March 29, 2008


If you're a regular reader, a friend of mine, or somebody who has passed me on a sidewalk then you've heard me raving about the Minneapolis based Charles Spencer Anderson design firm. They've been my favorite since a day, long ago, when I was performing my duties as a corporate mail boy and laid eyes on one of my deliveries— the CSA Archive of rescued, restored and/or revamped stock illustrations from the early to mid twentieth century.

(See for a look at the collection.)

After witnessing this gorgeous tome I went in search of more of their work. I was shocked and amazed upon my discovery of their phenomenal original designs. Here's a sampling that spans more than a decade...

Not to even mention their historic 2003 Target Halloween campaign.

If your eyes are still intact then please read on. In the tradition of a crazed stalker, I took matters into my own hands and visited their offices in 2001. They resided in a single floor of this building..

To my chagrin Mr. Anderson happened to be accompanying his wife as she gave birth to their daughter that day, but his lackeys were friendly and accommodating. My friend Jason and I received a satisfying tour on which we observed the crack team of designers in action. Eye candy spilled from their work spaces in the form of current projects and objects of inspiration. Every available nook seemed to be stuffed with printed wonders both foreign and familiar to me.

I was enthusiastically making a fool of myself, rattling questions at our guide in a fanboy mania when we suddenly ran out of square footage to tour. When this realization struck I started to feel that same little panic I get when I step off the last ride on the last day of a Disneyland visit. But wait a minute, there was no need to despair because I remembered that we hadn't seen the archive yet; which is to say the vaults where they stored their collection of vintage artwork. The first edition of their catalog goes on for several pages detailing the painstaking process they've undergone to protect and preserve their visual treasures. I'd seen photographs of long hallways lined with steel doors, and portraits of qualified art retrieval technicians who carefully managed the depository.

In fact, I recognized the building across the street as being home to this massive operation...

"So, are we allowed to see the archive?" said I.
My request was met with a grin and a chuckle.

"Heh, I guess that's off limits, huh." I continued.

"Oh, are you being for real?" he asked.

"Well, yes, but I'll understand if that's not possible."

His expression changed and he said,
"Well, you realize that whole archive thing is just a big put-on, right?"

"Huh? But what about all those photos in the catalog? The metal vaults and the guys in the rubber gloves, and the storage building?"

"I think we made it pretty obvious that it's all a joke. That's just our sense of humor. We started with a picture of the building down the block and made up the rest. The archive only exists digitally."

At that moment I was Pee-Wee Herman standing in the Alamo asking to see the basement.

I, a man with a taste for wit, a passion for pranks, and a bookmark on, had been severely and humiliatingly duped. (Upon rereading the captions in that catalog (seen above) the humor is unmistakable, but it's the pictures that nailed me.) I stood there confounded, feeling like the traditional Midwestern dimwit who gets chewed up by the city slickers. Our guide must have sensed my defeat because he quickly followed with a question.

"Would you like to see the Plastock room?"

Ah, glorious, sugary, eye-pleasuring Plastock. The only thing I adore in the CSA universe more than the black ink that makes up the original rights-managed Archive. Basically, Plastock is the three dimensional embodiment of vintage stock art. Anderson started by amassing tens of thousands of old plastic toys, charms, game pieces, models, cake toppers, railroad scenery, and doodads, then his team customized them with paint and frankensteining techniques before photographing them in the most beautiful ways imaginable, and finally Photoshopping them to perfection.

Get your Plastock right here.

Anderson has since explained to me that the photographs were originally captured on one of the first digital cameras on the market. Each image was around 80 megs and at the time (mid 1990s), the storage technology available on that level was ridiculously expensive– digital tapes at $150 apiece which had extremely limited capacity. Ironically, they ended up having to convert the entire catalog to film for the Japanese market.

"Sure. I suppose I wouldn't mind seeing the Plastock room," I said.

"I'll never wash these eyes again."

The title of this photo is "Dream Job."

Heads and head accessories to the left, globes and Plasticville buildings to the right.

Please don't forget to click on these images to enlarge them.

It was a joyous whirlwind. We were only in there for a handful of minutes and the whole time my attention was divided between being awestruck and trying to take decent snapshots. Prior to my visit I would regularly sit down and ingest the Plastock catalog like it was a novel, so I recognized a large portion of the pieces in the room. It's ridiculous, but I felt the same way that I do when encountering celebrities in person.

The collection of toys isn't organized in any particular system. For instance here we have some Shriners, a bum, a wino and a Scotsman.

