This story was originally published by Curbed before it joined New York Magazine. You can visit the Curbed archive at archive.curbed.com to read all stories published before October 2020.
Look for “contemporary furniture” in Google Images, and the search engine will call up a lot of the same thing: square, boxy, hard-edged sofas and chairs in 50 shades of greige. They’re stark and rigid and serious looking, and they seem dreadfully uncomfortable to sit in. But at design fairs and in magazines over the last few years, a different aesthetic has been slowly infiltrating all that angularity: stuff you want to run up to and squeeze, with rounder silhouettes, softer lines, and squat proportions. Stuff that is, in a word, cute.
The design world often scoffs at cuteness, which it sees as juvenile and unserious, but it’s become a recurring theme in work from independent studios and on the international circuit of celebrity practitioners. Its popularity stems from a mix of evolutionary biology, a reappraisal of high-meets-low culture, a reprieve from political anxiety, and the engagement economy.
Justin Donnelly — a designer based in Brooklyn and cofounder, with architect Monling Lee, of the studio Jumbo — has been charting the crescendo of cute furniture over the past few years. He named the phenomenon “neotenic design” — neoteny is a scientific term for adults who retain juvenile traits — after noticing that many of the “cute” pieces he admired had proportions and silhouettes associated with youth. In people, this manifests as a large head, relatively short arms and legs, and flat faces. In furniture, this means squatter proportions and rounder forms. In March, Donnelly curated an exhibition called “Neotenic Design,” which featured many of the best-known examples of the style: Faye Toogood’s Roly Poly chair, Pierre Yovanovitch’s Baby Bear chair, and Konstantin Grcic’s Sam Son chair, among others.
“Cute is no longer this diminutive thing,” Donnelly says. “There’s a critical edge in it.”
Scientists have been studying cuteness for decades. In the 1940s, ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed a theory that infants across species possess similar traits: large eyes; a large head; squat noses, beaks, and snouts; receding chins; and roundness. He called this kinderschema and theorized that perceptions of cuteness co-evolved with the need for care.
The last decade has seen a swell in research on the emotional responses to cuteness, coinciding with the rise of neuroscience and brain imaging technology that can give scientists more insight into what’s actually happening in our heads when we see something cute. They now know, for example, what determines cute aggression — like the desire to pinch a baby’s cheeks or hug a puppy — versus a dimorphous expression, in which a positive emotion is expressed in ways typically associated with negative feelings, like making a sad “awww” face in response to something cute.
“Once we have that appraisal that something is cute, along come all these other behaviors that have evolved to help our species survive: urges of caretaking, to be near, to attend to, to engage with, to protect,” says Oriana Aragón, a social scientist and assistant professor at Clemson University who researches cuteness. “Cuteness is like an automatic refresh signal to keep you engaged.”
Scientists are now evaluating emotional responses to cute inanimate objects. A 2011 study explored how abstract, baby-like elements affected people’s emotional responses to products. The researchers found that cars with “baby-faced fronts” elicited more positive feelings and concluded that consumers’ responses to products are informed by evolutionary biology. The researchers also pointed out the relevance to the design industry: cuteness can be used to create products with higher levels of user satisfaction.
“It’s almost pattern matching,” Aragon says. “We know an object is cute, then the behavioral stuff flows.”
While cuteness has an undeniable appeal rooted in biology, it wasn’t always accepted in the high-brow worlds of art and design. Cute wasn’t cool. Or sophisticated, or elegant — two traits that are typically aspirational in design. That started to change in the 2000s, when Takashi Murakami published his treatise on “Superflat,” a Japanese contemporary art movement inspired by anime and the culture of obsessiveness known as otaku. Murakami theorized that since multiple generations have been obsessed with purchasing objects associated with childhood and cuteness, it had taken on seriousness and lost some of its stigma.
“Cute, cartoony stuff became more socially acceptable,” Donnelly says. “We saw it in the ‘lowbrow’ comic book world and the ‘highbrow’ art world in the work of Jeff Koons and Brian Donnelly, who works as Kaws. We saw it in art exhibitions, streetwear, toys, and also in furniture.”
The rise of cute and emotionally reassuring forms also coincides with increasing anxieties over politics, economics, and culture.
