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Tomopop Interview: Rotofugi's Kirby Kerr

3:00 PM on 09.21.2011 // Brian Szabelski

The world of designer vinyl is more than just the artists who create the toys. It's about the companies that produce them and the stores that sell them as well, each of which has a distinct personality formed by its owners. Such is the case with Kirby Kerr and Chicago's well-known Rotofugi.

As the co-owner of Rotofugi with his wife, Whitney, Kirby's turned a passion for toys into one of the premier U.S. destinations for fans of vinyl and kaiju. It's a place I always love to visit, and for that reason, Kirby was high on my list of people that I wanted to interview when I started doing interviews again for Tomopop. I asked him some questions about Rotofugi's past, its future and the story of how he went from collector to curator.

Hit the jump to check out the full interview!

[Header image of Kirby, Whitney and Fugi via Rotofugi; apologies to Fugi for the feature bar blocking his face]

So to begin with: how'd you get into collecting? What was that first piece that sparked everything?

I've been a collector pretty much my whole life. Toys, yes, but before that it was cameras, and after Whitney and I met and married, we were really into snow domes and lunch boxes for awhile.

Right near the end of 2003, Wired magazine had an article about what everyone was calling "urban vinyl" at the time, and I knew almost instantly it was something I wanted to see more of. The first vinyl we had in our collection were Baby Qees that I bought for Whitney as a Valentine's present in February 2004.

I've read this story in another interview, but since I know many of our readers have not, tell us how Rotofugi came to be.

Ha, I hope I tell it the same way!

Basically, Whitney and I met and married in Chicago in 1998 (we were Internet dating pioneers!). In 2002, we moved to Little Rock, Ark., to be closer to family and while we were still in Little Rock we got a taste of vinyl through the aforementioned Wired article.

In early 2004, we decided to move back to Chicago, and started looking for a store that sold the stuff we were now getting into (designer vinyl). We looked around a bit, and found a few comic shops selling some vinyl (shout out to Quimby's and Chicago Comics) but it wasn't enough to fill our desires.

Right around the same time we were in the market for a new condo (since we had just moved back to Chicago from Little Rock) but found the housing market had gone nuts in Chicago in the two years we had been gone.

Basically, we have Rotofugi because the housing market in Chicago was too expensive and since we couldn't really afford to buy something, we used the money we were going to use to put a down payment on a condo to open a store instead. We spent every penny we had in savings and opened Rotofugi in July 2004, only a few months after we moved back to Chicago. True story!

[Chicago artist Travis Lampe's Tear Drips]

How does the vinyl artist scene in Chicago, and I guess the Midwest in general, differ from the scene on either coast? I know, for starters, that a lot of the artists here are illustrators and painters or started out that way, rather than with that urban/graffiti background you might find in California or New York.

We're so firmly rooted in the great Midwest that I certainly can't speak with any authority about how it's different here, since I only have second-hand observations about what it's like on the coasts.

That said, I think your observation is a good one, at least for the projects we've done with Squibbles Ink. On a personal level, I'm just not that into graff culture, though I do like a lot of graff stuff. Both Whitney and I grew up in small towns, so I didn't see much graff until I was in my 20s.

My real passion in terms of art comes from my background as an art director and working in advertising, so the artists I look up to are largely commercial illustrators.

The other great thing about the mMdwest, I think, is the real "can-do" attitude that a lot of the artists here take. We're used to being looked over since we're in "fly-over" territory, so the artists here work super hard for recognition and to build their skills.

You guys don't just have the toys from bigger companies, either. Do you ever or have you ever run into problems with getting a vinyl toy, kaiju piece, etc. that you're keen on selling at Rotofugi?

Oh sure, we can't always get the stuff we'd like to sell. There are language barriers for one. But more than that, we've seen the culture develop over the last few years to the point where an individual artist, if they are good enough, can produce a figure and sell it themselves with no middle man like us. I can't say I blame them, though I do think some of them could benefit with the increased exposure that stores like ours offer. But who's to say they aren't perfectly happy just doing what they're doing. This has become particularly true with neo-kaiju makers who are doing it more for the love of doing it than anything else.

In the end, we're both fans of toys and business people, so I'm constantly looking for new stuff, fresh ideas and trying to keep my finger on how things are changing. I spend a lot of time lurking on toy message boards, reading art magazines and websites, and generally keeping touch with what's going on, but there's always room for improvement!

Last year, when we stopped by for the TADO show, you guys had just moved into your Lincoln Avenue digs. A year later, how are things going? Any unexpected changes with the bigger storefront in Lincoln Park?