Note The Great Garloo by Marx toys hiding behind the flag.

That green robot is Big Loo, another Marx favorite.

They kept plastic stuff on the shelves.

Regarding these photos Mr. Anderson adds "That's a fraction of the plastic stuff. We no longer display it on shelves-dust multiplied by tens of thousands. It's now in plastic Ziploc bags, inside of plastic Sterilite containers, in storage. Unfortunately very hard to see. But for me the art I'm interested in is not so much the object as the photo and finished color Photoshop version of the object-that's the Pop Art. We figured if Andy Warhol could take low, common objects and elevate them to the level of fine art, we could take this plastic stuff and elevate it to the much less ambitious level of stock art."

Plastock kicks Warhol, I say.

P.S. Yes, I was ripping off Plastock when I recently made this poster.


MC said...

That is some fine, fine work. I can why you find so much to appreciate in it.

Mr. Karswell said...

So how close were you to just locking yourself in the Plastock room and refusing to ever come out?

Flashfink! said...

Don't feel bad about believing the archives really existed. When Ronald Reagan was elected president he asked to be taken to the War Room that was in DR. STRANGELOVE.

Joel said...

You lucky dog..CSA is my favortite..ever since 1989 when i was in design school and CSA came to Southwest Texas State University (Now Texas State) to give a lecture...He spoke about the creation of the archive and had a slide he showed of his intern who fell asleep on the drafting table, which was covered with thousands of old clip art..I believe the pic is in the book you have posted above...

Thanks for sharing, great stuff

frozen charlotte said...

wowsers! i own "goth-icky" and adore it to pieces. i had no idea they were such an interesting and thorough company... i had thought when i found that book i had stumbled over a delightful one-off. exciting!

John Rozum said...

You sure get to visit some great places. As you know I'm also a big fan of CSA, and wish I could have tagged along on that tour. Thanks for sharing.

poop scoop said...

I'm pretty sure shriners, wino, bum, and a scotsman are together because the toys are organized by synonyms.

Dan Goodsell said...

great post - I remember when they were buying all that plastic stuff. I talked with other collectors and dealers wondering why they were buying all that stuff. Well here is the answer 10 years later.

Professor Estevez said...

Oh man! Do you know how many of the toys in the Plastock room I had? I about died when I saw my brother's "Jimmy Jet" flying simulator on the top shelf, there. And on the cover of the Plastics book? That's Beth!!! Beth!!! Beth At The Supermarket from the Dolly Darlings series!

kP said...

(previous comment had a broken link)

The care and number of items reminds me of the I Spy books, which never grow boring.

Kirk D. said...

mc- glad you did it!

karswell- that's exactly what that little devil on my shoulder kept saying.

flashfink- You're telling me that room doesn't exist either?? Noooo!

joel- I know that pic, but I didn't know it was real. Or is it??? hahaha

frozen charlotte- Cool! It looks like they've got a new one too...Fluffy Humpy Poopy Puppy. sounds like a winner!

rozum- you bet! Lets just meet there one of these days.

daniel- just what are you implying!? (heh, no that was my sneaky way of saying just that)

dan- Yes, he certainly immersed himself in the seedy underworld of vintage plastic (of which you are obviously one of the power players) He has some amazing tales of spending days scouring decrepit warehouses and such. Sounds like a wonderful process.

professor- I know exactly what you're feeling and I'm happy this post was able to give that to you.

kp- very true. I've always thought those books would be a blast to work on. I'd love to see a CSA version of an I Spy book.

Anonymous said...

Yay! CSA is so dreamy, thanks for the post.

(And I'm not just saying that because they did the TCM logo, by the way...)

VonCheech said...

great toy pics !
as a kid, i always tried to take cool pics of my toys.
they never came out as cool as i imagined they would.
glad to see it done right...

Tommy! said...

Here's an animation made with CSA graphics. It's an ART MASTERPIECE!!


VonCheech said...

i been thinking more and more of getting this toy book. this post sticks in my mind...
is it worth the high price ?

is there a place i should buy it from ?

VonCheech said...

got it !

amazon used... $28.00

Kirk D. said...

Oh, very good! I wouldn't have thought to look there. My copy is a softcover version that's actually a deluxe catalog from Photonica. The hardcover is a real thing of beauty so now I'm almost tempted to upgrade.
Yeah, I was going to say that 90+ bucks is still steep even though it's wonderful stuff. But yours is the way to go. I'm betting you'll love it.