KAWS: From Figurines to Art Installations

From designing for luxury fashion house Dior to partnering with VR/AR company Acute Art, KAWS has expanded the horizon for contemporary art.

Sep 28, 2021By Adrienne Howell, BA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel Design
kaws art tension what party chum figure toys
Tension, KAWS, 2019, Phillips.com and WHAT PARTY Chum Figure, KAWS, 2020, Hypebeast.com


Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS, started out his career as an animator and graffiti artist in Brooklyn, New York. Throughout his career he has created a diverse range of products and artworks that range from the fanciful to the everyday. Here is a list of some of KAWS’ most recognizable and coveted works of art.  


KAWS’ Companion Figurine Toys

kaws companion sofa estudio campana 2019
KAWS: Companion Sofa (Grey) (Prototype), 2019, KAWS, Humberto CAMPANA (designer), Fernando CAMPANA (designer), ESTÚDIO CAMPANA, São Paolo (manufacturer), National Gallery of Victoria


Since the 1990s, KAWS has released his ‘Companion’ toys in a variety of different themes, colors, sizes, and characters. It all started in Japan in 1999 with a collaboration that would launch the KAWS name into current pop culture. Bounty Hunter, a Japanese streetwear brand, approached KAWS and together they released the first ‘Companion’ toys, vinyl figurines with a limited edition run of 500. They became a major success and since then KAWS has continued to use his ‘Companion’ figurines as a recurring theme throughout his works. The absence of eyes, either replaced with large X marks or hands covering the eyes, make them instantly recognizable as a KAWS figure. A lot of KAWS figurines/toys can be found on reseller sites such as StockX, Ebay, or auction houses. The cost of a KAWS toy can vary depending on where it is being sold. For example, the plush BFF toys made in collaboration with fashion house Dior initially cost $7,500. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Uniqlo Sesame Street collaboration cost $40 per toy.


kaws uniqlo sesame street plush toys 2018 stockx
KAWS X Uniqlo X Sesame Street plush toys, 2018, StockX.com


These plush toys made headlines when they were spotted in the playroom of Kim Kardashian’s children on Instagram. Set on a high shelf sat Big Bird, Elmo, Burt and Ernie, and Cookie Monster with big black X’s over their eyes. These toys were actually a collaboration between KAWS and Uniqlo (a fast-fashion Japanese company) during November 2018. People who had not heard of the name KAWS before suddenly became interested in who he is. There was also a set of KAWS ‘Flayed Figures’ there as well. The toys from this collaboration can now sell for almost double the original price. For people who can snag these limited edition toys, they are increasingly being seen as an investment to sell for a high price at a later date.    


More recently, KAWS has been creating sofas and chairs made out of his plush toy figures including his ‘Companion’ figures, Elmo plush toys, and pink plush chairs. The artist collaborated with CAMPANA, a furniture studio, to make a limited edition collection of these stuffed plush sofas. Combining morbidity and cuteness, they are immediately arresting and recognizable.   

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Fashion Collaborations

kaws dior menswear spring summer 2019 campaign ad
Dior Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 Collection Campaign Ad, KAWS X Kim Jones X Dior, HypeBeast.com


KAWS has worked with a number of clothing companies throughout his career. He has collaborated on sneakers with brands Nike Air Jordan and Marc Jacobs. His collaboration with Uniqlo contained a line of T-shirts and bags as well as plush toys. He has also worked with Supreme, Sacai, and Comme De Garcons. It not only makes his art more accessible to a wider market of people, but it is also much more affordable. KAWS artwork can reach up to the millions at auction while a T-shirt from a Uniqlo collaboration can cost under $50. His work with clothing companies range from the affordable to the luxury. These clothing collaborations also draw in a younger audience who are not only interested in wearing these pieces, but also being a part of the hype of obtaining one of these items.  


His collaboration with Dior and designer Kim Jones in 2019 included a line of accessories featuring a little cartoon bumble bee figure that was printed on bags, keychains, and jewelry. There was also a pair of plush BFF stuffed figures dressed in little black suit and tie attire. It was the perfect look for a collaboration with one of fashion’s most distinguished designers. During Dior’s Spring/Summer 2019 menswear runway show, the backdrop featured a 33-foot-tall KAWS Companion figure made-up of 70,000 flowers. It was also featured in campaign ads for the menswear collection (seen above). KAWS’ move into the fashion world, both in high-end and streetwear, reflects a new consumer base that shops primarily online for hyped, limited-edition pieces that are collectable and resalable.       


