Liku Gao's wooden toys
Toy designer and sculptor Liku Gao
Some parents handle their children’s cheaply made plastic toys—ones with multiple assembled parts that will eventually snap or be swallowed by couch cushions—and long for a past of Fisher Price standards, when toys were made to be tossed down a flight of rec room steps and survive. Others, like graphic designer and sculptor Liku Gao, take matters into their own hands—literally.
“When I was younger, toys were made better. They used to be sturdier. Now, they’re plastic junk,” said Gao, who started handcrafting Gao Natural Wood Toys in response to this perceived lack of quality craftsmanship. “Toys that are made of solid wood are not only more durable, but they’re just different in both style and substance. There’s a very unique quality to these toys, and I don’t think children get enough of that these days.”
Before his son Grayson was born in June of 2012, the Queens native and SUNY Buffalo grad applied his creativity to a variety of outlets. He did graphic design work for names like Donna Karan and Nautica in a postgrad stint with Manhattan firm Laird and Partners before he returned to Western New York for a page designer position with the Buffalo News in 2005. In his time away from these technology-focused settings, he’d work on painting both large and small compositions, and also spent time on a college-age-acquired hobby: wood sculpting.
“I was looking for a different artistic outlet from painting,” Gao explains. “And I’ve always liked art that I could touch. In this realm, sculpting seemed like a great avenue to explore.”
This sculpting—originally focused on creating poseable models to be used as drawing aids—produced a variety of work, including a jewelry box and a two-foot-long horse (with movable appendages) carved out of blocks of maple. Since his eventual Town of Tonawanda-born wife was an avid equine enthusiast, more horse carvings followed—and primed him for his eventual work with Gao Natural Wood Toys.
After Grayson was born, Gao started crafting him teether toys out of the same durable blocks of maple he’d used in college. He produced them in a variety of shapes, sanded each piece to be plastic-smooth, and made sure each could retain its integrity amid a teething child’s tooth clench. After a while, Gao noticed how happy his son was with every new creation.
“I originally made all my work for Grayson. But after I saw how much he enjoyed them, I opened up a website and started posting finished work,” Gao says. “I looked around for similar products and could see the [toy] market was missing items like mine, natural ones with certain refined quality.”
Now, Gao is crafting his eco-friendly toys for the masses out of his Wheatfield home and selling them on his website (at etsy.com/shop/LikuGao). He’s still producing the original teething rings, but he’s added elaborate push toys in the form of elephants, bulldozers, and helicopters—with rotating axles to handle the propellers. He debuted his first reindeer push toy, five inches high and four to five inches wide, this fall, just in time for the holiday season. Since opening his website in early 2013, he’s attracted a steady stream of customers across the US, but even more in locales like Austrailia, France, and Israel.
With each wooden turtle, giraffe, or train he carves and sands, he provides the chance for parents to give their child something solid. No assembly required, no parts to be lost under the ottoman, and no disposable technologies to be absorbed and forgotten. There’s still a place in the toy box for durable simplicity, and Gao plans to keep the options coming.
“When you create something digitally, it’s there and then it’s gone. These items are more permanent,” says Gao. “And it’s a great feeling to know that people really like the toys. As long as they keep enjoying them, I’ll keep making them.
Michael Farrell is the author of Running with Buffalo and a frequent contributor to Spree.