It's been fantastic. I have to admit I wasn't sure we could pull off a storefront that was nearly three times the size of our pervious location, but it's worked out great. We've got more room to display stuff and not have everything cramped up. Plus, our store and gallery spaces are much better integrated now; before we moved you had to leave the store, go outside, and then go back inside the building next door to view the gallery ... now it's just right there, which gives the gallery a lot more of a presence.

I think the thing that surprised me the most after the move was the number of younger kids getting into designer toys now. Before we were an kind of out of the way location, which meant we were selling primarily to people that found us online or through word of mouth and then searched us out and made a trip to the store. These days, we're in a much higher traffic area and in a neighborhood with a lot more kids. It's been really cool to see 10- and 12-year-old kids geek out about toys that aren't based on something they've seen before.

On top of toys, you guys also have the built-in gallery space. When it comes to scheduling events, how does that process usually work for Rotofugi? Do you find yourselves with more ideas or proposals for exhibits than you have spaces on the calendar for?

For the most part we are a curated, invitation-only gallery. We have a curator, David van Alphen, who had his own gallery in Chicago before joining us. Dave's got a great eye for modern pop and illustration art, so most of our exhibits come from us inviting artists to show with us. We do take submissions, too, and once in a while and exhibit will come out of a submission, but the overwhelming majority of exhibits start with us reaching out to an artist who we admire.

Are there any artists you have wanted to work with, be it for an event or a toy, that you haven't been able to yet?

Tons ... too many to name really.

OK, if I had to name names ... let's see ... I'd love to work with Chris Ware and make a whole series of toys based on his characters and style. He's already made some great toys in collaboration with Quimby's and Presspop, a great little record label/toy company out of Japan, but I'd like to have a whole world of Chris Ware toys. Chris, if you read this, give us a call!

I know the world has been waiting forever for this ... but what's the status on the ol' Roto-A-Matic?

We've had a hell of a time getting the mold for the Roto-a-Matic made right. We finished rehabbing the machine a little over a year ago, but the new mold we're making just keeps giving us trouble. It's pretty basic technology on one level, but on another level it's fairly complex because it's a two-part aluminum water-cooled mold. Finding people that know how to do that, and do it right, has turned into a bit of a quest.

I've given up predicting when it'll be done, but we should have a new mold to test in the next month or so. Hopefully it'll work right!

In the past, Rotofugi (in collaboration with Squibbles Ink) have worked with the likes of Shawnimals, 64Colors, Chris Ryniak, Travis Lampe and others. Are there other new collaborations on the horizon, and any chance I might be able to get a sneak peek at one of those out of you at the moment? ;)

I know you said "and others" but you forgot to mention Jeremy Tinder, who's an amazing artist and cartoonist in Chicago we're working with on a line of toys now ... we debuted unpainted figures at SDCC earlier this year and are working on the painted releases now. I'm really excited for those. And we've also worked with Josh Agle (Shag) in the past ... and will be doing more in the future with him as well.

On the broader question at hand ... I learned fairly early on that giving sneak peeks of unannounced projects is just a bad idea. What if something goes wrong and you never release it? You look like, at best, an idiot and at worst, a douchebag if you can't deliver on what you promise. That's what happened to "The Family," a series of toys/busts that we've been working on with Chicago artist Brian Morris for the last, what, 4 or 5 years? We haven't completely shelved that project, but I can honestly say I don't know if we'll ever release anything. So ... sorry, no sneak peeks.

Along those same lines, where do you want to take Rotofugi in the future? Is there anything you're not doing right now that you want to be doing?

I think the future of Rotofugi is slow growth, learning how to do things better and making sure we're serving our customers and the artists we work with in the best possible way. To be 100 percent honest, I think we've grown to be about the size we'd like to stay at. We work hard, but there's still room for fun, and we still have a lot of hands-on interaction with fans and customers. I think if we lost that I'd be sad.

When you're not hard at work in the shop, how do you kill your free time?

That may be the hardest question, because we work pretty much all the time. Whitney and I really enjoy eating out and going to movies when we can, though that usually translates to grabbing a burrito on the way home from the store at midnight and then picking a movie from Netflix streaming to watch, lol.

Thanks for sitting down to chat with us, Kirby! And be sure to stop by both Rotofugi's website and their physical location (2780 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood) if you can!

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Brian Szabelski, Editor-in-Chief
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Brian Szabelski is Tomopop's Editor-in-Chief, stuck with an ever-growing collection of figures and toys. When he's not posting on Tomopop, he can usually be found working on any number of project... more   |   staff directory

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