Monday, February 3, 2014

Too Cute for Comfort

I visit the New York Gift Fair under slushy freezing rain that sweeps the plaza in front of the Javitz Center, but the unexpected warmth awaits inside. This year, cuteness is in. It greets you straight from the cover of the Fair catalogue: a bathroom set in the shape of a toy submarine (by Seletti). This must be Zeitgeist: think of a hundred thousand possible images competing for this choicest spot.

The tone, set by the little submarine, is carried on by many companies it their great many products ­–cheerful, gimmicky, colorful, and toy-like. Multi-colored plastic with glossy finish appears to be a material of choice.

Unless you consider these goods as a form of design escapism, there seems to be very little in the current American economy, politics, or culture to warrant this light–hearted attitude. In a way, this reminds me of Japan and its famous culture of cuteness (kawaii).

While kawaii originated in Japan as a particular style of handwriting in the 1970s, it reached widespread popularity a decade later with products and brands like Hello Kitty. The burst of the Japanese bubble in the 1990s only solidified the power of kawaii over the country’s culture. Soon it spread around the world. Numerous books are written about the phenomenon, but still little is understood about its now multi-generational appeal.

According to one Japanese online source:
"Cute can reach across gender and generation.  Cute makes people feel needed, makes them feel like they are taking care of something helpless."

And closer to my topic:
"Americans embrace cute because they embrace youth.  They associate getting old with its negative attributes such as becoming less attractive and perhaps becoming less relevant.  American cuteness, similar to Japanese cuteness, lets its followers feel young again."

I think I am going to check out the Hello Kitty aisle at our neighborhood pharmacy.