Paul Budnitz & Kidrobot
A conversation about process, collaborations, and future ventures
In the true spirit of collaboration Kidrobot has worked with diverse designers and artists as: Futura 2000, Shepard Fairey (Obey Giant), MF DOOM (Madvillain), Ed Templeton (Toy Machine), Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park, Fort Minor), Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl, Gorillaz), Mark Hoppus (blink-182, Atticus) and Huck Gee.
Kidrobot's iconic toy lines are its Dunny and Munny vinyl figures. Artists and designers are commissioned to create unique versions for Dunny, while the Munny is a blank canvas.
Left to Right: Dunnys by Kronk, by Touma, and Gary Baseman
The DIY Munny series.
Kidrobot currently has 4 stores in the United States (Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and San Francisco) with rumors on expansion coming soon in the UK and Asia. The US stores were designed by Mash Studios and employ a highly graphic, yet minimalist sensibility.
Their success is placed at the center of many cultural and artistic ideas: Japanese culture, pop art, 3D animation by companies such as Pixar, street art, skate culture, and other ideas.
JAMES HEALY: Can you give us more insight into the creative inspiration, the aesthetics, and motivation behind Kidrobot.
PAUL BUDNITZ: In a lot of ways we see what we are doing as works of art. So, it’s really for adults. I went to China and convinced some factories that make millions and millions of plastic toys—that mass-produce plastic toys for Toys R Us and places like that—to use the same machinery to make art work. So in a lot of ways, the toy is the canvas—the toy-form, the form of the toy is the canvas, but what’s being created is artwork. And that doesn’t mean that kids can’t play with it. I mean, it’s really like pop art. And it’s pop art and it’s folk art, it’s all those things, you know. And we purposely keep this whole thing pretty affordable so that it’s possible for a lot of people to get into it.
Rainy Day Dunny by Jon Burgerman
JH: Have you been approached to do things with limited materials like precious metals?
PB: We have. We’ve done stuff with silver. We’ve done really great stuff with silver and with gems. For example Steuben Crystal did a $25,000 crystal Dunny that was about two feet tall. Solid crystal, hand blown, it was beautiful. So we’ve done stuff like that. And you know, a little bit of work with bronze, but you know, frankly, it’s all about plastic. It’s really the thing. Some wood as well.
JH: So, tell me about subversiveness and how it taps into this aesthetic. Can you describe the Kidrobot customer in a way, because just to really combine this cuteness with edginess, this cuteness with dangerous—which you spoke about in prior interviews—seems to be tapping into something. I don’t know if we’re getting more desperate or we’re just fed up with the political landscape or we’re tired of being idealistic. What do you think?
PB: Well I don’t think that it’s not earnest in a way. I mean, our work tends to actually be kind of earnest in a funny way. You know all art, and really all modern art since Dada was around—there’s been a sense of irony in it. It always has a playful reference to something else. So a lot of what we do has kind of a playful cultural reference but it’s been twisted and bent.
I mean, I was looking at the t-shirt I’m wearing today, and the t-shirt and the printing colors are colors that might refer to something that might have happened in the late-eighties, the lettering style is from a 1950’s college letterman jacket, it has the little icon that would be “I Heart NY” but it’s not a heart anymore, and it’s very toy-like, so there are layers and layers of cultural references. In the end, it feels like we’re really creating something new. I think that’s the same with why you get a layer of something cute on top of something kind of black on top of something kind of scary. And I think that it’s a very familiar feeling to the lives that a lot of people are living.
And, it’s also very adult. When you look at children’s toys they tend to just say one thing. They’re happy or sad or cute or whatever. I have a daughter now, so—and basically our stuff says two or three or four or five things at the same time and that’s a much more mature experience. That’s also one of the reasons why the stuff feels adult, even if it’s not scary—some of the stuff is just cute—there’s an adult thing going on because there’s several layers of different things happening.
JH: Tell me what you think about Murakami and the rise of flatness, otaku culture, and his collaborations with Kanye and LVMH.
Munny by Takashi Murakami
PB: Well I think he’s just utterly fantastic. He did a Munny for our Munny Show several years ago. It was very kind of him. Everything he does is very steeped in a certain kind of Japanese culture that isn’t Kidrobot. I think that a lot of Americans just think that it is bright and colorful and funny, but there’s a lot of references in his work. And I feel like Kidrobot’s coming at it in almost exactly from a completely opposite direction ork that are very specifically Japanese. And even down to the way he works with Kai Kai Kiki, artists that work with him, it’s really a master-disciple relationship. So, I mean, he’s got a fine arts approach, and I think he uses commerce as a sense of irony. And, I feel like Kidrobot’s [approaching] it in an opposite direction.
JH: Commerce driven.
