It’s safe to say that we’ve reached critical mass on the whole built-for-Instagram pop-up trend. The world may not need another Museum of Ice Cream/ Candy/ Pizza/ Pinball/ Illuseum/ Happiness/ Failure/ Broken Relationships/ Rosé or Eggs (!), and yet they just keep on popping up. Which is why I ask that you bear with me while I introduce you to the Museum of Toys, a new LA-based pop-up exhibit that tells the “untold, alternate history of toys.” Thanks to a knack for subverting retro branding and healthy sense of self-awareness and humor, this one is in a league of its own.
Produced by internet and IRL prankster Jeff Wysaski, the museum is a culmination of Wysaski’s Obvious Plant project, an experiential comedy endeavor where he transforms thrift store toys into cleverly subversive versions of the originals and then quietly leaves them on the shelves of everyday stores for unsuspecting shoppers to discover. Many of his products often include disclaimers like “This product is not real. Nothing is real,” adding to the feeling that you’ve stumbled across some kind of comedic glitch in the Matrix.
Wysaski’s brand of absurdist humor and low-key nihilism has earned him a steady following online since 2015, when he started planting signs in stores or on the street, like this wanted poster, or this great last-minute gift option. “At some point I’d exhausted my poster and flyer ideas, and I thought, ‘What else can I do to keep this going?’” Wysaski explains. “That’s when I started redesigning toy packaging. I like the tangibility of creating something I can either leave for people to find or even collect to put into an entire museum like this.”
“I really like when bad design occurs by accident, so I try to take that bad by accident and do bad on purpose.”
Some highlights of the museum collection include: an arachnophobic superhero action figure called Covered in Spiders, Man; The Game of Existence, a board game; a printer that prints only one word and that word is “Ribs;” and a bag of Muppet Screams (do as the tagline instructs: smell their fear, absorb their power!).
The secret to creating a fake world of toys is to meticulously study designs of the source material. “I have an affinity for ’80s and ’90s design,” Wysaski says, “so I look at retro packaging and find styles to match specific items or jokes. I reference Marvel’s aesthetic in a few of the toys; others, like my ‘Stupidest Animal’ action figures, were directly themed off of the “Starting Lineup” action figure collection, everything from the layout right down to the logo.”
Often Wysaski will create more of a hybridized version of an original, combining different vernacular typefaces with color palettes from various toy brands, or even pulling from the non-toy world and then translating it into something new that looks old. He also pays close attention to the typography—or typographic errors—of dollar store products and knock-off toys he finds online. “For some reason I really like when bad design occurs by accident, so I try to take that bad by accident and do bad on purpose.”
Wysaski has also added to the meta vibe of the exhibit by creating a series of pop-ups within his original pop-up, partnering with artists and performers with similar comedic sensibilities. Throughout the museum’s two week run, visitors can view and purchase work from other internet darlings like illustrator Robin Eisenberg, or video and performance collective Everything is Terrible, or they can treat themselves to an old-school puppet show by Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater. (Side note, Wysaski performs with the Bob Baker crew as Mothman in a monthly variety show called When Puppets Are Your Only Friends; it’s a weird and wonderful delight).
While the Obvious Plant universe is populated by mostly light-hearted, satirical design objects, there are layers of meaning to the show. “My main goal is always to make someone laugh,” Wysaski says. “But I’m also commenting on the absurdity and excess of consumerism, and on more political themes, like with the ‘Wage Gap Manor’ toy house. Even though it’s funny, there’s a bit of a dark thread running through a lot of what I make. So many of us are constantly living with this low-level anxiety for where the world is at these days. If you think about it too much it can be overwhelming, so this is my way of dealing with that: just commiserating with everybody and making a joke about it, like ‘Things are awful, right?’”
Whether Wysaski’s jokes serve as a catharsis for modern existence or simply parody the spectacle of the immersive pop-up trend, it’s clear that the Museum of Toys resonates with his audience. Wysaski hopes to take the museum on tour or even reproduce products from the show to sell online. When asked why people keep flocking to these Instagrammable exhibits, he says people love the interactive aspect of being able to engage with the artwork directly. “With the Museum of Toys, I wanted to subvert that model so people can still enjoy that kind of a ‘museum’ experience but in an Obvious Plant way. And I enjoy it too, this idea of experiential comedy. It’s a fun new world for me to play in.”