In a world obsessed with thinness, our furniture is gaining weight. You could call it bulbous, blob-like, cartoonish, tubular or cuddly, but the buzzword is 'neotenic'. And yes, I had to look this up. Neotenic, in a nutshell, means "having childlike features that provoke an emotional response".
The best examples are Disney princesses. They have grown-up adventures, but their big eyes and button noses make them look like babies. The feminist perspective is that this is infantilising female role models, but we'll park that one here. It's intended to make them look cute. Neotenic furniture is also meant to look appealing. It has soft edges, thick legs, and rounded feet. These childlike characteristics are supposed, at some subliminal level, to trigger a parenting response.
So why are we infantilising our furniture?
Like most design trends, it's something that (a) has always been around, (b) came to fame in a flurry of recent reinvention, and (c) is now filtering down to the mainstream. Over the next few years, there's going to be cuter, chubbier, more baby-faced furniture in the shops. Consider this fair warning.
At the high end, there's a lot of nerdy talk about neotenic design. In March 2019, the poster children of this movement, Justin Donnelly and Monling Lee, curated an exhibition in A/D/O, Brooklyn. Their own New York design company, Jumbo, has a Neotenic collection that includes a lounge chair which looks as though it's been extruded from a Play-Doh machine. But you'll need rather a lot of dough to sit in one. You can buy it for the seriously grown-up price of €9,715 on Artsy. I kid you not.
Other cutesy furniture in the exhibition included the cartoonish Sam Son chair designed for Magis by Konstantin Grcic. It is made of moulded polyethylene, with a back that looks like an oversized pool-noodle, and costs €428 (plus shipping) from Ambiente Direct. The Roly Poly chair (€462), designed by Faye Toogood, is similarly made with a sweet little bucket seat and short fat legs. Admittedly, it's a lot of money to pay for a plastic chair, but both of these have design-classic qualities that will probably stand the test of time. And environmentalists will tell you plastic lasts forever.
The best value neotenic furniture actually is for kids. Ikea's Mammut series includes a children's table (€25), a children's chair (€12) and a stool (€6). They're made of polyethylene with rounded edges and babyish fat legs, and look like miniature versions of the much more expensive designer pieces.
If Ikea were to make them in grown-up colours and adult sizes, they'd probably sell like hot cakes. There's no sign of that happening yet, but some of Ikea's table lamps are cute and chubby. The little Tokabot table lamp (15cm high and costing €8) is made of coloured glass and has a round, but not-quite-blobby, look of neotenic design. So does the Symfonisk table lamp (€179), which combines lighting with an integrated Wi-Fi speaker. Both of these designs have blown glass shades. Like moulded plastic, glass can be shaped to give the impression of softness.
Like most furniture trends, neotenic design has deep roots in design history. Eileen Gray's well known Bibendum chair is an early example. This too has a pool-noodle backrest, except it was designed in 1926, long before pool-noodles were invented. It's a solid lounge chair on slim tubular steel legs and upholstered in leather or wool fabric. The name comes from 'Monsieur Bibendum', the mascot of the Michelin tyre company, a slightly creepy figure with lots of spare tyres. The chair is both iconic and comfortable, still in production by Aram, and costs about €2,648. Knock-offs are also widely available.
Another precursor of neotenic design, the UP Lounge Chair was designed by Gaetano Pesce in 1969. Last year, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, this blobby chair was reproduced by B&B Italia in its original stripy upholstery. But although the UP chair looks childlike, it has a feminist agenda. It comes shackled to a ball-shaped ottoman, intended to symbolise the pressures of motherhood in society. The anniversary edition, the UP50 (pictured below), costs €3,781 from Chaplin's.
To my mind, the increasingly blob-like forms of medium-to-high end sofas is part and parcel of the whole neotenic design thing. From a house-keeping perspective, they have one enormous advantage. Because they have very short legs (or no legs at all), you don't have to hoover underneath.
They're not cheap. This could either be because the style has not yet reached the high street or that it's technically difficult to make a functional sofa without the structure of arms, back, seat and feet. While we wait and see what the economy brands come up with, the best way to get the look without spending money is to buy an actual beanbag, opting for a design that's shaped like a chair. The Irish company Happy Pig has a range of beanbag chairs (€109) that look better and are much easier to sit on than the traditional amorphous blob.
Modern blobby sofas hark back to the 70s and some are genuine 70s designs, dusted off and given a 21st century tweaking. Ligne Roset has recently reissued the Bonnie sofa (from around €3,800), which was designed in 1975 and is saved from shapelessness by a button-back structure. Similarly, the Togo (from €1,600) was designed by Michel Ducaroy in 1973. It looks like the love-child of a sofa and a beanbag.
Another classic, the Plumy (around €4,000 for a two seater) was designed by Annie Hiéronimus in 1980. The 2016 re-edition was billed as "totally in the spirit of the 80s and its couch potato generation". Patricia Urquiola's Fat-Sofa seating range for B&B Italia is a modern (2007) take on blobby furniture, but it lacks the childlike qualities of neotenic design. It's an adult sort of fat.
My own favourite baby-faced furniture comes from Ukraine. The company is called Faina, the designer is Victoria Yakusha, and the furniture has a sense of cultural authenticity. The Pampukh armchair (€2,200) is cute and cuddly without being shapeless and is named after a traditional round fluffy bun.
The Toptun armchair (€1,250) has a blocky design with soft edges and its name translates as "the one who loudly tramples". It's all very lovable and - unlike the more self-conscious neotenic furniture - not at all pretentious. The downside is that it comes from halfway around the world. Faina sells online via its own Ukrainian website and through its UK supplier, Matter of Stuff. Post-Brexit, who knows which will be more accessible.
Ligne Roset sofas are available in Ireland from arenakitchens.com. See also ambientedirect.com, ikea.com/ie, chaplins.co.uk, beanbags.ie, matterofstuff.com, and faina.design.