Arts » 1st Thursday

Toby Robin Has Monsters Up His Sleeve

Neighborhood All-Stars designer displays new work at Flying M



Illustrator and graphic designer Toby Robin has a number of artistic tricks up his sleeve. He also has monsters. Ask Robin--co-owner of boutique design firm Neighborhood All-Stars and father of four--to roll up his shirt cuff and an army of colorful monster tattoos creeps out onto his forearm. They're playful and squiggly, like some Crayola masterpiece you might find tacked to a refrigerator.

"My son is crazy about drawing monsters so I have all these tattoos. These are all his drawings," said Robin. "Just being around that, his creativity, has helped refuel and guided me."

Anyone familiar with Robin's graphic design work--he painted designed the exterior of the Record Exchange--will recognize this sense of playful whimsy. Robin and his wife and business partner, Laura Loftus, have created a instantly recognizable style with their work for Alley Repertory Theater, Story Story Night and Zoo Boise. Brightly colored, 3D illustrations of animals creep into much of the work--everything from a sloth bear in a tiara holding a glass of red wine on the poster for Zoo Boise's Zoobilee, to a gullible mouse sitting down to eat cheese on a mousetrap table for Story Story Night's "Falling For It: Stories of Gullibility."

"Toby is very illustrative and a little bit graphic," said Story Story Night's Jessica Holmes. "I think Toby's true style is very innovative and kind of modern ... He always puts a little joke in every poster. This last one was, 'This Idaho Life: The Story of the State We're In,' so he did Ira Glass as a potato."

But despite his success in the field, Robin didn't always know he wanted to be a designer. After transferring from his hometown community college in Powell, Wyo., to Montana State University in Billings to study fine arts, Robin got a wake-up call.

"I got married, had my first kid, my daughter, and kind of freaked out," said Robin. "What am I going to do? How am I going to make money? And then one of my professors there kind of turned me onto graphic design. It wasn't really on my radar."

Soon after he graduated, Robin moved to Boise and was hired at design firm Oliver Russell, which does work for tech giant Hewlett-Packard, among other clients. But when Loftus, Robin's second wife, whom he met at Oliver Russell, got laid off in 2008, they decided it was time to start their own business.

"It was a great place to work, and I learned a ton there--like how the business works--but it was really more, 'Do I want to do this the next 15 to 20 years, or do I want to work with smaller companies where you're face-to-face with people who are directly affected by the work that you're doing and they're as passionate as you are?'" said Robin.

And though running a business, and running around with four kids, is work enough, Robin still squeezes in time for personal artistic work. This First Thursday, Nov. 3, an exhibit of 10 to 12 new acrylic on canvas pieces will grace the walls at Flying M Coffeehouse.

Though Robin is amped to showcase this new body of work, Flying M gallery co-curator John Warfel joked that he didn't have much of a choice.

"We had a couple of months come open ... We weren't really scrambling, but we had to figure out who do we know that we can trust to get things done," said Warfel. "So we just signed up Toby in that month and called him up, 'Hey, do you want to do this?'... We knew he could come through for us, even if he was busy."

For this exhibit, Robin is expanding a concept he touched on in his last show--Native American displacement by white settlers--which hung at Flying M three years ago.

"It was influenced a lot by my childhood, growing up in a white community in Montana and seeing a lot of the reservations there," explained Robin. "I've just always been fascinated with that whole era: Western expansion, Native Americans and their struggles, where they are now and where we are now."

But despite the weighty theme, Robin's work is anything but heavy. Bold, bright color palettes accentuate skull and teepee motifs that run through the series. In one piece, a bug-eyed feather skull in a button-down shirt and skinny tie shuffles through a tiny teepee community with electric lights strung from totem poles. The piece plays with traditional Native American themes but drops them into a modern context, all set against a background that drips from berry red to peach to turquoise.

"I knew I was mainly going to be painting at night, so I just thought I'm going to do what I want--what's going to be fun and not really think about what somebody's going to buy or what's going to appeal to who," said Robin.

Whether he is busting out colorful paintings at home after his kids are asleep or assembling eye-catching designs for local businesses with his wife at Neighborhood All-Stars, Robin maintains an aesthetic that is both playful and wholly original.

"I know a lot of people that are really good illustrators and a lot of people that are really good designers," said Warfel. "He's just kinda both."


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