PB: Yeah. I mean for us, to me, we’re in the business of making art. And he might be in the art of making business, or something like that. I really love his stuff. I think he’s just tremendous and way out of reach financially for most regular human beings. And I think that’s a difference too. I mean, he has done toys, but he’s really into luxury. It’s almost like he’s playing with Louis Vuitton in the end. Although now it’s kind of gone on for long enough that maybe they’re just (about) making money.
Left to Right: Murakami print and design for Louis Vuitton
JH: Right. I know they popped up quite expensively on eBay when they first came out. If you know about Murakami and that movement and otaku culture, it's partially based on social trauma—the trauma of having bombs dropped on you. And even the Japanese’s love of robots and their quest to make robots as human as possible points to a dark existentialism, I think. But I’m just wondering with the rise of your stuff if there are there parallels, or symbolic parallels in the States as things get more and more difficult.
PB: Are there parallels to what we are doing?
JH: Well, just kind of like the way America’s thinking. Its loss of direction under the Bush years, banking issues, greed, wars. It seems to us that America wants to escape more than ever. Film is still doing extremely well regardless of the recession, video games are still doing very well.
PB: Yeah maybe. But I’m not saying Americans don’t want to escape. I would say that I’m really tied in with a very certain part of popular culture that I really love and care about, and in another way I don’t watch TV, I read The Economist, you know—I don’t read other magazines. I have some art stuff come to me, but basically I’m really into what I’m into and it’s hard for me to comment on the rest of the culture.
We grew up at the same time and to me suburban myth culture has always been nothing but a horrifying nightmare. It’s like a walking nightmare. And I’ve been spending most of my time since I was a sub teenager doing everything I can to block it out, you know? So I can’t comment too much about it. I think most human beings, including and especially Americans, are in some kind of survival, that they live pretty mechanically and that they’re just basically turning the wheel. And for me, that’s just dead life, and not interesting to me at all. I am interested in making money but I’m not interested in using it the way other people do.
JH: I think finally that model is breaking down.
PB: Yeah. It does feel like it. Like Obama is a big change, or we’ll see. But at least having someone who seems very plain-spoken and honest—I think every culture wants to have a good king, you know?
JH: Yes, I think so. In terms of the low art, high art discussion, I believe that Kidrobot’s work with other designers—street designers, low art designers—has really pushed street art forward into mainstream, now recognized in contemporary art worlds. Would you agree with that?
PB: Totally, yes. It’s not really there yet. There’s a few people like KAWS that are kind of emerging now finally, but I wouldn't say that it by any means compares to how much mainstream art work is going for. I can get a painting from a top street artist for ten or twenty thousand dollars still, and if you look at the fine art world that’s nothing. So there’s still a ways to go. Which is a good thing! Still a good thing!
JH: Yeah. Right. Do you follow contemporary art? The big names?
PB: I don’t follow the big names so much. I love museums. I’ve been going in and out of museums, and I studied art, so I’ve got a pretty good grip on art history, but if you asked me who are the ten biggest artists today, I probably couldn’t tell you.
JH: Do you consider guys like Haring and Basquiat to have come out of street art or low art culture?
PB: I think that they were so talented and that they had a very specific voice, and that’s part of the street art thing. You have a very specific voice and then you do it over and over and over. I mean one of the great things about street art is it really refers a lot to trademarking—you know, how business is trademarked—they’re just logos over and over and over. I mean some of the artists that we work with are just incredible with their hands and they’re just amazing. And some of them can basically do one thing—that’s all they do. One thing. Over and over and over. They’ve got the logo and they can do variations on it and it doesn’t mean they don’t have an incredible eye, but they’re not so versatile—and that doesn’t mean the work they’re doing isn’t just so remarkable in the end.
JH: Right. That’s a good segue to this question. Have you been following the stuff with Shepard Fairey and the Associated Press at all? The Associated Press recently sued him for using the famous photograph for the HOPE photo:
PB: Oh I’m sure he’s loving that. He’s a fine artist. He can do that. That’s cool. Good for him! That’s great. We usually go the other way. I mean, we had to write a cease and desist to Disney a while ago because they were copying some of our designs.
JH: Well, that’s one of our questions as well. How do you compare yourself to Disney? In all the different ways. Do you have any comments on that?
PB: Yeah. Well, I would say that what Murakami is probably doing to the art world, we’re doing to Disney. You know what I mean? You can look at us ironically, you can look at us not ironically, there’s definitely a sort of form of what we do. Clothing, and now we have a lot of animation, toys, art. But we’re playing—I mean, basically what I just love doing—is playing with the form of a popular medium. And to get to mess with it. I mean the fact that we’re making a movie with Paramount is just to me completely wonderful and hilarious. They’re great people but it’s just this hilarious wonderful thing.
The movie is animated. But the writers that I’m working with are famous for relatively adult stuff. Like “Heavy Metal: The Movie” turned around animated movies in the late seventies—yeah, it’s great.
