflection of who we are. The characters are a great way to communicate a point of view through humor.
Jason: Although the characters are made up they might be addressing real things. Itâ€™s not like a formula that we have on a sheet of paper and we try to follow along with it, I think it just naturally happens because of the way we think. Itâ€™s just an extension of who we are. There isnâ€™t always a heavy message. For example, the UniPoâ€™s are just based on fun, really. This allows more freedom of creation. One set of characters can be based on patterns, one on war, one on cosmonauts, etc. They can be whatever we want them to be.
Format: Have you thought about fashion collabs past your Fashion Victims series?
Derek: We might, but it would be on a different level. For us, it might be interesting to find some sort of small label thatâ€™s doing some interesting stuff and collaborate with them versus doing something that is completely mainstream. Thatâ€™s a little bit more in line with what our point of view would be.
Format: What do you hope other designers learn from what you have accomplished?
Derek: If weâ€™ve accomplished anything itâ€™s the willingness to try new things because we believe in them, while not being afraid to fail. This approach has given us the freedom to try anything, whether we know how to do it or not. Ultimately, we learn from whatever we do. We hope other designers will do the same. Try it. Donâ€™t be afraid to F it up along the way. Make enough mistakes and youâ€™ll get it.
Format: Who do you look to in the industry?
Jason: Well, we donâ€™t usually like to get personal, but I would say Super 7 is carving out a nice thing of their own. They do what they do because they love it.
Derek: Kow Yokoyama, Mars 1 and Charlie Kraft come to mind for me. Charlie is doing some fresh stuff that few people have seen. Seems to me that so many people are getting into this world because they think they can make a bunch of coin on it. It ainâ€™t like that. These guys do it because they love it. Thatâ€™s the real deal.
Format: Who are some of your bigger clients?
Jason: Nike, Virgin Mobile, Lego, Salomon Skis, Starbucks. We were especially proud of our US Olympic Team identity design. We have up to 20 design projects going on at any one time for a dozen different clients.
Derek: In terms of work with UNKL though, we never expected anyone to approach us for collaborations, so itâ€™s been extremely rewarding.
Format: What toys do you have coming up?
Jason: 12â€ Hazmapoâ€™s at the February New York Comic Con released with Kow Yokoyama. It uses our figure form and some of his artwork. Kow is best known for his creation of Maschinen Krieger. If you donâ€™t know his work, check him out. Amazing stuff.
Format: Do you write your own background stories for the toys?
Derek: Yes. We write all of the stories ourselves. Sometimes the story comes first followed by the character to bring the story to life. Other times, we begin with a sculpt or drawing of a character then build the story.
Jason: Weâ€™re concentrating more these days on character stories for animated entertainment. Not everything we are doing becomes a vinyl figure.
Format: Do you feel you have to compete with other designers to keep your toy designs innovative?
Derek: Absolutely not. We do what we like. There are so many great designers and artists out there, if we spent any time worrying about what the next guy is doing, we wouldnâ€™t really be doing our own thing. If our stuff is innovative, thatâ€™s great, but itâ€™s not our motivation.
â€œWe do what we like. There are so many great designers and artists out there, if we spent any time worrying about what the next guy is doing we wouldnâ€™t really be doing our own thingâ€
Format: How do you feel about the lack of female presence in the scene?
Derek: I think it must be because Leah, our director of P.R. is such a rockinâ€™ chick that girls are intimidated and are not up for the challenge. Sheâ€™s a lot to compete with. Sheâ€™s 6â€™ 8â€ with hair black as coal and skin as pure as Ivory soap (thatâ€™s 99 & 44/100% pure you know). She only eats raw red meat and spends her free time surfing the images of Suicide Girls. Besides that, I have no idea.
Format: Have you met any women that you didn’t suspect were rolling their eyes when you told them you were toy designers?
Jason: We donâ€™t really care who is rolling their eyes about anything we do.
Derek: Actually, if I know they are rolling their eyes, I feel great about it. I donâ€™t live my life for the acceptance of others, so Iâ€™m not really affected by it. My kids have friends whose parents tell me that their kids think Iâ€™m cool because I make toys. And their kids think theyâ€™re a drag because they are accountants, bankers, and lawyers.
Jason: Those other jobs are more important than what we do, but we have alot more fun than they do.
More Info: http://www.unklbrand.com/