Do You Nerd Out On Star Wars Toy Packaging? Well, There's A Book For That!
by Bill McCool on 09/14/2020 | 6 Minute Read
As a kid, I remember getting the Ewok Village playset and thinking that it was all I would ever need in life to feel fulfilled. I have no idea how I acquired this extremely cool toy (there is a BBQ fire pit for roasting anyone you want), as the playset came out the same year as Return of the Jedi—it was 1983, and I was three years old, and just maybe this was prime choking material. A few years after the film’s release, though, it entered my life, as well as a deep, reverent love for all things Star Wars.
And then, you know, the other sequels came out, and that’s another story entirely.
The toys served as a point of entry for my childhood obsession, and walking through the Valhalla that was Toys “R” Us in the 80s was pure, uncut kiddie cocaine, and any display of Star Wars-anything brought on the kind of shameful, covetous behavior that would make my own children blush, and usually, a few tears. And no, the Ewoks weren’t just a “bunch of muppets,” though I did drink that Clerks-related kool-aid for many years.
The point is, Star Wars changed the whole toy game, ushering in an era of cheaper to produce 3.75” action figures; in their first year of selling in 1978, they sold over $100 million, a lot of which went to creator George Lucas after he negotiated to take a sizable chunk of the revenue from merchandise sales.
To mark those first few transformative years, Mattias Rendahl, designer and creative director of Sweden’s Dearvalley, released A New Proof, a book documenting the rise of the Kenner empire and how they created their toy packaging. Originally, the book came out in 2015, but after two successful printings that went to diehard fans, demand necessitated the need for a third run, which Mattias is funding through Kickstarter. And if you think he’s going to stop at A New Hope, you’d be wrong, as he’s putting together his next book on The Empire Strikes Back, the cheekily titled The Chromalin Strikes Back.
Recently, I spoke with Mattias about his long-standing obsession with all things Star Wars, as well as his love of the iconic toy packaging.
It's one thing to say, "I love Star Wars" or "I'm a Star Wars nerd," it's another thing to write a whole book devoted to the toy’s packaging. What motivated you to write this?
The short answer is that it’s the combination of all my interests and expertise. I'm an art director and designer by profession and have a foot in the printing industry from when I was younger (my father has always been in the printing industry). Plus, I'm a Star Wars toy collector.
I’ve been collecting Star Wars toys from Kenner (the US company that made them) for almost 25 years. After a few years, I discovered that there were pre-production items for the toys and packaging out there. First, I thought the few people that were into this were crazy, collecting expensive proof prints and Cromalins. I was used to seeing these kinds of items as trash, almost a necessary evil you need as a designer.
But then I became more and more interested since I knew a lot about the process and how the design steps work. So much more work and even thought was put into the packaging design process back in the day—airbrush artists instead of Photoshop, prints from the photographer instead of digital files, mockups and mechanicals instead of InDesign, and even films and printing plates instead of digital printing. So, after years of collecting and working as a designer, I decided to make a niche book only about the toy packaging, and to make it even more nerdy, I only covered the first years (1977-1979) in the book. And if that sold OK, I would make it into a series of books, one for each movie/toyline.
When the book sold out extremely fast, I noticed it wasn’t just niche toy collectors who bought it, but also general toy collectors, designers, and people in the movie industry from all over the world. So I had to make a second printing, and now, hopefully, the third printing via Kickstarter. And later this fall, I’m self-publishing the sequel to the first book.
What is it that you love about the toy packaging?
The design of the toys and packaging themselves have always fascinated me, a lot of childhood memories looking at the toys in the stores and dreaming about having them all. And Star Wars was groundbreaking. During this time, boys' toys were blue and girls' toys pink. It was very controversial to make black packaging, which then became a standard for action figure toys, plus smart marketing on the backside of the packaging, where they showed all other toys available with a message to ”collect them all." It was a new way back then to use the packaging design to sell more stuff.
Today, the back is mostly about fitting as many languages as possible to have as few different packages as possible. So much more boring these days.
What are some features in the book that everyone should know about?
Many in the design and advertising industry today maybe don’t know or realize how much more work it was back in the day to create the packaging for a product. You had to put in way more thought, draw concept sketches by hand, and test them before to narrow it down. So, it is great to see that. As a designer myself, it helps me in my projects. I take a step back and not just hurry up and start creating tons of sketches in Illustrator or InDesign.
In the book, you see the whole process from this era. I tracked down the original art director, Ray Perszyk. Kenner hired the design firm Cato Johnson (who later become CYB, and then global design powerhouse LPK) for their packaging design, and I interviewed him and was able to get a hold of many original sketches, notes, and concept designs. And, of course, a lot of stories. For example, he got the brief-not in written form- late Friday night and had the weekend to come up with some designs. He had a camping trip planned with his kids, so he worked and made drafts out in the woods. He was also told not to use colored markers to keep the costs down. I guess some things haven’t really changed. And the rest is history.
But I have also talked to the photographer and other people involved in the design process. Besides all the history, the processes, original sketches, and concepts, you get to see a lot of packaging proof material and hand-made airbrushed photos for all of the first 21 characters they released. It's a fun walk down memory lane as a designer or pop culture fan.
How many Star Wars toys do you actually own?
No idea, actually! But today, I’m way more niche than I used to be. One of my rooms is only filled with prototypes, proof cards, and concept sketches, for example. Another only with Swedish related Star Wars toys. But much of it is in boxes in the basement, which I hate. I want to have my stuff on display in glass cabinets with lightning and not spread around the house.
I’m not that nerdy.