Kidrobot president Paul Budnitz wasn't looking to do a deal with Burger King, or any other mass marketer, but he didn't rule it out on principle when CP+B approached him about doing a BK-based toy. Budnitz and designer Tristan Eaton designed the Subservient Chicken figure for the same reason they will only sell one version of a new toy at the deli down the street where Kidrobot staffers often go for lunch, and the same reason the store sells others only when it rains. "Mostly, it's done because we're having a good time doing it," says Budnitz, the tech wizard and art and fashion devotee who launched Kidrobot in 2001.
Budnitz has no hangups about "commercialism," or its attendant monetary gains, but he exercises strict control over the Kidrobot brand-anything that comes near it has to fit with its particular aesthetic. "A good number of the toys we sell are co-manufactured by us and many are designed by us," says Budnitz. "We have control over what we're doing, so we do things we love."
A software programmer and Yale Fine Art graduate, Budnitz began making films (his first, 93 Million Miles from the Sun is credited as the first to be edited on home computer) before being turned on to the vinyl figures of Hong Kong artist Michael Lau and launching Kid Robot, initially as a website, then as a retail store in San Francisco in 2002. The Manhattan store opened in '03 and a third space is set to open in Santa Monica this fall. Like a candy store/museum hybrid (a candy museum maybe), the Kidrobot space in SoHo is instantly mood altering. The environment is playful but its toys are displayed with loving attention, under glass. Budnitz has created an environment that attracts the hippest of hipsters and the most coddled of celebrities, yet doesn't throw off the kind of self-important vibe that would intimidate the hordes of tourists and regular folk who crowd the store on weekends to buy the distinct, colorful limited edition vinyl dolls and plush creatures that obviate the distinction between toy and art object. The toys, the store, the packaging, the idiosyncratic sales tactics, are all a part of the Kidrobot vibe, and it's all a kind of art to Budnitz, who aims to bring art to the people 200 or 2,000 pieces at a time with the limited mass-production approach. "Limited mass production means that whatever we make, when it's gone, it's gone forever," says Budnitz of the toys designed and embellished by a who's who of designers, street artists, illustrators and various friends of KR. And it's usually gone in short order. "Generally everything we make now sells out fairly quickly," he says. Though Uma Thurman had knocked on the store's window at closing a few nights earlier and Axl Rose just sent for two dozen T-shirts, "The reality is, it's kind of everyone," says Budnitz of the KR demographic. The appeal will likely broaden further as Budnitz and his colleagues undertake a range of new designs inside and outside the toy realm.
The company recently designed a limited edition shoe for Nike (pink with metallic soles, each one sold with a secret toy!), to be sold starting in January at Barney's and KR stores, and is doing a series of fashion dolls with the likes of Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton, which will form the basis for art book Visionaire's Issue 44. KR is also designing the award for Spike TV's Video Game Awards, being held in December. Why? Because Snoop Dogg is the host, and "we like Snoop," says Budnitz, who exhibits no snobbery about such mass accessibility . "We are mainstream. I don't have a problem selling things, or making money. What we are making is art, but I want as many people as possible to buy it."