Beyond KAWS: The Art Toys

Chances are if you’ve come into contact with art toys, it’s because of KAWS. Also known as designer toys, or urban vinyl, the art toy is designed by an artist and produced by small boutique factories in various materials and colorways. For artists like KAWS, whose zombified Mickey Mouse-esque figures are enticing fare for the millennial art collector, the ability to mass-produce his pieces significantly blurs the line between art and toy.

The art toy is designed by an artist and produced by small boutique factories in various materials and colorways.

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.

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.”

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 designer toys’ cultural profile. Budnitz’s famous designs for Kidrobot, created in collaboration with artist Tristan Eaton was 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 an 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.

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 edgier, more adult.

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 edgier, 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. Those artists often 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.

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.”

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.

This article is taken from artsy.net and written by Jacqui Palumbo. Cover image by Ozan Tekin

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