Taking toys to another level

Robot Love on Lyndale showcases unique collectibles, fashion

Funding for the nonprofit arts organization he was involved in was drying up and Kristoffer Knutson was looking for something new to do.

He had been collecting hard-to-come-by Takashi Murakami artwork of late - mostly the small, brightly colored figurines available in convenience stores in Japan and not much elsewhere - and he got the idea that he should be sharing it with his hometown.

&#8220I thought, well, Minneapolis could maybe use a little flavor,” Knutson said. Before someone else beat him to it, Knutson refined his concept for an art toy mecca and opened Robot Love at 27th & Lyndale.

The store features high-design toys, clothing, prints and literature mostly inspired by the ‘urban vinyl' movement, whose beginnings are credited to Hong Kong artist Michael Lau. Lau, in the late '90s, played with common G.I. Joe figurines, giving them new clothes and modified hair. &#8220He made them look like his friends on the street,” Knutson said.

Bolstered by already flourishing graffiti and sneaker culture, as well as by the support it found in the arts and, to a degree, music communities, urban vinyl grew. It became more accessible in the form of miniature dolls, sold as collectibles.

One line of toys, called [email protected], are little bears identical in shape but painted in limited runs to create different characters. A few of any given series may be painted by known artists, and are therefore more valuable.

Likewise, &#8220qees” are common variations on the figurines. Qees - a generic term for keychain figures - are generally commutable from being key chained to key chainless and follow the same art-design concept of [email protected], with some of the toys garnering more interest for their rarity.

But Knutson emphasizes, it's about more than toys. He points to sculptures by Gary Baseman and explains how Baseman is involved in all sorts of art and commerce-related enterprises, from creating fine art to feature films to employing his design in various ad campaigns to illustrating the mass produced Cranium games.

&#8220It's really an expression of Gary Baseman designs,” Knutson said.

The ubiquitous &#8220OBEY” stencils of Andre the Giant - Shepherd Fairy's creation - grace T-shirts in Robot Love's small clothing collection.

&#8220Shepherd Fairy was the first legitimate street artist to expand into other” areas, Knutson said. &#8220He wanted to know, can you put imagery out there and build a culture around something that has no meaning?”

At Robot Love, Knutson said, he's &#8220interested in straddling that realm of guerilla art and commercial art, but not exploiting the art.”

He also, though, has a goal of making ownership of the largely Chinese and Japanese art more accessible to those who can't go into an art gallery and drop $100,000 or more. Knutson seems to have achieved that, as, in less than two years, he's attracted &#8220a good handful of consistent regulars,” he said. &#8220It's a good group of folks that we've met. Some of them I can call friends now.”

A lot of those people might not have understood what they were getting into at first, Knutson said. Confused by the name of the store, many come in &#8220looking for Roombas, or those little mechanical dogs that tumble around. Or they think we're an adult shop.”

The name &#8220Robot Love” came from an earlier chapter in Knutson's life, when he worked as a producer at the ad agency, Fallon. Knutson worked on a television campaign for Miller Lite, including a spot featuring a girl and her robot boyfriend on a picnic. The girl was drinking beer, Knutson said, &#8220and the robot kept trying to sneak a sip. She kept warning him, ‘no you can't have any; you'll short circuit.' She turns her back for a few seconds and the robot drinks some of her Miller Lite. He short circuited, but he ended up getting recycled and came back to her years later as a can.”

The name of that spot was &#8220Robot Love.”

Knutson thought it was fitting for his store: &#8220the idea of humanism and technology sort of merging together,” he said.

One thing that's been particularly beneficial is the support from the local arts community, Knutson said.

For instance, he settled on the location of his store after conferring with fellow MCAD alum, artist Suzy Greenberg, who owns the space and the neighboring SooVAC gallery. (Knutson had checked out &#8220the punk rock end of the spectrum” at 38th & Grand, and the &#8220uber-corporate end” a the newly built housing and retail development at Lake and Fremont. Where he ended up, he said, is perfect.)

Knutson coordinated the grand opening of Robot Love in July 2004 with the Ox-Op Gallery's Qeedrophonic show. Since then, his relationship with Ox-Op curator Tom Hazelmyer has continued to help the store. Occasionally, artists have stopped in at Robot Love to do a signing after a show opened at Ox-Op. With the pending closing of the Ox-Op, which often featured urban vinyl and related shows and brought several talented artists to the Twin Cities, Knutson said he might consider trying to fill the gap in his store.

&#8220Who knows?” he said. &#8220Hopefully we can carry on that tradition that's begun.”