In the opulent Upper East Side mansion that houses the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a 6-by-4-foot rabbit coated entirely in chalkboard paint looks brilliantly out of place in the stodgy, wood-paneled hall. Visitors are happy to scribble their musings on its curvaceous slate-black surface, but are left to wonder: Is it a toy? Is it sculpture? Is it design?
Well … yes. It's a Munny, the extra-large version of a customizable plastic figurine designed and sold by New York-based Kidrobot. The multimillion-dollar company has become a pop-culture icon, mostly for fanning an ultra-popular trend that has further united the worlds of graffiti, graphic design, and fine art. KR's Asian-influenced, limited-edition toys come with personalities endowed by creators such as artist Gary Baseman, street artist Dalek, and fashion icon Marc Jacobs. But as evidenced by its inclusion in the Cooper-Hewitt's Triennial "Design Life Now," Kidrobot's aesthetic has already transcended that of mere playthings: It's now a lifestyle brand—an experience, if you will—that caters directly to the design-crazy audience it helped create.
Not that it's stopped making toys. Owner Paul Budnitz, 39, who practically ushered the Chinese vinyl-toy phenomenon into the Western world (after it had been supercharged in Japan), last year oversaw 53 new releases. But ideas for new Kidrobot products are coming at Budnitz fast—from friends, musicians, fashion designers, graffiti artists, animators, even suggestions from Kidrobot's message boards—in what amounts to an open-source design collective. And Budnitz, who opened the first Kidrobot store in San Francisco in 2002, considers every one. "When there's no sense of possessiveness or ownership in the artistic process, great things happen," he says. "You need someone with a very clear vision holding everything together, and frankly that's what I'm exceptionally good at."
One of Budnitz's recent visionary moves was to reinvent Kidrobot's extremely popular retail spaces in New York and Los Angeles (the San Francisco store will be redesigned soon), something a traditional company would see as a huge risk. "It's definitely unorthodox to move and redesign stores that are doing so well that customers are usually waiting in line when we open our doors each morning," he says. He transformed the spaces from toy galleries to lifestyle stores that feature a new limited-edition line of apparel. Today, not only are the stores still mobbed, they can't keep the technicolor hoodies in stock.
This ravenous audience is exactly why everyone wants to be friends with Kidrobot. Budnitz has overseen the design of a wildly successful tie-in with a shoe by
With all the attention, Budnitz was free to be extra choosy about bringing in his sole outside investor: In February of 2006, he sold a majority stake in the company to digital-animation studio Wildbrain. The deal with Wildbrain not only adds creative capital—its animators and designers will bring the Kidrobot brand to film and video—but also brings to the table a creative industry giant, Wildbrain president and CEO Charles Rivkin. Budnitz was jazzed to work with Rivkin, a former president and CEO of the Jim Henson Co.: "Charlie realizes that part of creative success is the willingness to not look good all the time, and to have patience and let things develop." Rivkin, in turn, jumped at the chance to work with Budnitz. "He is truly an American original," he says. "I believe that the success of Kidrobot, and the broader phenomenon that it has created, is almost entirely due to the genius of Paul Budnitz."
As Gary Baseman sees that genius, "The artists in the vinyl movement are like rock stars. Each artist has his own following, and those fans go to a store like Kidrobot to get their fix. If Kidrobot just used in-house artists, they'd be creating only works derivative of more known artists." Budnitz lets that sort of fluidity permeate the entire company. With so many projects in motion, it's impossible for him to provide all the direction himself, so he divides his staff of about 45 into small groups, letting important decisions fall to anyone from an intern to a visiting artist. "Kidrobot is a creative process more than anything else," he says. "It's all about the right energy, the right people, and putting enough pressure on the situation so that people are making decisions very quickly, and so that people's guts are what are reacting, not their heads." The same words could describe the fans anxiously awaiting outside any Kidrobot store, dying to get their hands on what's next—whatever you want to call it.
Alissa Walker is a freelance writer and editor of the design blog UnBeige. She lives in Hollywood.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.