Step in to the world of KAWS as the artist chats about the art of collaboration, getting into Instagram, and the importance of feeling like an outsider wherever you are.
Like an impassioned docent, three-year-old Sunny Donnelly, with baby sister Lee in tow, leads the way around her family’s art-filled home in Brooklyn. From the living room, through bedrooms and outdoor spaces, and into one back room she calls the “Haring Room” (in reference to the large Keith Haring painting hanging there), Sunny points out everything of interest. The tour is very thorough, especially when we reach her bedroom, where she shows off her many beloved toys, books, and her own favorite work of art, a frog painting by Chris Martin. “She is very proud of her room and her art,” says Sunny’s mom.
Mom is sculptor Julia Chiang, and Dad is artist Brian Donnelly, more famously known as KAWS. A veritable rock star in the art world, Donnelly has a devoted following (nearly 900K on Instagram) that reaches far beyond the rarefied confines of the contemporary art scene. A master at balancing personal and commercial work, he has collaborated with brands like Disney, Lucasfilm, Uniqlo, and Jordan, music stars like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, and design-world darlings the Campana Brothers. A 40-foot-tall balloon version of his cartoon-like Companion joined the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2012, and the following year he reimagined MTV’s iconic Moonman for the 30th anniversary of the Video Music Awards. Exhibited in museums from Texas to Shanghai, his work is sought out by collectors and worn by teenagers around the world.
A few years ago, Donnelly had just completed an ambitious new working studio in another Brooklyn neighborhood with Japanese designer Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall, when the triangle-shaped industrial building the family now calls home caught his eye. “I used to walk by here every once in a while,” says the artist. “I wasn’t looking for a place—though I always like to look—so it was a spontaneous purchase. And after completing my main studio, which was a ground-up project, I came into this wanting to just get in as quickly as possible.” Though he has had a long and fruitful working relationship with Katayama, with whom he created the OriginalFake store in Tokyo in 2006, this time he chose to forgo the services of an architect. Instead, he turned to good friend and contractor Jake Klotz to help make the best of the oddly shaped floors. “We made it work for us,” says the artist. “We have room, we have walls to hang art, and we love the indoor/outdoor space for the kids. The challenge has been to make the home feel ‘cozy,’ Sunny’s favorite word.”
Donnelly acquired the entire building and divided it between the family living areas on one side and administrative offices and art storage on the other. His studio, where most of the art-making takes place, is just a short bike ride away. For Donnelly, who describes himself as “not very social,” time is mostly spent between there and the house, with trips to the park with Sunny. “I tend to live in a bit of a bubble between home and work.” For Chiang, whose studio is now in the building, “the most exciting part was that I would be able to work every day and still be right next to the kids.”
One of the most surprising, and wonderful, things about visiting Donnelly at home is discovering his vast and varied collection of art, ranging from the 1950s to the present. He goes wide and deep, meaning he’s interested in many different artists and, in a few cases, has acquired dozens of works by the same artist. “I collect piece by piece,” he says of his method. “But then you get into it and you just start thinking about the missing pieces.” The fruit of his assemblage can be seen in every room of the house, where works by such art stars as Raymond Pettibon, George Condo, Mike Kelley, Alex Katz, and many more are on constant rotation. (In addition to works in storage, at any given time there are also several pieces out on loan to various exhibitions.)
“I don’t buy art to put in specific places,” he explains. “I just collect what I love and hope to find a place for it to be visible.” Notably, with the exception of some plush toys like BFF, his own art is nowhere in sight. “I spend all day every day surrounded by my work,” he says. “When I come home, it’s refreshing to focus on other artists.” He also collects decorative arts and sculpture, and highlights include large and impressive works by architect/designer Gaetano Pesce and American artist H. C. Westermann. This is a family that truly lives with art, art that includes more than a few “jump on” pieces. What could be more cozy than that?
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KAWS by Rizzoli