Visual Culture

How Collectible Designer Toys Became an Art Form

Jacqui Palumbo
Jan 23, 2019 6:14PM
Resting Place Companions (set of three), 2012
BC Gallery

Nearly two decades ago, Paul Budnitz was walking through Tokyo’s Harajuku district when he spotted a long line of Japanese youth waiting to enter a tiny gothic clothing store called Bounty Hunter. The shop was owned by streetwear designer Hikaru Iwanaga and sold small plastic toys, inspired by the trinkets found in cereal boxes, that could only be obtained by purchasing clothing from his boutique. The coveted toy, known as Kid Hunter, was a mischievous pirate figurine, a riff on the American cereal icon Cap’n Crunch—and you had to be in the know to get one.

Inspired by what he had seen in Tokyo, and at toy conventions in Hong Kong, Budnitz founded Kidrobot in 2002. He sold the company in 2012 and, in 2018, founded another collectible toy company, Superplastic. Designer toys—often made from vinyl and referencing any number of pop culture motifs—skyrocketed in popularity at the turn of the millenium, with nascent toy companies, conventions, and websites generating excitement over a coterie of in-demand artists who were designing them. Designer toys have permeated the contemporary art market more recently as well, with the artist KAWS (real name Brian Donnelly) selling works in major evening auctions for prices in the millions.

Marcel Katz Art
Marcel Katz Art

KAWS is famous for his morbid-but-cute Mickey Mouse–inspired toys known as “Companions,” which he first introduced in 1999, and are produced in sizes ranging from hand-held to monumental. Demand for the works is such that in May 2017, when the MoMA Design Store released a series of 11-inch-tall vinyl versions of his coveted “Companions” for only $200 apiece, the flood of traffic crashed their website.

And while the art world has sometimes turned up its nose at KAWS’s work, in 2018, the art market embraced the artist with gusto, with works frequently selling at auction for several multiples of their expected values. In September, at the Phillips “New Now” sale, six of his 4-foot-tall “Companion” figures sold for two to four times their presale estimates, with a brown colorway topping the group at $150,000 with fees; two months later, at a Phillips evening sale, the colossal 23-foot-tall fiberglass Clean Slate (2014)—one of three in the world—broke the artist’s record when it blew past its presale estimate of $900,000 to $1.2 million, closing at over $1.9 million with fees.

Kidrobot, “Hello My Name Is” Dunny, 2006. Courtesy of Paul Budnitz.

What makes KAWS so in-demand is not just the popularity of his “Companions,” but his output as a whole, according to Phillips’s head of evening sales, Amanda Lo Iacono. (On the same night that Clean Slate sold, his Fat Albert–inspired acrylic painting Untitled [FATAL GROUP], 2004, sold for over $2.7 million.) “I think it’s just the universality of not just his imagery, but also his democratic approach to artmaking,” Lo Iacono offered. “He works in a lot of different materials, he works in subject matter that’s pretty universal and known to pretty much anyone in the world who is engaged with visual culture.” Further, anyone can take home a KAWS—whether it’s the avid designer-toy collector scoring a $200 MoMA store edition, or the fine-art collector bidding in the millions for a large-scale “Companion.”

While KAWS has straddled a unique position between two worlds, he’s not the only creative force raising the cultural profile of designer toys. Budnitz’s famous designs for Kidrobot, created in collaboration with artist Tristan Eaton, were added to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection in 2008. The toys are named Dunny and Munny—a bunny and a monkey, respectively—and Dunny has been customized by everyone from “Obey” giant Shepard Fairey to fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg to high-end glass company Steuben (the 2-foot-tall crystalline Dunny sold for $21,000). Meanwhile, Munny is a blank white design that anyone can draw or paint on, and thus, become the artist. Other toy designers like Tara McPherson and Frank Kozik have created toys that fetch thousands of dollars, such as McPherson’s “Lilitu” demon and Kozik’s Darth Vader helmet. The ever-prolific Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has also produced work in the vinyl toy space, with limited runs of his manga-inspired alter-ego Mr. DOB.

