DesignerCon: An Interview with the Founder of the West Coast's biggest convention for collectible toys
With DesignerCon taking place from November 11—12 at the Pasadena COnvention Center, we sit down with founder Ben Goretsky to talk shop about the origins of the convention and his background in collectible toys.
Go to the office of any company working in finance and you’re probably going to be confronted with a lot of hard-lined granite, leather couches and the semiotic accouterments that gloat: “We are serious. We have money and status.”
Enter the HQ for USAePay, Ben Goretsky’s credit card processing and payment solutions enterprise in Burbank, and smile when you’re greeted by the life-size Stormtrooper statue (yes, the one from Star Wars) standing in the corner. After the double take to make sure your eyes aren’t playing tricks, get ready to be dazzled by the room full of must-have vinyl collectible toys, all meticulously displayed in gallery-worthy glass cases. An inquiry to the receptionist might result in directions next door to 3DRetro, the brick and mortar store for one of the biggest online retailers of vinyl toys and collectible art in the world. Ben also runs this company—a majorly successful enterprise he got off the ground in 2004.
In arguments over who the biggest toy collector in the world might be, it’s a given that Goretsky ranks in the top ten, and probably even the top five, if we’re being honest. Not that he’s clamoring for a title. What really sets him apart from being a serious collector is a passion for sharing his love of toys with as much of the world as possible. There’s no question that vinyl collectible toys are works of art—objects of beauty that artists love to create and that people love to have. And Goretsky expresses his love of all of this in the way only a successful serial entrepreneur knows how—by creating a massive business enterprise to make this art accessible to fellow aficionados.
What started as a penchant for collecting toys from The Simpsons turned into a whole online retail operation where he began selling and distributing vinyl toys that he himself, as a fan, would want to buy. DesignerCon, the West Coast’s biggest convention for collectible toys, naturally came into being as a result of his enthusiastic patronage of many different artists and toy makers. Over the years, it gained momentum to expand in reach and attendance until it was easily drawing in 20,000 people over the course of its two-day run. In 2016, for the convention’s 11th year, design world heavy hitters like Paul Frank joined in, and Goretsky teamed up with Crewest Studios (co-founded by world-famous street artist Man One and brand strategist Scott Power) to add industry panel discussions and a DJ Z Trip-headlined after party to the mix. Both were hits, scheduled to return to the partnership this year.
Despite Goretsky being more and more consumed with preparations for this year’s DesignerCon (happening at Pasadena Convention Center November 11–12, 2017), he made time for Juxtapoz to talk toys—something, fortunately for us, he is always happy to do.
Dustin Clendenen: You’ve had an interesting career path so far. What got you interested in the world of toys to begin with?
Ben Goretsky: In 2001, I went to San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), and the Tower Records booth had a segment representing vinyl toys. The earliest ones were simple Qee Bears from Hong Kong. My friend and I loved the concept of a figure that retains the same style while the artwork changes, the toy acting as a canvas. When I came back from SDCC, I went to my local Tower Records and I started to buy the other figures. At the time, there were only Qees and some figures from Gary Baseman (Dunces) and Tim Biskup (Totems) which were blindboxes made by CritterBox. Luckily, in 2002, the Kidrobot company started, and more of these figures became available. I was hooked right away.
Who were some of the artists you liked early on? What drew you to their work?
I didn’t know too many artists so there was a learning curve, but also I realized not everyone likes the same stuff. I personally liked the style of Gary Baseman and Tim Biskup and their availability in the US, but I really loved the stuff from Frank Kozik coming out of Japan. Later, I got more into artists like Camille Rose Garcia and Fafi because of their figures with Necessaries Toy Foundation. Around the same time, artists like Ron English, Craola, Joe Ledbetter, Alex Pardee, Tristan Eaton, Huck Gee and Touma were starting to hit the scene. All of these artists were so awesome and new to this world. The different styles they all offered were so much fun to view and collect, and they all were part of this pop-surrealist, lowbrow street art scene, which I was really getting into.
What inspired you to get so hands-on instead of merely collecting?
The constant surprises from artists is what inspires me. The scene is never dull. There is always something new and exciting coming out, always someone new being discovered who has a certain style and edge to them which makes them different from everyone else, but yet still part of this world. I love being able to buy these 3D versions of art. It just makes me happy.
What has meeting so many of these artists and other collectors shown you?
Meeting them has shown me how personable and approachable they are. It made me actually want to buy their art that much more. Knowing who the artist is, I get more insight into how they think, act and tell the stories behind the characters in their art—the same characters in their toys. It gives it more substance and meaning, and therefore, more value.
What would you be doing if you weren’t collecting toys?
If it wasn’t collecting toys, then I would be, at least, collecting art. I loved art, even as a kid. I have lots of prints and originals from my favorite urban, street and lowbrow artists, but I also love art from pop culture: movie prints, animation cels and sericels, giclees, pop culture reference art. And of course, my Back to the Future art collection. Toys are just a segment of my collecting habits.
We have to talk to DesignerCon, and how such a massive convention came about.
In 2003, I decided that I love designer toys so much that I opened up my own online store and called it 3DRetro. At the time, I couldn’t have a brick and mortar store, so it was strictly online, but even though online sales were good, I wanted to have a place I could meet collectors and other toy vendors. There was no show for our crowd, and frankly, the way Comic-Con works with toy vendors, it’s like they’re off-to-the-side, ugly step-children—if you could even get a booth or a ticket to get in. Since no one else was doing it, I decided I would do it myself. I started the show in 2005 as Vinyl Toy Network (VTN) and then a few years, later when the show had outgrown the vinyl toy scene and needed to expand, I changed the name to DesignerCon. The rest is history.
What are your hopes for DesignerCon as the convention gets bigger and bigger?
The hope is that we can build the community up and get bigger through the years. Currently, the show hosts over 400 artists, toy designers, illustrators, apparel vendors, printing companies, galleries and many other vendors in the world of design. As we grow, we want to make sure we have room for more vendors as we build a bigger audience for these vendors. At the end of the day, the show is all about networking and acclaiming art and design. We want more people to be involved in that celebration.
The collector base for designer toys may not be as large as you’d like, but it seems to be pretty diverse. Why do you think so many people pick this up as their passion?
DesignerCon and the toy world has gotten to a point where there is something for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re into dark art, or if you’re into cute designs, or if you love complex abstract figures. It’s all at the show, or there is a figure made with that in mind. Art speaks to people, and when you find a print or a toy or a piece of apparel with a design that you love, then it makes you feel happy and gets you excited. Who doesn’t want that feeling? When you hear about something that gives that, then people will pick it up as their passion as well.
DesignerCon will take place November 11–12, 2017 at the Pasadena Convention Center.