“The more political anthropomorphizing of furniture seems to have evolved into fantasy, with cartooned, exaggerated, and pleasantly symmetrical shapes that are often both funny and comfortable,” says Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. “I can only imagine this as design providing an escape route to our increasing awareness of urgent global issues.”
Brett Miller, a furniture maker in upstate New York, was drawn to rounder, squatter, cute forms through intuition-driven experiments turning wood on a lathe. “I love the way round things feel, and so I’ve just applied that to my design practice,” he says. “A lot of design, and in relation to woodworking specifically, is so formal and serious, and I really wanted to disrupt that in my practice and keep it light and fun.”
He’s noticed that whenever he exhibits his Chubby series of furniture, children immediately gravitate toward the pieces and climb all over them. He’s also personally drawn to the warmth and comfort of round forms. It’s a soothing sensibility that makes sense in the self-care era.
“Perhaps they simply allow us to regress to a childlike state and remember life before we thought about politics and the trials of adulthood,” he says. “I think there’s something to be said for that — the feeling of sublime naivete. I really try to not overanalyze or intellectualize it.”
Pierre Yovanovitch, designer of the Baby Bear chair, likes his furniture to “spark the imagination” and not to be so serious. He was also drawn to the comfort inherent in round forms. “Exaggerated and cozy forms add a sense of playfulness and storytelling,” he tells Curbed. “It is a nice, refreshing departure from the stark minimalist style which has been so prevalent in the interior design world for some time.”
For Syrette Lew, founder of the Brooklyn-based design studio Moving Mountains, exploring fuller proportions was about expanding her formal vocabulary. The first upholstered piece she designed was a chaise longue with more formal, linear contours. She wanted her next piece to have a more organic sensibility — something that wouldn’t look out of place in a ’70s Italian lounge. Upholstered in plush beige fabric and set on a swivel base, the Moving Mountains Puffer chair is squat with a curvy back.
Lew tells Curbed that the recent interest in postmodern design of the late ’70s and ’80s — which had an anything-goes attitude and rebuked the austerity and rigidity of modernism before it — influenced today’s explorations of oversized proportions. It’s the era of one of the most famous round furniture designs: Mario Bellini’s plush, modular Camaleonda sofa for B&B Italia. Lew thinks postmodern revival is winding down, but notices that the oversized proportions are sticking. “Contemporary designers seem to be innovating in other directions now, too — is ‘cute’ one of them?” she says. “There’s something just outright appealing about a chubby baby, and I think that kind of chunk can work well in design, too.”
Cuteness in design isn’t just about artistic explorations and reflections of culture; it’s also about encouraging a specific type of behavior. For her 2016 graduate project at the Royal College of Art and Design, Hyerim Shin explored kawaii — the Japanese culture of cuteness — as a means to curtail consumerism. She believes cuteness compels people to take better care of their belongings and to hold on to them longer. To that end, she created household appliances with the appearance of cute, chubby baby cheeks and pastel colors. She also programmed some interactions into the products to encourage caregiving. The toaster “sneezes” when its crumb tray needs cleaning and the robot vacuum automatically releases its canister when it needs to be emptied.
After studying neotenic design, Donnelly and Lee tried their hand at designing a collection based on the cute traits observed in other furniture: an armchair composed of a thick tubular frame and tubular lamps bent like worms. “The work we’re producing now might not be entirely childlike, but there are personifications and allusions to anthropomorphic forms, or zoological forms, that we would have been uncomfortable designing 10 years ago,” Donnelly says. “It wouldn’t resonate with gallerists 10 years ago, but it’s really resonating now.”
As with so many trends, social media — which has risen over the last decade alongside the trajectory of cuteness — has a hand in this, too. Affording an $8,000 chair is out of the question for so many people who appreciate design — but you don’t have to fork over a hefty sum to like something on Instagram.
Before social media, “design was more dictated from the top down,” Monling Lee says. “But in the last 10 years, the sort of democratization of production and design has perpetuated this trend. We all love a good cat video, so I think in a very similar way, cute design is also made popular and acceptable.”
In an era of aggravating news, political and economic volatility, and higher rates of anxiety, it’s natural to want to escape to something comforting, nurturing, joyful, and emotionally satisfying. That’s expressed in what we create, the way we decorate our homes, or the photos we hoard of aspirational interiors — cuteness included.