7 Contemporary Artists Who Turn Designer Toys Into Collectable Art

April 15, 2020

Usually made from vinyl and riffed off of pop culture tropes, designer and art toys skyrocketed in popularity at the turn of the millennium, with numerous websites, conventions, and toy companies popping up with the express purpose of producing and distributing them. Thanks to the celebrated artists like KAWS and Yayoi Kusama, these works are blurring the distinction between toys, collectibles and art.

In recent years, the practice of artists making toys has exploded, penetrating the contemporary art market and being sold in major evening auctions for prices in the millions.

Among the most famous companies dedicated to designer toys is Kidrobot, initially founded in the garage of Paul Budnitz in 2002. With seven stores, from Manhattan to Las Vegas to London, Kidrobot is today acknowledged worldwide as the premier creator and dealer of limited edition art toys, signature apparel and lifestyle accessories. Their toys retail anywhere from $5 to $25,000, and many appreciate in value over time.

With many designer and art toys taking their rightful place as pieces of art and piquing the interest of both collectors and enthusiasts alike, we decided to put together a list of some of the pieces you can add to your collection.

Featured image: Tara McPherson - Stellar Dream Scouts, via Kidrobot.

KAWS - Companions

An artist experiencing the meteoric rise in the past few years, KAWS is best known for the highly-coveted limited edition prints, sculptures and toys that transform imagery from popular culture with his own unique twist. KAWS’ COMPANION, the Mickey Mouse-inspired character with signature a skull-and-crossbones head, crossed eyes and white gloves, is certainly the artist’s most iconic creation.

KAWS created his first vinyl toy in 1999 - it was an eight-inch COMPANION characterized by a round belly, noodly limbs, and white gloves. Over the years, KAWS has rendered his signature character in a range of three-dimensional iterations, selling between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. You can acquire his Small Lie (Mono) vinyl toy from the Companion series here.

Featured image: KAWS - Small Lie (Mono), 2017, via Lougher Contemporary.

Takashi Murakami - Mr. DOB

Often described as the Japanese Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami combines the most cutting-edge techniques with the precision and virtuosity of traditional Japanese art. His fantastic and colorful world is inhabited by monstrous and charming characters, all executed in his Superflat aesthetic.

The most celebrated character among artist Murakami’s extensive and influential work, Mr. DOB’s playful face is both ever-changing and instantly recognizable. The artist’s alter ego and his first signature character, it was conceived as a Japanese icon with universal appeal, inspired by Hello Kitty and Pikachu, but also characters from Western popular culture. While the first iteration had a somewhat fierce appearance with sharp, menacing teeth, the character grew cuter and cuter over time. The majority of his toys go for a few thousand dollars. You can acquire Mr DOB Figure By BAIT x SWITCH Collectibles - Gold edition (Signed) vinyl figure from the Mr DOB edition here.

Featured image: Takashi Murakami - Mr DOB Figure By BAIT x SWITCH Collectibles - Gold edition (Signed), 2016. via Lougher Contemporary.

Futura 2000 - Nosferatu

The living legend of the graffiti movement, Futura 2000 helped define the graffiti movement of the early 1970s by moving it away from lettering and towards the more painterly, abstract style. Recently, Futura has teamed up with a variety of large name brands including in order to produce collectible toys, sneakers and a diverse range of creative media.

Along with his recognizable Pointman, he also created a futuristic Nosferatu character that became one of his most popular toy designs series. The majority of his Nosferatu figure can be acquired under $1000.

Featured image: FUTURA - Nosferatu, 2005, via Artcurial.

Tristan Eaton - Dunny and Munny

A Lollipop artist, street art muralist, illustrator and toy designer, Tristan Eaton is best known for his large scale murals that feature a meticulous, visual collage of pop imagery mixed with his unique personal style, all executed with freehand spray paint on a colossal scale. Eaton designed his first toy for Fisher-Price at 18 years old and soon became a driving force in the world of designer toys.

Eaton's work for Kidrobot, including the famous Dunny and Munny art toys, helped him achieve international renown and an ever-growing fan base. The majority of these Dunny figures go for around $100. Following the 15th Anniversary New Money Metal Dunny release, Eaton created the second edition, presenting a figure etched into the rose gold-colored metal and decorated in his iconic style. You can acquire the dunny here.

Featured image: Tristan Eaton - New Money 5 Metal Dunny Art Figure, via Kidrobot.

Yoshitomo Nara - PupCup

One of the most popular Japanese, Yoshitomo Nara is best known for paintings featuring wide-eyed children and dogs. A smiling white puppy dog with a bright red nose and sleepy eyes is among Nara’s most beloved characters, appearing in his outdoor sculptures, limited edition prints, and design objects across the world. In 2008, Nara released a children’s book, The Lonesome Puppy, to tell the story behind the adorable creature.

Rendered in soft, pastel colors, the toy PupCup features this iconic character sitting in a cup. You can acquire the vinyl figure from this edition here.

Featured image: Yoshitomo Nara - PupCup, via artwareditions.com.

Toys by Tara McPherson

A New York-based artist, Tara McPherson creates art about people and their odd ways, featuring characters that seem to exude an idealized innocence with a glimpse of hard-earned wisdom in their eyes. Exploring the realms of our psychological states, inspired by myths, legends, astronomy, physics, nature, love, loss, childhood, and good old life experience, she creates paintings, murals, poster art, and designer toys.

One of the leading female artists in the Designer Toy movement, she collaborated with a range of brands, including kidrobot, ToyQube, Tomenosuke and Circus Posterus. Her toys can mostly be acquired for less than $100. See the latest vinyl toy collection for Kidrobot here.

Featured image: Tara McPherson - Wonder Woman, Limited Edition, via Kidrobot.

Toys by Ron English

An American contemporary artist, Ron English is known for coining the term POPaganda to describe his constant mixing of high and low art. This versatile artist is one of the founding fathers of street art and one of the forerunners of Pop Surrealism, he designs toys and sculptures, and he paints.

In 2005, English began creating various versions of his iconic characters such as Ronnnie Rabbbit, MC Supersized from his Cereal Killers series, Mousemask Murphy, as well as collaborative figures such as Astronaut Star Skull with Chris Brown. His toys go from $50 to several thousand dollars. You can acquire his dunny works here.

Featured image: Ron English - Mouse Mask Murphy in Airplane, via popaganda.myshopify.com.

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