Tristan Eaton

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"I haven't minded flying under the radar for the past while," says Tristan Eaton. "But that's going to change." The energetic and intensely focused Eaton is perhaps best known as the design collaborator to Kid Robot founder Paul Budnitz and the designer of that renowned toy mart's classics, including the enduring Dunny, the long-eared vinyl vessel for the creative outpourings of artists from Frank Kozik, Pete Fowler and Gary Baseman (see story opposite) to Takeshi Murakami and designer Diane von Furstenberg. Eaton is also a painter, illustrator, 3-D artist, graffiti fanatic and now, dealing perhaps the death blow to the radar-evading lifestyle, studio owner. His new toy, Thundermutt, is the inaugural vinyl art piece from his newly configured company Thunderdog Studios, which houses Eaton's creative services agency and the designer's nascent toy label. The company was launched to spread the Eaton ethic to a wider audience while furthering the fine-art cause, and will act as not only a label that will oversee the creation, production and distribution of his toy designs but also as an agency for a growing range of commercial services and a creative hothouse for artistic collaboration across disciplines. Through Thunderdog, Eaton will work with longtime co-conspirators like toy designer Filth, and will make toys and other art forms on his own terms. "Paul (Budnitz) and I have a great working relationship," says Eaton. "We've done a lot of really cool stuff together, but at the end of the day I wanted to get into a position where I'm not art directed at some level or at the mercy of someone else's funds and boundaries."

Through the agency division, Eaton (with an in-house team of 11) will undertake commercial graphic design, illustration, toy design and other work-projects have ranged from creative services for companies like Hasbro and Nike to designing promotional toys through agencies-including a toy for BBH's "Esuvee" safety campaign, and the toy rendition of the Subservient Chicken through CP+B, set for release later this year. Eaton's plan is for Thunderdog to act as a one-stop shop for a wide range of design projects, which stretch the studio's capability and feed expertise (and revenue) back into all of his artistic endeavors.

"We have a company like BBH come to us with a project for Axe deodorant. We can do an illustration for them, but we can also do a promotional toy for them-so we end up doing a lot of toy production for the ad industry. It helps us develop new skills in toy production and funds for our own toys. We developed a whole line of remote control cars for Rockstar Games, and I learned how to make remote control cars from start to finish. With this work we end up getting into the kinds of production we'd never be in otherwise."

Eaton also intends the toy division to go well beyond vinyl. "I'm not interested in it being just a toy label; it's a label of fine-art products," says Eaton, citing some of the multifaceted art initiatives that will be going through the label, including an art book that will feature the work of over 100 artists rendered in 3-D, complete with glasses, and a project with jewelry designer Osamu Koyama of Complete Technique to make jewelry-based toys (Koyama also created a gold version of Dunny for a recent big vinyl show and is set to team with king of bling Jacob the Jeweler).

Since toy sales aren't designed to be the revenue engine of the studio, Eaton can take more risks on the designs that inspire him-Thundermutt is a very limited edition specimen with only 500 of the inaugural versions created-and won't be available in stores but will be shipped directly to buyers who have pre-ordered. "We don't have to curve our creativity toward a certain market or selling point. What that means for me is I can do more work out of my fine art. And because the work we've been doing is much more limited, we can have more personal relationships with not only customers but the stores themselves. It makes me feel like I'm dealing with a piece of art rather than a product I'm trying to mass produce. It's the best of both worlds-it's limited mass product and fine art that's not elitist; it's fine art that's more populist. It's accessible and available and it still has a close connection to the artist who made it."

The toy is also a platform for collaboration. "I find every opportunity I can to collaborate with people; you end up pushing each other and doing things you wouldn't normally do. Thundermutt is kind of our platform figure- to do variations on and collaborations with other artists. The founding concept is, it's a mutt-it's a cross breed so every paint design is a collaboration between two or more artists on one toy. It hasn't been done before and it will be exciting to see the outcome."

Eaton, who was born in L.A. and grew up in London and Detroit before moving to New York, was a goner for illustration from birth-as a kid he was surrounded by artists through his father (who now works with Eaton at TDog) and came to toy design through his pursuit of an illustration career and his loves of graffiti and hip-hop culture. "I was lucky to be put into this world when I was. I think it would be harder to do toys now-the whole thing is overpopulated and overcommercialized. When we started we were designing in a vacuum."

Eaton is now looking at future collaboration with Ren & Stimpy creator Jon Kricfalusi and a "top-secret graffiti project." The 26-year-old concludes, fittingly, "I've done so much work for so many years but I'm still just starting out."

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