A Brief History of Pandemic Aesthetic: From Mid Century Modern to Menhera Kei

Matthew Baines

It's funny how the mind works. It's been a couple of years now since I set up BillingtonPix.com. In that time my product offering has moved through greeting cards, to homewares to apparel. I love creating stuff is the bottom line I guess. It started with photography and has moved to graphic design.

Graphic design was always my calling. As an introvert it is much easier to express myself either through the spoken word or through graphic design. Photography is a little trickier, in my opinion. You have to be able to express a mood effectively. For me mood is expressed the easiest through the medium of colour.

I love colour. Who doesn't? It brightens up your day, it makes you smile. It soothes. For me the key is to mix colour with retro and quirky. That is my calling card. It defines who I am and what BillingtonPix is all about.

Now, with pattern I can really have fun with color. Creating patterns, for me, is one of the most relaxing things I have ever discovered. I can sit for hours in front of my computer building out infinite patterns, positioning individual graphics and working out the relationships between them.

Artist at work

I use Affinity Designer mostly to work out my patterns. I find it the most flexible and cost effective tool on the market. Most of the products you will find on BillingtonPix will have been devised using this software.

I mentioned infinite patterns. It is indeed the infinity of the patterns that I create that let my mind go on its own journeys. For that to happen successfully, however, it requires a mood. A mood is what takes my pattern to the next level. 

Mid Century Modern versus Anti-Structure

When I started with BillingtonPix that mood was retro and decay. The world was crashing around our ears with Covid-19 and I suppose the themes of retro and decay played upon the idea of the safety of the past juxtaposed against the destruction of the present. Mid Century Modern designers, such as Paul Rand or Saul Bass, who used rigid formulas to adhere to function over form had themselves done so deliberately following the chaos of World War II. Structure was everything. Only when we arrived in the 1980s was this turned on its head with Memphis Design. This is also something that you will see me return to constantly in my designs. The past is a huge influence on the work I do here and goes so far in deciding on the mood of my patterns and other graphic design.

Now, with Covid-19 we are back to the chaos again. I could choose to return to Mid Century philosophies to counter that in my mind, but that would be a little too obvious. Yes, structure is important, as is the use of colour. Anti-structure is also a great foil in turns of humour in the face of adversity. A constant between these two design theories is, of course, colour.

Goblincore names set the tone for a world of no societal rules

Goblincore and Cottagecore fashion

In 2021 the darkness set in and I realised that I needed something more than colour to offset the negativity that the pandemic had brought to my doorstep. It was at this point that I started to look into alt fashion as a means of moving away from retro into something more contemporary. I looked at Cottagecore and Goblincore. The earthy nature of Goblincore appealed to me more than Cottagecore perhaps. This is something that has literally mushroomed in the last few years where some people are seeking out gender-neutral Goblincore names, such as Nettle or Marsh either for their online profiles or even as new-born baby names. The non-binary nature of mushrooms seems to have become a symbolic aesthetic of this genre that references a world with no societal rules. Returning to nature, perhaps not in the somewhat contrived sense that sometimes happens with Cottagecore but in a real, wonderfully dirty and natural sense. There was something wonderful to be at one with the toads and frogs, the centipedes and mushrooms whilst the rest of the world seemed to be imploding. Yet for me it is still a dark world, where natural, earthy tones dominate over a brighter and happier colour palette.

It was at this point that I discovered Harajuku, and in particular Menhera Kei and Yami Kawaii clothing aesthetic. Whilst essentially being cute and colourful, this aesthetic also encompasses a counter-culture, which explores the opposite when it come to human emotion.

What is Menhera Kei? 

Check out this Menhera Kei sweatshirt on my Etsy store

Menhera is not something that translates particularly well into English but it refers to mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety disorders or other behavioural and emotional issues) and tries to generate some positivity around it. It is a term that sits outside of fashion, but it has been drawn in as means of self-expression about mental health. 