JH: Cool. Will it be 3D or drawn or both?
PB: A lot of both, but a lot of 3D because Kidrobot’s partner company, really, they invested in us, a company called Wild Brain (an animation studio and entertainment company). They do all different kinds of stuff. So suddenly we have them for resources—and they do all this cool animated stuff that’s starting to appear on our website now just for fun.
JH: I’ve seen it on your YouTube channel, a lot of interesting stuff. How do you take a designer’s work, place it on a Dunny and produce it?
PB: We’ll generally start with some stupid idea. Either I have the stupid idea or the artist has the stupid idea, and my experience is kind of the stupider, the better. As Frank Kozik will attest with me. So we come up with ideas and then we’ll start with sketches, and once we know what we want to do, the sketch gets turned into Adobe Illustrator turnarounds that we just go through and do different angles. And the reason we use vector is because all the details, like eyeballs and little decorations and tattoos on the arms or whatever, can be translated directly to the factory in digital format. If it’s in vector, then it can be resized perfectly and it comes out smooth and beautiful.
The new Gamma Mutant Series by Tara McPherson
So, we go generally through some turnarounds and then we go to the modeling stage and do one of two things. Ninety percent of the time we actually have the stuff sculpted by hand in wax. Sometimes we have 3D modeling done. My own experience is that 3D modeling tends to be a bit stiff and takes a lot longer and costs a lot more. And I’ve got just an incredible sculptor who actually doesn’t speak English. He’s in China. But he’s the best as far as I’m concerned. He’s got one eye and he’s older—he’s an amazing guy. And I don’t know how he does it because he doesn’t have the same perspective—you know, two eyes give you a sense of distance and perspective but for some reason, he does it and he’ll just nail it. So he’s fantastic. So I tend to use him as much as possible. And we are doing some 3D. So anyway, from that we end up one way or another with a 3D resin or a 3D sculpture one way or the other.
And then we’ll take that, approve that, and then we’ll end up with a vinyl or plastic version, and then we’ll approve that, and then we’ll get a paint sample, and we’ll approve that—sometimes they’re hand-painted first and sometimes they actually use stamp pads. So we get a production sample and then a top of production sample, and then the thing’s produced.
And it can take anywhere from about six or seven months to two years depending on how long it’s taken to get it right. I’m pretty well known for killing projects along the way to the frustration of a lot of people, I know. But, the thing is everything we make has to be pretty undeniable within our style and I just don’t like making crap, so generally we work with the same people over and over so we’ll keep reworking stuff until generally we get it right. Then the same thing’s gotta happen at the same time with the packaging because the packaging is a big part of it.
JH: Tell me about your move into fashion: your thoughts and where it’s going. I know you’ve got couture pieces in Barney’s now. Are you going to keep moving forward into different lines and different seasons, and really treat it like a label?
PB: Yeah. We’re doing four seasons a year now and hired PJ—who’s actually from Japan but who I think’s been living here for twelve or fifteen years. He’s totally fantastic and he’s now our Director of Apparel Design. So what he’s done is taken the chaos we created and has been able to refine it so that collections actually look like collections. Which is a good thing with apparel because it kind of tells a story, it is more consistent. We’re coming out with a really solid men’s line, and a smaller women’s line, and we have bags, and jewelry we’re doing with Tarina Tarantino for fun. Each season has a theme, so the theme for the season that is coming out this Spring is “If you were a punk rock toy in the late eighties when style was getting horrible, what would you wear?” So if you go to our website now, there’s some clothing that’s a slight reference to Eddie Van Halen’s guitar and just kind of funny aquas and weird colors like that. And then the next season I think is more a real punk rock season where it kind of goes earlier punk. And then we’ve got Fall's “Catholic School Gone Bad” also in the eighties, and that includes crew t-shirts for rowing—very very evil crew t-shirts. We’re just kind of doing the eighties thing. And then I think we’re going to do a season that’s about “Good America.” So we get to kind of go through and choose themes. And then it’s all related to toys at the same time. So by the time it’s done, it doesn’t resemble anything. We did outerwear and a board for Burton.
... And then we did t-shirts and toys for Paul Smith.
Dunny for Paul Smith
So yeah, we’ve done some of that. And we did a nice watch with Nooka that just came out, and I think that’s on our website too. That’s really great. You can go see that.
Kidrobot is truly a company for new culture, one that is constant flux, highly wired, and intimately knowledgeable. Our world is becoming more virtual: we tend to our avatars and online pets, watch 3D movies in IMAX theaters, develop social patterns online that mimic the real world, use programming languages, design video games, and develop applications. Kidrobot seems perfectly poised for our cultural and social sea of change, and they are. By tapping into DIY makers, staying relevant and intelligent while moving into mainstream media, art, and fashion, the future is Kidrobot's brave new world.