Anyone lurking around design shows in the spring of 2018 likely noticed an unexpected item—one that stood in stark contrast to the minimalism of the midcentury resurgence: a flourish of a chair, made of cast-steel hydronic piping and finished in wine-colored autobody paint. The curvilinear piece marked the debut of Jumbo, a New York and Washington D.C.–based firm co-founded by Justin Donnelly and Monling Lee, who met as architecture students at the University of Maryland and share a dedication to an explicitly cartoonish flair.
Jumbo isn’t the only one releasing amorphous collections with plump, almost balloon-like attributes. They were something of an unofficial theme at last year’s edition of New York Design Week: the Tube chair by Objects Of Common Interest and Falke Svatun; ceramic lamps by Eny Lee Parker; Oōd Studio’s seating; and the infamous Kamarq, a Japanese startup whose collection, including stubby tables with log–shaped legs, was called out by Instagram users as knockoffs of designer Ana Kraš’s 2015 Slon tables. Donnelly first noticed an uptick in fat furniture two years prior, and has been working to uncover the source of the surge ever since. Starting March 5, he and Lee will present his research in the exhibition “Neotenic Design,” at Brooklyn design incubator A/D/O.
Lee says the phenomenon didn’t really click for her until they began working on the exhibition catalogue, looking at dates of objects in the show. “I saw it was more than a fleeting trend,” she says. “This is something that’s been going on for years.”
Donnelly traces the origin to around 2008, when furniture designers increasingly began hewing toward cute, rotund forms, a style he deemed “neotenic,” referring to a theory proposed in 1943 by Nobel Prize–winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who believed that juvenile physical traits—including a round face, big eyes, and thick extremities—elicit a positive response in viewers. In other words, childlike features make us happy. In the exhibition, Donnelly and Lee break down neoteny’s principles into six primary characteristics: animal-like qualities; fleshy features, simple, round shapes; lack of definition; absence of support structures; and consistency of material or color. They interviewed designers whose work filled the bill to see if they had noticed the trend.
The idea resonated with some better than others. Konstantin Grcic, the German designer known for his angular, geometric creations, could see neotenic qualities in his Sam Son chair, a monochrome seat with a backrest shaped like a foam pool noodle. As materials evolved from several to one during the design process, he recounts, the chair began to take on a personality: a smiley face, formed by the backrest (a mouth) and armrests (the eyes). Conversely, the Swedish designer Jonas Wagell claimed the association, while understandable, is an oversimplification. Rather, he expressed his designs as a means to “enhance a form, expression, or character—to communicate something.” If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, one need only to look at Wagell’s bulbous Julep sofa to see the very qualities Donnelly and Lee ascribe to the genre.
On the whole, the people Donnelly and Lee interviewed—including Jaime Hayon, (Tudor chair, 2008), Big-Game and Moustache (Bold chair, 2009), and Faye Toogood (Roly Poly chair, 2014)—used similar references: There was a lot of talk about “softening minimalism”; about half of the people referenced cartoons. “It really confirmed the phenomenon, whether the designers believed they were working toward it or not,” Donnelly says.
So what’s feeding our fattening furniture? The pair believes it has something to do with the current political and financial moment. According to historians, Donnelly says, designers tend to create for themselves rather than for the market when work is scarce. And whimsical objects can be a source of joy in otherwise bleak times. “We think neoteny has continued to proliferate in recent years because there is increasing uncertainty about climate change, human rights, immigration, income inequality, and the future-shock associated with the explosion of digital media,” he says. “There is research that suggests we’re able to suspend judgement and reduce anxiety in the presence of [affectional] objects.”
It’s little wonder, then, why Jumbo named its first furniture line the Neotenic Collection. (The firm will feature a lamp resembling a cavatappi pasta noodle from the range in the A/D/O exhibition.) Donnelly and Lee say that decision was a bid for transparency: They want to show how their research has informed the creative process.
Donnelly’s quest emerged as he and Lee were simultaneously developing Jumbo, whose core values align with the principles of neoteny and are in direct opposition to a midcentury aesthetic, where honesty of materials, clean lines, and contrasting shapes and textures reign supreme. When one of Donnelly’s peers saw Jumbo’s chair for the first time, he was puzzled by the irregular forms and “couldn’t imagine the machine that created it.” If serious makers couldn’t figure out how Jumbo’s work was made, Donnelly reasoned, they might be onto something. The approach could yield objects that are imaginative and playful, perhaps even novel.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is make things a little bit dumber,” Donnelly says. “Like Ken or Barbie: They’re not a one-to-one figuring, just a weird plastic abstraction.” He compares it to a hand, where the knuckle hair, fingernails, and wrinkles are observable. That’s not a Jumbo kind of hand; they prefer a rubber, lemon-yellow dish glove—a streamlined caricature of a person’s paw. “It probably parallels with why we love emojis so much,” Lee says. “You can understand everything the graphic wants to say immediately, in a surprising way that kind of delights you.”
And maybe that’s the raison d’être behind the recent fascination with chubby décor objects: Like emojis, they make for a language that’s easy to understand.