Friday, July 10, 2020 / by Erik Bjorklund
Inflatable pools, roller skates, and sidewalk chalk are defining summer for adults and kids alike.
Last week, Jennifer Schecter hit a stroke of luck and finally got an inflatable pool for her 9-year-old son. And it couldn’t come soon enough. The temperature in New Orleans, where she and her family live, was climbing into the 90s, and the local pools, where they’d normally cool down, have been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. After weeks of trying to buy one from a local store, she only found empty shelves.
Online, it was even worse: long back orders or prices that were more inflated than the pools themselves. She was empty-handed until a friend of hers was vacationing in a small Mississippi Gulf Coast town and found one in stock at the local Walmart.
“Everything has been so disappointing for my son for months,” says Schecter, a marketing specialist at Trahan Architects. “So this pool has been something that we could do for him that would bring some joy and some sense of normalcy and newness at the same time.”
Schecter had the same idea as countless other people trying to salvage summer: Find something joyful—ideally something reminiscent of fun activities from the past. Instagram influencers are flocking to kiddie pools. A surge in retro roller-skating has occurred on TikTok. Sidewalk chalk has made a comeback. Papier-mâché is a craft of choice. It’s the Great Regression of 2020. Activities associated with childhood are defining the season ahead.
The Great Regression represents the convergence of a handful of trends from the past couple of years that nod to a return to a former state. In the design landscape, there’s the rise of round, childlike forms that evoke cuteness and kindercore, the Strategist-coined trend of products in toddler-esque primary colors. You could also lump the reboots and rewatches of ’90s sitcoms like Living Single, Friends, Seinfeld, and Saved by the Bell under this umbrella. This isn’t to be confused with nostalgia, which distorts the past and makes the false assumption that everything was “better back in the day.”
There’s usually two responses to seeing something that references childlike attributes, according to social psychologist Oriana Aragón: either your guard goes way up or way down.
“If you see cuteness and you see yourself as a care provider, it can be a stark reminder that you have responsibilities,” says Aragón, a professor at Clemson University who has been researching the science of cuteness. “If you see it from the angle of a person receiving care, which I think might be happening now, cuteness is fun, it’s whimsical, it’s easy.”
Kris Myllenbeck, founder of Mylle, a company that makes inflatable pools with a “millennial aesthetic,” estimates that about half of the customers are purchasing the pools for themselves, and the other half are buying them for their kids. (She bases the estimate on anecdotal evidence, like Instagram tags, or from customers’ feedback.) It’s a split that makes sense considering Mylle’s origins: Myllenbeck, who is a stylist and art director, wanted a nice-looking inflatable pool for her daughter, but she couldn’t find one that didn’t feel out of place in her Seattle apartment.
“My boyfriend and I used to love blowing up our inflatable pool and hanging out,” Myllenbeck says. “We originally wanted one because of our daughter, but also because we’d enjoyed them before ourselves. When Mylle started, it was for kids, but I also had friends who saw them and wanted them in their backyards.”
If Mylle’s pools are “kid tested, mom approved,” Alicia Scardetta’s prismatic fiber-wrapped jump ropes could be considered “kid inspired, artist approved.” The custom one-of-a-kind pieces — which are made of cotton ropes wrapped in colorful fibers and feature vintage handles repainted in vibrant hues — are inspired by Scardetta’s memories of youth.
“It’s growing up in the ’90s, Nickelodeon colors and Slime Time,” Scardetta says. “Making the jump ropes was about going to the source of those memories and redefining this object that is so closely associated with girlhood.”
Scardetta made her first jump ropes while following the Brett Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings, which animated the conversation around the Me Too movement.
“That was a horrible time,” Scardetta says. “That was a time when you would turn on the news and the things people were saying about women were so awful. And people felt terrible. It felt weird to say, ‘Here are these jump ropes.’ But this is what they’re about: celebrating girlhood — the thing that all the people on TV were saying horrible things about.”
The Brooklyn-based artist saw interest in these pieces swell earlier this year, before COVID-19, even though she introduced the series in 2018. She attributes the lag in interest to things just taking a while to get noticed.
“These ropes have existed in a weird space and time,” Scardetta says. “I guess you can say that about anything people make during the Trump administration. People want to see something that’s lighthearted and fun. I don’t want people to take their mind off [political issues], but having some source of joy is also important.”
I shared pictures of Mylle’s pools, Scardetta’s ropes, and chunky Moon Chalk from Areaware (which was released in late 2019) with Aragón before talking to her. She described the images as “an adult version of cute” and offered a little speculation about their appeal.
“They definitely are about letting loose and being a kid again. All of them are playful in a way, and they’re allowing us to have that feeling ... As we face stressors, sometimes we regress and go to simpler times. We may behave as if we’re younger. It’s an old Freud theory. You’d have to talk to a clinical psychiatrist about that.”
But it doesn’t take a psychological diagnosis to explain the need for fun activities. It’s something adults and kids alike need, which was certainly the case for Schecter and her family.
So far, having the pool has been a revelation. She, her husband, and her son invented games to play in it, like sea-creature-themed charades and whirlpool (they run around to make the water spin, then sit down while the water is still moving). It’s an active antidote to summertime boredom and cabin fever that the whole neighborhood seems to enjoy.
“My son can only build a LEGO set so many times before you want to throw it out the window,” Schecter says. “We’re on day four of having the pool. As soon as it was ready, the neighbor girl ran over and was in it too.”