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He’s a true transformer

Artist takes pieces from outdated technology and turns them into cool designer toys

By Liza Weisstuch
Globe Correspodent / July 7, 2011

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When new technology replaces old, Todd Robertson couldn’t care less about the more sophisticated gadget or machine.

“When DVD players came out, there was a VCR on every corner. The best time for me is when people buy new technology. Whenever they upgrade, they get rid of old stuff,’’ said Robertson, a designer who straddles the line between sculptor and renegade toy maker.

From each unlikely treasure trove he finds, he extricates the tiny inner workings and reconfigures them into packed tangles of screws, switches, gears, coils, and wires. These mutant mash-ups add finely wrought mechanical detail to Robertson’s monster dolls.

These days, Transformers are once again grabbing attention with their robotic claws, thanks to the just-released blockbuster, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.’’ But Robertson has long been doing his own brand of transforming. He’s part of a designer toy movement with roots that can be traced to Godzilla movies and Japanese children’s action TV shows. From those, the genre known as Kaiju - Japanese for “strange beast’’ - has grown for years. Kaiju toys are intricately designed monster figures made of heavy duty vinyl and embellished with protruding spikes, glowering expressions, and nearly microscopic fingernails.

Robertson customizes his creations with mechanical clusters and finishes them off with layers of paint, blending the carefully rendered detail of a fine artist with the splattered abandon of graffiti. It’s an aesthetic he dubbed “mecha-virus.’’

“It’s the idea that this mechanical thing can grow out of any part of a monster. It leaves me direction to do a lot of different things by enhancing, re-sculpting, and modifying,’’ he said on a recent afternoon in the Beacon Hill apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Maiya Kinoshita, who grew up in Osaka. They recently returned from a two-week trip to visit her parents in Japan. He spent lots of time in toy stores.

Toy makers and collectors in the Far East as well as stateside are among Robertson’s fans. Urban streetwear design circles have started paying attention, too. He’s received effusive reviews on blogs, and he’s up for the breakthrough artist of the year in the Designer Toy Awards. His work has been sold on Karmaloop.com, the locally founded streetwear company, as well as a Beacon Hill boutique and local pop-up stores. He’s had shows at the Good Life restaurant and Lot F Gallery in the Financial District, where he has a solo show in September.

He also earned the admiration of Bob Conge, the godfather of sorts of the designer toy movement. The former college art teacher and founder of Plaseebo, a designer toy shop, invited Robertson to collaborate on a limited edition series. They sold out in 24 hours.

“I haven’t seen anyone who’s doing custom work in figures make the kind of thing he does. It’s more complicated, colorful,’’ said Conge from his upstate New York studio. “It’s a blending of the organic and inorganic. Nobody’s near as polished and talented.’’

The most obvious roots of Robertson’s fascination are his childhood obsessions with monster movies and his collection of, yes, Transformers. His father, a model-train fanatic, was always creating elaborate layouts and enlisting his son’s help. As Robertson works today, he draws from his other passion: music. He’s played saxophone since childhood and attended Hartford Conservatory during high school.

“Music taught me a sense of balance,’’ he said. “Other artists are more technically advanced, but they might not have a sense of balance. I can hear the pieces. When they get into tune, I walk away.’’

Robertson likens designer toys to another kind of customized collectible that evolved from a utilitarian object.

“It’s like the sneaker thing,’’ he said. “When you were a kid, you had sneakers. Then it became a retro movement. So when you grow up and have a little extra money, you buy cool sneakers - or cool toys to display. They’re works of art. You’re not going to wear it on the street every day. It’s a collectible.’’

Liza Weisstuch can be reached at liza.weisstuch@gmail.com