James Jarvis

As a pioneer of the vinyl toy movement, James Jarvis is responsible for some of the most recognizable collectibles in the game, be it the characters from his Ages Of Metal range, who seem to bear a faint resemblance to some of rock’s all time greats – should you ever visit London’s Spring Studios you’ll find the potato headed Princes of Darkness staring down at you from the dining room mural as you order your meal – or the super exclusive King Ken and King Kun models.

While taking a break from his seemingly endless tour of the world’s art galleries this summer, he has created an installation for Niketown in London. Format caught up with him to discuss big screen adaptations, the differences between vinyl toy, and sneaker enthusiasts and to ponder the nature of the enigmatic Yod.

“We hoped that they would become more mass-market, but the world of designer toys developed in a different way and became more concerned with exclusivity.”

Format: What was your first reaction when Silas approached you to create a model for them? What were your inspirations when you sat down to create something for them?
James Jarvis: I had been working with Russell and Sofia, the brains behind Silas, since they were working for Slam City Skates and running the label Holmes. They were the first people to really encourage me to follow my own particular obsessions and interests in my work. When the offer came to design a toy, it just seemed like a new and fun thing to try and do. We had no plans to start a toy company, and no idea that there would prove to be a future in such things. My inspiration behind Martin was just to take the essence of the characters I had been drawing in two dimensions and see how they might work in three.

Format: How would you describe The World Of Pain?
JJ: The World of Pain was a first attempt at describing and categorizing a specific universe for my characters. I was very much inspired by Tolkein’s conception of an all-encompassing alternate reality and I tried to do a similar thing reflecting my own personal concerns.

Format: Some of the ideas in your work like the magic slide machine definitely remind me of some of the cartoons I watched as a kid. Were there any cartoons in particular that you remember trying to emulate when you started creating the characters and the universes in which they exist?
JJ: When Russell and I set out to work on Vortigern’s Machine, it was with the express aim of creating something driven by narrative for a younger audience. We had a bunch of things we considered touchstones for that – Alice in Wonderland, Astérix, Beavis and Butthead, Time Bandits, Tintin. They weren’t direct models for Vortigern’s Machine, but they were all things that worked on levels we hoped to emulate.

Format: When you were first starting out in vinyl toy design, did you ever envisage a whole culture being built around it, or did it come as a surprise to you?
JJ: I never envisaged the development of a culture around it. As I said before, when we made our first toy it was a totally novel and random thing to do at the time.

Format: Have you been tempted to make a feature out of the comic book you and Russell Waterman collaborated on (Vortigern’s Machine And The Great Sage Of Wisdom)? Would you like to see it animated the old fashioned way or would you go the Aardman Animations/Cosgrove Hall route?
JJ: We went down the whole Hollywood route with Vortigern’s Machine: studios, agents, the whole shebang. At the moment, the whole thing has ground to a bit of a standstill for various reasons, but we still have faith and affection for the concept and the characters, and the book is still selling, so who knows what will happen.

I would love to do something with Aardman as they have managed to make things with a worldwide appeal that at the same time keep their Britishness. They got the actor who plays Joe Grundy in The Archers to do one of the voices in Curse of the Were-Rabbit. How cool is that?

Format: Are there any up and coming designers in the vinyl toy game who you are a fan of?
JJ: I’m not really that well up on the ‘designer’ toy world. There are lots of contemporary artists whose work I admire – Will Sweeney, KAWS, Chris Johanson, DELTA, Paper Rad…

Format: What was your inspiration behind the ‘In Crowd’ series you created in 2003?
JJ: In-Crowd was the first toy we created under the Amos brand. The idea for it was to make simple, appealing, pop-culture referencing figures. We hoped that they would become more mass-market, but the world of designer toys developed in a different way and became more concerned with exclusivity.

Format: For the uninitiated, what is the difference between King Ken and King Kun?
JJ: King Ken is a thoroughbred and King Kun is a mongrel.

Format: Back in 2007 you stated that you were “so over the potato-head now and that it is all about beaks and shoulders now,” and the Niketown installation is a monument to your appreciation of the avian species. Have you decided what the next movement you will champion is yet?
JJ: That was a slightly tongue-in-cheek statement! I keep returning to the potato-head shape. There is something in its geometry that keeps drawing back. There are no specific plans for any new species. I really like drawing beaks and I’m still into that.

Format: Do you see any parallels between collecting sneakers and vinyl toys? How do you decide which colorways to make the most rare (and thus increase demand for them)?
JJ: I can’t say I see any parallels, but I struggle with the whole idea of fetishizing the sports shoe as a culturally meaningful artifact. With regards to the rareness of our toys, we have always made the maximum sensible number of a figure and never set out to be willfully exclusive. Everything is limited edition to a certain degree. We want our toys to be accessible.

Format: Has anyone that you have based characters on (I’m thinking particularly of The Ages Of Metal and the Magical Plastic Band collections) approached you about their vinyl likeness?
JJ: We did get contacted once but I don’t want to go into any details. My characters aren’t human beings, they are their own species. They can’t be direct representations of real people – they have no noses or ears.

Format: How did you come to work with Nike? What is your personal favorite Nike shoe/item of clothing?
JJ: I’ve gotten to know various people at Nike over the years and have had various offers to work with them to which I have always said no, as they tended to revolve around the creation of fancy colorways for sports shoes. When Acyde asked if I would like to design a large sculpture of one of my characters for a window display I said yes because it was something different and a bit more original.

The thing I liked about Nike was that it was never connected with youth culture. I was interested in the technical innovations in their products and their practical application. I think I am one of the few artists collaborating with Nike who actually goes running! I am a big fan of the Zoom Marathoners; I’ve raced in them a lot. I’ve just got a pair of LunaTrainers which seem pretty good (I’ve only done 20k or so in them so far).

Format: Can you explain the Nature of Yod? Personally, I see him as a facsimile of humankind. Our circulatory system is a miracle of evolution, but we are overwhelmingly simple – the fact that we have created Reality TV is a testament to this. Am I in the right neighborhood?
JJ: More or less.

Format: Finish the following statement: James Jarvis is…
JJ: Always hungry.

Kobi Annobil

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