The hurt of mental health is what we mean when we dress in Menhera fashion. Closely associated with cuteness and kawaii, or Yami Kawaii to be more specific, Menhera attempts to create a foil against depression and where that can lead. By showing that mental health is okay, it becomes an inclusive thing where anyone with mental health issues can express themselves in a beautiful and kawaii way that can be appreciated by others. In doing so the symbols and patterns that are employed in a dress, on a t-shirt or any fabric or accessory are signifiers for that person in a juxtaposition of external mood with internal mood.

In Japanese popular culture the character Menhera Chan is an example of where the aesthetic has taken this genre. Menhera Chan is an anime character, who's creator, Bisuko Ezaki, devised her as an escape from reality, where drawing is a form of therapy. Menhera Chan combines elements of both Yami Kawaii and Menhera Kei, bringing in "elements that people are avoiding", such as nooses, syringes and other dark elements and makes them cute.

Menhera Kei t-shirt

For example, the use of bold and bright colours, or else pastel shades for a softer expression, are juxtaposed with the symbols of mental health such as needles, pills, instruments of self-harm, themes of death and destruction. These symbols can appear quite extreme yet are softened and diluted by the softness of the colour which provides a duality to the expression. Indeed the symbols themselves, once signifiers of negativity, have now become cute and kawaii, thereby disarming them from any further damage of association to their former use.

What I find fascinating about Menhera Kei is the both the beauty and positivity of the cute and bright patterns and colours and the underlying destructive themes that are kept at bay. It means that these negative themes are no longer kept within can be expressed openly. Where there is chaos we are once again able to tame it, not with form and structure as was the case for Mid Century Modern themes, but with more modern, psychological techniques.

What is Yami Kawaii?

Where Menhera refers to mental health, Yami Kawaii is more of a rebellion against the kawaii aesthetic that came of out Japan in the 1990s. In fact the direct opposite of Yami (meaning dark) is Yume (meaning dreamy). Being cute and adorable (kawaii) is all very well, but if you are angry, depressed or even anarchic this is not something to align naturally to. Like Punk in the 1970s, Yami Kawaii turns the Yume Kawaii upside down and is perhaps more associated with the physical pain of sickness and ill health. You could probably say that Menhera Kei is a subset of Yami Kawaii.

With Yamikawaii you will see lots of bandages, blood splatters, skulls and other scary symbols. There is a definite link here to gothic aesthetics. In fact, Pastel Goth juxtaposes the kawaii and softness of pastel colour tones with the scary symbols of death, destruction and anti-establishment that comes with Goth,

Pastel Goth sweatshirts

The moods that can be generated by both Menhera Kei and Yami Kawaii have greatly influenced my work over the last 18 months. Dealing with the chaos of the pandemic has been a challenge for me personally, but one that I have channelled into these aesthetics by creating patterns and designs in these styles.

For me it is so important to be able to portray a feeling or a mood in my designs. With Menhera Kei and Yami Kawaii I am more focused on apparel than on homewares or greeting cards. This is because it is such a personal aesthetic. I want my designs to be expressed via fashion.

As we move out of Summer 2022 and into the Fall it is natural for the theme to develop into darker areas such as Halloween, Occult and Paranormal.  

Pastel Mushroom Sunset organic t-shirt

I'm going to have some fun here. It also seems natural to return to some of the Mushroomcore and Goblincore aesthetic I played with last year. The same themes of the outsider, the social anxiety, LGBTQ+ vibes are at play here as they are just as relevant in the real world as Yami Kawaii and Menhera Kei.

I am already designing many a garment over on my Etsy store, as well as a small Pastel Goth and Menhera Kei phone wallpaper digital download collection. I have started to port some of these clothing products across to BillingtonPix, but if you would like a sneak peak of the current collection then head over there where you can purchase some new product lines I am testing out.

So if you identify with themes I have discussed then I hope you will enjoy some of my designs. They are drawn from the heart and give me great pleasure. I will never be too far away from colour. It drives my own personality. There can be darkness, but it can always be offset by light and colour.

As always, please leave a comment and let me know what you think of my design journey. Which design aesthetics have appealed to you mostly during and since the Pandemic? 



Menhera Kei Pastel Goth Yami Kawaii

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