Abstract sculpture, IKEA chair, or curio art? None of the above. That MFA thesis display is probably just an aisle in your local sex shop. Toy design has rapidly improved to match tech advances and artistic trends. The vibrator section of most adult boutiques more closely resembles a hall at the Getty Museum or a Swedish furniture store display. Less than a decade ago, phallic veins and multiple SKU colors were passed as the latest and greatest advances. The mainstreaming of sex toys has changed everything, and fresh ideas from style-savvy manufacturers are turning pleasure products into gallery-worthy works of art.
Sex toy designers are the new artists. “Similar to the way fashion designers talk about their lines, toy designers often tell us about the inspiration for their lines,” says Victor Tobar, buyer at the Pleasure Chest. A blend of form, function and culture create products that resonate with the universal desire for personal expression. “Designers are part of the magic and communication of brands. They are its soul,” says Elsa Viegas, co-founder of Bijoux Indiscrets. Luxury toy designers often bestow their own taste upon each piece, adding a sense of passion that strikes a chord with discerning clientele. “I get my inspiration from everywhere — fashion, product design, art and movies,” says Rianne Swierstra, CEO of Rianne S Boutique companies, such as those of Swierstra or Viegas, understand that modern consumers demand more than the promise of orgasm to draw them to a sensual product.
Similar to the way fashion designers talk about their lines, toy designers often tell us about the inspiration for their lines. -Victor Tobar, Pleasure Chest
Aesthetics and brand personality play a large role in attracting devotees. “It is very important that I have a strong link to the products and to the company’s philosophy,” says Viegas. “When I create something, I think of myself as a woman and a consumer, not only as a designer.” Encased in charm-adorned cosmetic bags or trinket boxes tied with ribbon, Rianne’s collection could seamlessly line the shelves of the Macy’s cosmetic counter. Similarly, Bijoux Indiscrets wearable offerings would fit perfectly into a Rodeo Drive jewelry store. “As the industry expands away from making mostly realistic or representational toys, many manufacturers have focused on creating more sleek, whimsical and abstract products,” confirms Tobar of what adult boutique shelves are currently presenting. Clients of the Pleasure Chest are most often attracted to “toys that are playful and not intimidating, and that look sexy and inviting,” says Tobar. “It’s definitely an exciting and vibrant trend.”
The industry-wide movement that is turning pleasure products into functional art began with a change in design decision-makers. “Historically, the sex toy designers in the last 30 years or so were predominantly men who were not trained designers,” notes Ti Chang, co-founder of Crave. “From 2010, our attitude towards sexuality has opened up and sex toys have become mainstream,” says Chang, “which in turn attracts professional industrial designers, and has helped to create more modern products.” Seasoned skills have been invaluable to the development of adult products over the last decade, lending passion with a healthy dose of practicality. As Chang points out, “There is a lot of new technology to look forward to, but successful products will be the ones that actually deliver the best experience and not just use technology for technology’s sake.” Crave’s vibrators are far more than just visually attractive. Their latest pieces, a collection of intelligently revamped bullet vibes, were created to fill gaps left by popular but more rudimentary vibrators. “The design of the shape/aesthetic of sex toys should always support the experience,” says Chang.
Start-up toy companies have come and gone on this very principle. Designs that are attractive yet useless might sell in other industries, but not when it comes to delivering satisfaction. “Crave has developed a beautiful new USB rechargeable bullet that is the same size as those typical plastic ones, which are usually cheap crap,” says Crave Channel Manager Jack Morocco. “It’s also waterproof, multi-speed, and has a recessed button so there’s no accidental on-and-off during coitus.”
Co-founder Chang’s savvy for trend-setting pleasure products comes as no surprise. She holds a degree in industrial design and owned a jewelry company made popular for its handcuff bracelets. “I love that more women designers are joining the industry,” says Chang of the turning tides in who holds the reigns. As new faces and ideas flood the market, passionate female creatives are giving consumers a whole new kind of pleasure experience.
Formal training lends itself well to commercial success, but inspiration and fulfillment are powerful catalysts on their own. “I think some of the best designs come from designers inspired by their own sexual journey or based on consumer research that identifies real life sexual health and pleasure needs,” says Sarah Tomchesson, head of business development at the Pleasure Chest. Tabitha Rayne, a British erotica author, might not have a formal design degree, but she’s spent more than her fair share of time pondering the sexual desires of women. “Because one of the most important parts of being an erotica writer is to turn your readers on, you really must turn yourself on in the first instance,” says Rayne, “which can make for some interesting writing sessions.” A victim of her own demise, so to speak, Rayne couldn’t find a toy that could scratch her itch while she composed without the use of her hands. “I wanted a saddle style vibrator that could also be used through clothing with no fuss,” she explains. “I couldn’t find anything that I knew would hit the spot, so I set about designing something to fit my own body.” A few prototypes and business meetings later, Rayne’s idea became the Ruby Glow, and the next big thing for manufacturer Rocks-Off. “I’m absolutely delighted by the response to the Ruby Glow,” gushes Rayne. “I’ve even had ladies tell me it is the only toy that works for them.”
Rayne’s creation looks more like modern sculpture than a sex toy, and that’s exactly why it has been so successful. “There are some ladies who find traditional sex toys a bit intimidating,” says Rayne, “and the Ruby Glow offers something different that they would feel more comfortable to try.”
Beyond its appearance, the pleasure experience offered through the toy’s dual motors is the first of its kind. Designed for external stimulation, independently controlled vibrations stimulate the clitoris and vulva as users grind against the humps and ridges of the device, which almost resembles a shrunken chaise lounge. “There is a growing market for accessible sex toys that stimulate the whole vulva and deliver orgasms without penetration, even through clothing,” adds Rayne.
Enterprising minds like Rayne from outside the novelty industry are often better able to accurately assess the gaps for consumers. Without the confines of tradition, new designers have a clearer view of what’s missing. Devoid of big-business political agendas, soulful creators can zero in on previously unexplored paths to pleasure.
“The game changes all the time,” says Pleasure Chest’s Victor Tobar. Though simplistic slim vibrators and realistic dildos will always have their place, design innovators will keep finding ways to make a statement in the market. “Companies at the forefront of changing what we think about when we imagine toys are constantly putting out new designs that are artistic, playful and distinct in form and function from other products,” says Tobar.
Artsy vibes aren’t for everyone, but the same could be said of the iPhone, and Apple certainly isn’t at a loss for sales. The next time you visit IKEA, keep your eyes peeled. Those silicone, avant-garde kitchen utensils might just be sex toys after all.