Tag Archives: plastic models

Whither the hobby shop?

Not too long ago, there seemed to be several hobby shops in every city. And plastic model kits were popular enough that they were a staple of the toy section in most major department stores. I remember those days fondly.

The toy section was the only saving grace for young boys forced to accompany their mothers on shopping trips downtown (I speak from experience). With a little prodding, mom could be persuaded to drop by the toy section after all the boring necessities (clothes, household supplies, etc.) had been purchased.

As a teen, I remember embarking on long bike rides and trips on city buses to visit local hobby shops whenever possible. Sometimes a friend and I would organize a day trip to another city to see the sights, which inevitably included a hobby shop or two. Even our family vacations were not complete without a visit to the local hobby shop. This was before the advent of the Internet, so who knew what unique products might be found in a hobby shop located in another city or country?

Sadly, many hobby shops have closed their doors over the last several years. Some of these closings are due to the shift in retail from bricks and mortar to online, which can be seen in many retail categories. But research from IBISWorld confirms that profit margins for hobby shops have been steadily declining over the past decade, and this has forced many small independent stores out of business. Only the larger online retailers, who can negotiate volume discounts that small mom and pop stores have no hope of matching, are surviving. Model kits are ideally suited to online retail, since plastics are lightweight and inexpensive to ship.

For buyers, the advent of online shopping is nothing short of revolutionary, and in a good way. I can now locate the most obscure decal sheet, aftermarket part or thirty year old kit in minutes and have it delivered from anywhere in the world.

Another benefit of the online shopping revolution is the surge in producers of garage kits. Now, with the help of a website, any talented individual can produce and sell resin kits to buyers worldwide. This also increases choice for the buyer, since subjects which are too obscure for major manufacturers to mass produce are covered by garage kit producers who can make a profit on very low volumes.

There’s a part of me that misses the bricks and mortar shopping experience. That sense of anticipation: “what cool new items am I going to see on the shelf when I open the door and walk in?” And once you enter, the chance to talk about the fine points of modelling with the store owner. This is missing from online shopping. Yes, we have online forums where people can talk about modelling, but it’s not the same. People act much worse online, protected by a cloak of anonymity, than they do face-to-face. This is why online forum discussions tend to resemble food fights in a school cafeteria.

Another trend I’ve noticed is that model kits in hobby shops have begun sharing shelf space with fully assembled (or almost fully assembled) diecast miniatures. Diecast cars from the likes of Corgi and Dinky have been around for decades, but now diecasts of aircraft and science fiction subjects have become popular. And they are offered in the same scales as plastic model kits, meaning that they are being positioned as direct competitors. It appears that diecasts are popular with adults as well as children.

If hobby shop owners are sacrificing plastic model kit shelf space for ready-made diecast miniatures, there must be a reason for it. The obvious one is a shift in demand. Perhaps fewer people are willing to spend the time to assemble and paint a plastic model kit. They want the payoff—a realistic aircraft replica to display in the living room—without the work.

In today’s world of condensed sound bites and abbreviated text messages, few can muster the focus needed to devote several hours to reading a novel or putting a plastic model kit together. Parents equip their kids with smart phones and video games, which reduce attention spans and train them to expect instant gratification. Public schools are not helping either: although children are still taught to print, the teaching of cursive is being phased out. The elegant art of handwriting will soon be a thing of the past, replaced by typing at a computer keyboard.

How will this impact the manual dexterity of future generations? Picking up a pen and learning cursive is an important part of developing motor skills. Someone who doesn’t know how to manipulate a pen may find themselves challenged by other tasks requiring fine manual motor skills as well. These skills are de rigueur for gardening, cooking, and home repairs, to name just a few. Where will the next generation of surgeons (whose level of manual dexterity can have life or death consequences) come from?

I recently asked a hobby shop owner if he thought the increase in demand for diecast replicas was due to a downturn in the popularity of model building. He wouldn’t admit to it, despite the fact that there were several shelves of diecast aircraft in his store. He pointed out that buying a diecast replica and displaying it on a bookshelf doesn’t give the buyer the feeling of accomplishment that he gets from putting a plastic model kit together. And he seemed strenuously opposed to the idea that building models was going out of style. But then why was he carrying diecast products?

