What is Neotenic Design?

When asked to visualize contemporary furniture and design, what comes to mind are the boxy, hard-edged, and rigid sofas and tables. You think of utilitarian and serious-looking objects that sometimes can be uncomfortable to use for their intended purpose. 

In recent years, a new wave of design aesthetic tries to soften the rigidity of contemporary objects. This new design trend can be seen all over design magazines and felt through different design fairs over the last few years. Through child-like forms and softer structures, visual and physical comfort has seemed to take over angularity and rigidity. 

Neotenic Design was coined by designer Justin Donnelly who co-founded Jumbo, along with architect Monling Lee. Neoteny is a scientific term used to describe the retention of juvenile features in adults, he named the phenomenon after noticing that many of the cute objects he admired had silhouettes and proportions associated with youth. Neotenic design exhibits evolutionary traits characterized by curiosity, playfulness, creativity, and adaptability, seemingly reflective to the virtues of childhood and youth. Think of Disney characters, we find large heads, short limbs, and wide eyes cute and appealing – bright colors, squatter proportions, and rounder forms personifies these attractions to furniture design. Anthrophomizing furniture and objects through child-like features have evolved, ranging from the capitalization of comfortable balloon-like shapes and visually soft features, to undeveloped soft forms and comfortable pieces of design. The new comfort and warmth brought by Neotenic Design has drawn people into an era of soft forms and self-care

A curated exhibition by Donnelly featured best examples of Neotenic Design: Roly Poly chair by Faye Toogood, Sam Son chair by Konstantin Grcic, Baby Bear chair by Pierre Yovanovitch among others.

There is now a critical edge to what we consider child-like forms in furniture and objects, similar to the cute aggression we tend to manifest upon seeing puppies or plump baby cheeks. Our emotional response to child-like forms and inherent comfort in fat furniture are now being analyzed in different fields. Comfort from fat, round, and warm furniture becomes relevant in the design industry towards the creation of products with higher levels of user satisfaction. It has now evolved into artistic explorations and reflections of culture as it was once considered child-like, missing sophistication and elegance.

It is natural for us to seek comfort and escape the volatile era we currently live in, it is expressed through the objects we choose to create and interact with. Comfort and coziness fulfill our desire to take a break from rigidity and monotony of the environment we live in.

Cover Photo by The Chubby Chair by Jack Rabbit Studio

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