KAWS Paintings

kaws grrr! 2008 painting phillips auction house
GRRR!, KAWS, 2008, Phillips.com


KAWS’ paintings are some of his most in-demand and expensive items. His paintings are mostly made in acrylic paint and are vibrantly colored artworks that still contain his signature pop art and graffiti influences. The artist has set records at auction houses in the past few years including Christies, Sothebys, and Philips. His The KAWS Album painting sold for $14.8 million in Hong Kong, making it his highest grossing painting sold at auction; a parody of a parody, the work borrows its imagery from The Simpsons’ Yellow Album, which is itself a spoof of the Beatles’ album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. KAWS’ Spongebob Square Pants painting titled Again and Again sold for a high price of 1.03 million pounds at a Sotheby’s auction house in London. Another one of his Spongebob paintings titled The Walk Home sold for nearly $6 million at a Phillips auction.


KAWS’ paintings are particularly popular amongst millennials who are looking to invest in art; in fact, KAWS has been touted as one of the premiere artists that younger art buyers gravitate towards. This is partly because of his art’s kitschy, pop appeal, but it is also because KAWS has released limited edition runs of his products at a lower price point, making him a more affordable option. The punchy imagery of KAWS’s art also translates well to online platforms, and younger audiences who are growing up using social media respond to this. Whenever KAWS collaborates on a limited edition sneaker, toy, or accessory item, younger entrepreneurs, art collectors, and resellers immediately know how to respond and act on the highly coveted pieces.


KAWS Sculptures

kaws clean slate phillips auction house 2014
Clean Slate, KAWS, 2014, Phillips.com


Starting out as vinyl and plush made miniatures, KAWS’ ‘Companion’ pieces have more recently been translated into large-scale bronze and glass sculptures. Many of KAWS’ sculptures are permanent installations at museums and public spaces while also circling the globe in traveling exhibitions. These sculptures can be as small as 6 feet to as large as 22 feet tall. KAWS’ Clean Slate, 2014, (seen above) was originally displayed in Hong Kong at the Ocean Terminal Forecourt of Harbour City. Standing at 295 ¼ cm (over 25 feet) this particular sculpture has traveled to various museums, public spaces, and eventually to the auction house Phillips where it was sold. These sculptures have become attractions for people to stand in front of and take selfies with. This media-oriented interaction with his art increasingly challenges notions of traditional public art. KAWS also has permanent installations including ‘Companion’ and ‘BFF’ figures in Changsha, China in the form of 26-foot-tall bronze sculptures sitting on top of a shopping complex. 


These figures have become so popular that they even became the reinvented image of the MTV Video Music Awards Moonman trophy. He redesigned the Moonman in 2013 and it was transformed into something closely resembling his ‘CHUM’ figurines. Alongside the reimagined Moonman trophy, he also had a 60 foot KAWS Moonman present at the Awards show. The large-scale inflatable Moonman was made by Airworks Inflatables, a Netherlands company.   


KAWS’ Super-Sized Art Installations

kaws holiday space 2020 acuteart
HOLIDAY SPACE, KAWS, 2020, acuteart.com


In 2019, a large object could be seen floating along the Hong Kong Victoria Harbour. It was a 121-foot long inflatable ‘Companion.’ Titled KAWS: Holiday, it soon became a huge draw for crowds of fans and spectators looking at the inflatable ‘Companion.’ KAWS partnered with AllRightsReserved, a production company to execute the floating piece. Alongside this, they also released a limited line of bags, bath toys, and plush toys. KAWS has previously made other similar inflatable versions, as seen in Seoul’s Seokchon Lake and the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan. 


The artist’s large-scale installations create large crowds and social-media worthy posts. They garner a lot of media attention and act as a joyful distraction that fans love. With millions of followers on social media himself, KAWS has been able to blend both in-person and online interactions with his art. 


KAWS has taken these installations to the next level in digital form. In 2020 his ‘Companion’ figures took a virtual tour around the globe in the form of VR. The artist partnered with Acute Art, a VR and AR production house, to realize this massive project. COMPANION (EXPANDED) could be seen with the Acute Art’s app in major city skylines including Paris, London, Tokyo, and New York. The use of VR technology makes viewing art more accessible. As a concept, one can step outside to look up at a KAWS installation piece with no physical barriers or restrictions.

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By Adrienne HowellBA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel DesignAdrienne currently works as a photographer and visual artist in the Midwest. She earned degrees from Iowa State University with a BA in Integrated studio arts, focusing on drawing & painting, and a BS in Apparel Design with an emphasis on fashion and textiles.