Based on the IBISWorld research, discretionary spending on hobbies in general has been down since the 2008 recession, so it’s probably safe to say that there are fewer plastic model hobbyists today than a few decades ago. If I had to guess, I’d say the golden age of modelling was somewhere around the end of the 20th Century. Long-time manufacturers like Revell and Airfix had been joined by newer companies such as Tamiya and Hasegawa, and the latter elevated the quality and accuracy of their products to new levels. Lots of people seemed to be building plastic models. On a positive note, most of the top plastic model manufacturers are still in business, and they continue to introduce new products every year.

In the end, what matters is not whether everyone else loves what you do, but that you love what you do. It’s inevitable that the popularity of plastic modelling will wax and wane over time, just like everything else, so why worry about it?

I’m reminded of a great scene from the movie Spinal Tap, in which the band’s manager, Ian Faith, is being interviewed. The interviewer mentions that the band is playing much smaller venues than it used to, and he asks if this is because the band’s popularity is waning. Faith brilliantly replies, “Oh no, not at all. I just think that their appeal is becoming more selective.”

-Ivar

Is the diorama art?

As someone who loves art, I’ve often wondered how many diorama builders see themselves as artists, and see their creations as works of art. We accept without hesitation that a photograph, sculpture or painting is a work of art. But what about dioramas?

We could take the easy way out and remain agnostic, like The Joker who said in Tim Burton’s Batman: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.” But let’s explore the issue and see what happens.

Since the vast majority of dioramas are populated with commercially available plastic models, the purist might argue that they contain content which is not 100% original. Therefore, they cannot be considered original works of art. And although some dioramas rely more than others on off-the-shelf models, the purist would argue that any non-original content immediately disqualifies the diorama as a true work of art.

I would argue that the “original content” argument is of little or no relevance in the present day world of art. Ever since Pop Art emerged in the 1950s, measuring the amount of original content in a piece of art has become irrelevant. I recently saw a sculpture at an art show which was made entirely of Lego blocks.

Photography is another art form which does not hold up particularly well to the “original content” argument. The landscape photographer does not construct anything that appears in his photo. The content was conveniently created for him billions of years ago. He “borrows” content from his immediate surroundings every time he presses the shutter release. By manipulating variables such as lighting and composition, he creates a work of art which qualifies as “original,” even though the physical content depicted in the photo is not of his own making. Most of the time, the photographer is able to borrow the content for his photos with little or no protest—but not always. Photographers have gotten into costly and embarrassing legal scrapes for photographing people and places without permission, which is arguably worse than being unoriginal. I have yet to see this fate befall a diorama artist.

Another protest we often hear when debating the diorama’s place in the world of art is its association with children’s crafts. But children make lots of things when emulating adults. A child’s sand castle is a sculpture, but no-one would accuse Rodin’s sculptures of being glorified sand castles. Children also love to finger paint, a technique appropriated by numerous modern artists of the 20th Century. Painter Jackson Pollock liked to lay his canvases on the floor and then fling, drip and spatter paint over them. Luckily, his parents were not around to make him clean up the mess.

If we adopt the position that anything exhibited as art is a work of art, then the diorama easily qualifies. Several have been featured at art fairs, alongside art of every description. And in countries around the world, people pay admission to admire professionally built dioramas. I’m not talking about museums which often contain historical dioramas to support the exhibits, but dedicated diorama galleries.

So how did the diorama become a wallflower at the art world’s high school prom? Without a dedicated PR team, perhaps it was inevitable. We diorama artists tend to be quiet types who don’t care what the world thinks of us. We are not likely to be found trumpeting our achievements on Facebook or Twitter, or taking selfies in our studios. And it’s a safe bet we’ll never have our own reality show. We prefer to create, not promote. And for most of us, the satisfaction we get from finishing a project is enough.

But if you feel that recognition is an important part of the experience of building dioramas, I have a simple suggestion. And you don’t need a PR team. Here is what you do: The next time someone asks you how you like to spend your spare time, don’t hang your head sheepishly and mumble something in hushed tones about plastic models. Look them in the eye and tell them you’re an artist. I guarantee you’ll feel a lot better by the end of the conversation.

-Ivar