Photo of an archway made out of a Hello Kitty installation at the exhibition Cute at Somerset House

Why brands and creatives are drawn to cuteness

The latest blockbuster exhibition to take over Somerset House in London delves into the elusive meaning of ‘cute’, and how its links to consumer culture have made it ripe for subversion by creatives

What is ‘cute’? It’s the question that Claire Catterall, the curator of a new Somerset House show on the subject, has been asked most by journalists over the last few weeks. The best answer seems to be scrawled in large wobbly writing on the sunshine yellow wall in the exhibition foyer: “I am everything you want me to be.”

Split into five sections – Cry Baby, Play Together, Monstrous Other, Sugar-Coated Pill, and Hypersonic – the exhibition carefully illustrates that cuteness is in the eye of the beholder. To one person, it could be ribbons, fluffy textures, and sugary colours. To another, it might be a Pokémon or a Neopet. To someone else, it could be videos of puppies tumbling over themselves. However, as subjective as it is, there is plenty to suggest that many of our ideas of cuteness are shared.

This is most apparent in the world’s embrace of illustration and animation. One of the more famous faces associated with cuteness is Hello Kitty, the cat character created 50 years ago by Yuko Shimizu for Japanese entertainment company and exhibition partner Sanrio. Although the domestic growth of kawaii – ie Japanese ‘cute’ culture – was spurred on by product design and the growing manga and anime audiences in the 1960s and 1970s, companies like Sanrio had much to do with kawaii’s global proliferation.

Image of a pink notebook with a cover illustration showing two girls in puffy dresses on show at the Somerset House exhibition Cute
Fancy Note notebook, 1960s-70s by Setsuko Tamura © Setsuko Tamura, courtesy Yayoi Museum