Art Director Ken © Mattel, 2003.
Ken, who turned 46 yesterday, shares a birthday with eighteenth-century chemist Joseph Priestly, nineteenth-century astronomer Percival Lowell, and twentieth-century singer songwriter, Neil Sedaka. (And as of yesterday, twenty-first century newborn heir to an entertainment empire, Liam Aaron McDermott.) Over the years, Ken-the-chameleon has evolved from being "Barbie's Boy-Friend" to being a man in his own right, from "Live Action Ken" in 1970, to "Walk Lively Ken," "Busy Ken" and even "Talking Busy Ken" in 1971. (If you pulled a string, he said things like "Barbie's a great cook!") 1973's "Live Action Ken" gave way to "Gold Medal Ken" in 1974 (weirdly, as the Olympics were held in 1972) and what followed were a good decade's-worth of beach surfing, fun-loving, disco-dancing Kens taking us into the early '80s. ("Dream Date Ken," a 1982 issue, was dressed in a silver bodysuit with a pink cummerbund.) By the late 1980s, Ken had joined the Ice Capades and was piloting an airplane ("Ice Capades Ken" and "Flight Time Ken," both 1989) and two years later he was rapping, rollerblading and had joined the Marines.
Spandex and, curiously, shaving ("Dip shaver in warm water and shave off his beard!") make continued appearances through the 1990s and on into the new century, where the classic themes of sun, parties and yes, patriotism would eventually come to position the now-global Ken brand as America's premier dreamboat. Despite some bizarre little blips on what some might call the spectrum of family values (consider 1997's caucasian and African-American versions of "Dr. Ken & Little Patient Tommy," or 1999's "Swim Buddies Ken and Tommy"), Ken's 40year evolution casts a fascinating lens on the plastic condition.
Art Director Ken, © Mattel, 2003.
In 2000, Canadian manufacturers released "Photographer Ken" whose casual attire (T-shirt and shorts) matched his no-nonsense approach to his work. Camera at the ready, messenger bag at his side, "Photographer Ken" even came with a pair of tongs and a developing tray. ("Pictures develop in warm water and disappear in cold water!") "Photo Student Ken" ("Photography 101 is the coolest class at my school!") appeared two years later, in identical attire but with shorter hair and, bizarrely, a golden retriever at his side. Throughout these early years of the new century, Ken keeps on skating and sunning, while (presumably) honing his passion for black and white photography: having "built a reputation as an artistic visionary," he is released, in 2003, as "Art Director Ken", a "sensitive artist with a passion for life." And blonde highlights.
"Art Director Ken" is dressed in black, carries a portfolio, and is part of a set-of-four "Modern Circle" dolls that feature Barbie as the producer, Melody as the production assistant and Simone as the makeup artist. Where Ken once spoke of Barbie's skills in the kitchen, he now shares a more multifaceted connection to his companion of four decades who thrives in business but retains her, um, softer side. "Professionally, (Ken) see Barbie as open and energetic, but while not engaged in business matters, he finds her shy and distant." At turns heroic, regal and sun-kissed (Ken returns in 2005 as "Superman," "Prince Stefan in Rapunzel" and a suntan-lotion toting "Beach Ken") one has to wonder how "Art Director Ken" made the cut. From Olympian athlete to airline pilot is an easy enough leap to make. But Art Director? That's just weird.
Of course, "Art Director Ken" is meant to be a movie person. (In the second edition of "Art Director Ken," the portfolio is gone: Ken is at the world premiere of his new movie, wearing a Nehru collar shirt and an iridescent taffeta long-length jacket.) And here, the barometer of recognition is clear: "Art Director Ken" is glamorous not because he's an art director, but because he's managed to carve out a glamorous role for himself in the movie industry. Surrounded by beautiful women, clad in black and claiming "visionary" status, who would dare question his seriousness of purpose, his education, what's inside that portfolio? Certainly not the audience for "Art Director Ken" little girls and the people who buy for them a demographic that might well see "Art Director Ken" and "Barbie Fantasy Tales Tea Party Prince Ken" as, well, fungible. And who would dare disagree? Ken has survived for 46 years by catering to precisely this demographic. (And to collectors, who are likely to scrutinize the details, many of them rather fetishistically sartorial.)
Still, Ken's is a charmed, if mildly cautionary tale, for it brings to mind the potentially superficial nature in which we judge a person, an identity indeed, a profession. For those of us engaged in juried competitions, given mere minutes to rule on the value of a piece of graphic, or industrial, or architectural, or even movie-related design, this is a slippery slope: are we not perpetuating an unsatisfying cycle in which we sacrifice real substance to superficial judgment? Unlike our plastic friend, it's worth considering a world in which real, live art directors engage in a more reflective kind of conversation that gives the work its due. Or maybe I should just wait for "Design Critic Ken" ("Comes With Light-Up Laptop!") or "Design Blogger Ken" ("He Posts! He Comments!") or even better "Design Juror Ken" ("He Ponders! He Reflects! He Debates The Vicissitudes of Form With Barbie!").
Today, by the way, is Albert Einstein's birthday. This should put to rest any residual notions that astrology and commerce have any relationship whatsoever. As for Ken? Whatever his next "artistic" incarnation, I'd say there's a pretty good chance he'll be wearing black which, lest we forget, has been known to cover a multitude of sins. Including blonde highlights.