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Celebrating 10 Years, Toy Shop Rotofugi Draws Worldwide Visitors and Praise

By Paul Biasco | September 8, 2014 5:19am | Updated on September 8, 2014 1:58pm

LINCOLN PARK — Although he's too young to know it, Lazlo Kerr's toy collection is going to be the envy of all his friends.

After all, the 7-month-old's parents own what is arguably the world's best toy store.

"He's going to have a pretty amazing toy collection waiting for him when he's ready for it," said Kirby Kerr, who owns Lincoln Park-based Rotofugi with his wife, Whitney.

The toys that line the shelves of Rotofugi are more than just something to play with, they are pieces of art.

Paul Biasco says the magic of the shop finally won him over, and he bought a toy:

This month marked the 10-year anniversary of the business, which has grown from a small shop in Ukrainian Village to a "must visit" for enthusiasts from around the world.

"Ten makes me feel like we are actually established," said 42-year-old Kirby Kerr. "Now it's real."

The shop is one of a kind in the Midwest, and is one of the only physical locations allowing customers and fans to see such a vast collection of toys.

In the three years the Designer Toy Awards have been in existence, Rotofugi has brought home the award for best toy store twice and best online toy store all three years.

The awards are presented by Clutter Magazine, the leading designer toys publication, and are considered on par with a Grammy or Emmy in the industry.

Rotofugi's shelves are lined with hundreds of toys from artists and designers from all over the world.

Rotofugi, 2780 N. Lincoln Ave., also features a gallery where artists from around the world host rotating shows.

The majority of the intricately designed toys are rotocast vinyl, with a rubberlike feel and a hollow center.

The figurines range in price from a few dollars for a Tear Drips by Chicago-based artist Travis Lampe ($5.95) to a few hundred for a special edition Dunny by Kidrobot ($400).

“In a lot of ways I think the toys are analogous as buying an artist's print. Think of it as a 3-D print," Kerr said. "I think of it as an addition to sculpture, it just uses the manufacturing process that toys use.”

Kerr chalks Rotofugi's success up to timing, passion, customer service and constant research of the hottest artists and upcoming toys on the market.

Before opening the original location in Ukrainian Village 10 years ago, Kirby and Whitney Kerr had just begun to to collect art toys.

It was a brand new industry in the United States, and they had difficulty finding anywhere to buy them in Chicago.

The Kerrs had just sold their house, had cash on hand and decided to take a gamble — the other option was a down payment on a new home.

The initial plan was for Kirby Kerr to keep his job in the design world and run the store as a hobby on the weekends. Six months later he realized that wasn't going to be an option; the store was growing rapidly.

"It was just a matter of being a little crazy and loving what we were getting into," Kirby Kerr said.

The Kerrs weren't the only ones who thought opening the business might be a crazy idea.

Susan Hobgood has worked at Baird & Warner, next door to Rotofugi, since before the toy store moved in.

She finally popped in last week for the first time to buy her nephew a gift and was amazed.

"When we saw this come in, we said 'Let's give it six months,'" Hobgood said.

The shop, which resembles a museum of toy,s with figures of every color lining stacks of shelves along the walls, sees about 70 percent of its customers in the summer come from out of town.

Many of those visitors are international.

Just last week, a customer from Germany called ahead just as he landed at O'Hare at 6 p.m. to make sure he could make it to Rotofugi before the shop closed.

Kerr stayed open late to show the man around.

Rotofugi also runs a product development project that produces artist-designed figures by designers they have come to know over the years.

The side company, Squibbles Ink + Rotofugi, focuses on Midwestern artists who may have never been involved in designer toys before.

Lampe, the Chicago artist and illustrator, hosted one of his first shows at Rotofugi back in 2007, and his artwork was such a hit that Kerr persuaded him to create a toy version.

"They sold like crazy, and I remember after the show Kirby just said we should talk to our toy guy and see if we can make some toys out of these," Lampe said. "It just kind of naturally happened.”

Lampe's Tear Drips series is still on the market six years after its original run.

"It was super exciting," Lampe said. "You don’t make a ton of money off of that, but for me it was more about giving you a kind of legitimacy, and that helps with your gallery sales."

As for the name Rotofugi, it's a nod to the Kerr's beagle-Shih Tzu mix named Fugi, and roto, short for the toy-making process called rotocasting.

"We kind of threw our life savings into a toy store," Kerr said. "Kind of a foolhardy move, but it's worked out so far."

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