Superplastic, “Lotus” Janky (front), 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Superplastic, “Lotus” Janky (back), 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

The underlying ideas behind the designer toy movement have largely remained the same since they were first introduced in Asia in the mid-1990s: Create a character that would be popular with kids, and twist it into something more edgy, more adult. Then, curb their availability by releasing limited editions—make them precious. Through toy brands, artists can design the same character in different sizes that sell for different price points, from the standard 8-inch, which typically costs under $100; to a 3- to 3.5-inch-tall mini, at $10 to $15; to a mystery Blind Box, in which the exact design is a surprise, for $5 to $10. But those artists often also make larger, more costly versions of their characters in materials like bronze or fiberglass, for gallery shows or commissions.

Major toy companies followed early players like Iwanaga and his peers Michael Lau and Eric So by tapping a network of artists to develop new characters. In 2001, Tokyo’s Medicom Toy offered up the first run of the still-immensely-popular Be@rbrick, a simplified, paunchy bear with articulating limbs. The following year, Hong Kong’s Toy2R introduced its rival, Qee, a character that took various animal or humanoid forms. On the other side of the world, Budnitz founded Kidrobot in his garage in California, igniting an explosion of interest in designer toys in the West. Over the next decade, Kidrobot opened seven stores, from Manhattan to Las Vegas to London. Budnitz grew sales from $300,000 to $15 million.

Takashi Murakami
Superflat Museum LA Edition Set of 10, 2004
EHC Fine Art

Kidrobot wasn’t Budnitz’s first effort at turning consumer goods into collectibles; one of his earlier businesses involved customizing Air Jordans, which he then sold for as much as $16,000 a pair. But the manufacturing process for vinyl toys, in which the molds degrade over time, presented a ripe opportunity to create limited-edition collectibles—making the toys out of plastic kept production costs low and price points accessible to collectors. Though some individual Kidrobot toys have been known to sell for upwards of $400, the first designs cost between $10 and $100 when it launched in 2002, and generally cost the same today.

Budnitz sold Kidrobot a decade later in order to focus on his bicycle brand, Budnitz Bikes (he also founded a social media platform for artists, Ello, in 2014). The buyer, WildBrain Entertainment, announced a plan to focus on licensed characters, and nearly bankrupted the company; soon, its stores began closing. Kidrobot was acquired again by National Entertainment Collectibles Association in 2014, and Kozik joined as the creative lead. But the damage was done: In 2016, the company shuttered the last of its brick-and-mortar stores. Kidrobot continues to sell collectibles online, including both artist-designed and licensed toys.

Budnitz, however, returned to the toy market, partnering with longtime collaborator and toy designer Huck Gee to launch Superplastic, which produces extremely limited-edition toys designed by sought-after artists. Exhausted by what he called “instant culture,” in which the availability of products has reached its peak, he said, “[I] wanted to make stuff that was tangible and real and limited-feeling again. People are so starved for things they can’t get easily and that are special.” Their inaugural character, Janky, is a curvy, fox-like critter that’s simultaneously cute and edgy, which recalls the design principles that Budnitz used for Dunny and Munny.

But are designer toys, in fact, art? That’s a question that has followed Budnitz since the beginning, and his answer has always been “yes.” It’s the art world that needs to catch up—and it is. Budnitz believes this is because fine art and pop culture are moving closer together—a shift he likens to the way streetwear became high fashion. He points to artists like Eaton, Futura, and Gary Baseman, who have all seen their audiences expand through designing toys. “I think culture has come to them,” he mused. “I think part of it is they’ve stuck [with] it. [But] I think culture is now completely heading exactly in the direction of what we’re doing, and what a lot of these artists are doing.” KAWS may have nudged open the door to the art market, but who walks through next is anyone’s guess.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.