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How the “Cat Lady” Aesthetic Became Cool

From sculptural perches to litter boxes disguised as cabinets, the new generation of cat-friendly decor has design in mind.


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Will Barnet's 'Woman and White Cat'

Will Barnet, Woman & White Cat, 1971. Screenprint: sheet, 25 5/8 x 21 1/2.; image, 23 5/16 x 20 in. (59.2 x 50.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the Circle Gallery, Ltd. 73.52 © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

There’s long been a common misconception about cat enthusiasts, and women who like cats in particular. Perhaps an image of someone with 20 cats surrounded by litter and kibble lingers in your mind, and you’re not alone: Pop culture has enforced the idea of the “crazy cat lady,” with characters like the disheveled Eleanor Abernathy in The Simpsons and Robert De Niro’s unhinged, elderly cat lover on SNL.

But times have changed: In recent years there’s been a humanization of pets—and more of an acceptance of them as people’s “children.” Businesses have leaned into that idea as well. Thanks to a cohort of stylish companies and influencers ready to help you “catify” your life, being a cat person is not only cool but an entire aesthetic.

The idea of “catification”—or making changes to your home to suit you and your cat’s needs—has been precipitated by Hauspanther founder and cat style expert Kate Benjamin, who first became involved in the cat design space because she saw an untapped market in the pet category. But what started with a blog evolved into building a business around modern cat design, and turning it into a lifestyle. Benjamin wanted to not only get rid of the “crazy cat lady” trope, but do away with the idea that cat owners’ homes “must be covered in fur, and it’s gross, and you don’t care about how it looks.” It’s the opposite, Benjamin tells Vogue: “The modern cat person does care.”

Josh Feinkind, founder of modern cat furniture outpost The Refined Feline, has seen more of an awareness that “alternatives to ugly shag-carpeted cat trees do exist,” which he attributes to social media. “The combination of cats and visually appealing designs is ‘catnip’ to users of platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, which in turn, boost awareness further,” he says of the trend.

Jimmy Wu, co-founder of modern cat goods startup Cat Person, believes that what has helped normalize the feline fanatic’s aesthetic is making products for both the cat and their humans. In a survey Cat Person ran last year that quizzed consumers on cat products and furniture, Wu found that “people felt like they had to compromise within the category today,” meaning they couldn’t find a wide selection of cat furniture and they felt cat products were “underrepresented” in cat stores. “Over half of cat parents said they’ve bought products for their cat that are actually made for a small dog,” says Wu. That gap in the market, he believes, has also contributed to misconceptions about cats: “Cats have been largely ignored, so why they don’t have a great aesthetic today is [because] a lot of products and actually weren’t designed with cats in mind.”

Cats, of course, don’t have an eye for design. But humans do, and they’re willing to spend the money to give their cats’ belongings a high-fashion feel to match their own. That can mean anything from a $400 cat tower to a $900 litter box and credenza. “Cat lovers want an attractive piece that is either cat furniture in disguise or is a work-of-art and center of attention in their room,” says Feinkeind. Of course, it will still be climbed on, clawed and scratched at, but at least it will look chic. The Refined Feline has seen its Lotus Cat Tower, with its bent-wood design, remain its bestseller, while its newer product—a modern, bookcase-style tower called the Metropolitan Cat Condo—has recently taken off.

Jordanne Young, co-founder of Particular—a forthcoming slow commerce cat goods site that describes itself as a place for readers of CEREAL Magazine and Apartamento—aims to craft an even more targeted approach to cat furniture for sustainable, modern design lovers. “Everything is going to be made-to-order, small-batch, and this is so that there’s minimal-to-no waste, and even the potential to use leftovers to make something,” she says. Young says everything they will sell will be what they believe is essential for cats and cat owners, and they’ve ripped up the playbook for typical cat items, reimagining what they could look like if home decor was top of mind. “[Our products] be a scratching post, litter tray, cat bed, or some form of cat stool where a cat can reside, and then additional things that aren’t necessarily for the cat that are for more for the owner,” says Young. That means room scents, cat-related art prints, and gifts for cat lovers. With Particular, Young wants cat people who care about their home to have more options.

Beyond elevating the image of the cat person, creating a beautiful home with modern cat furniture is simply beneficial to your feline friends. “What I’ve done all along is I’ve tried to show people that the design of objects and environments can actually have a great impact on the health and well-being of your cat, as well as your relationship with the cat,” says Benjamin. “So it goes much further than just sort of looking good.”

But it isn’t just modern cat furniture that has moved the needle for cat aficionados. In recent years celebrities have also helped fix the image problem the feline aficionado has long endured. Taylor Swift hasn’t been shy about sharing her Scottish folds Olivia Benson and Meredith Grey and her newest addition at the time of this writing, a ragdoll named Benjamin Button, with the world. Swifties have in turn become fans of her cats over the years, so she’s taken to giving updates on them on social media. The majority of Gabourey Sidibe’s Instagram presence is dedicated to her cats Aaron and Derrell. Ian Somerhalder loves his cats so much he’s done several shoots with them—including one on the cover of People Magazine. Katy Perry’s cat, Kitty Purry, was her longtime mascot, and even made a cameo in her “I Kissed a Girl” video, until she died in 2020. The combination of hot, funny, famous people unabashedly loving their cats so much helped dispel the “uncool” cat person myth.

There are other ways the cat person aesthetic has gotten a high-fashion makeover. The creation of PUSS PUSS Magazine, a luxury cat culture publication founded by Maria Joudina-Robinson, has produced lavish spreads featuring fabulous creatives from Grace Coddington and Chloë Sevigny to Ai Weiwei and Tyler, the Creator—and, of course, cats. In 2015, photographer BriAnne Wills began building a Humans of New York-type Instagram, but with cats, as a way to “redefine” what being a “cat lady” looked like. By featuring female-identifying creatives and their feline friends, she told the stories that brought them together on Instagram and via her website. She’s since released a stunning coffee table book of select images and profiles of the cat ladies she’s met throughout her journey. Then there’s Leah Goren’s book Catlady, for which the illustrator enlisted 25 women including actor Aidy Bryant, novelist Emma Straub, and designer Justina Blakeney, to create a love letter to cats through essays and artwork.

It’s also fair to say the pandemic was a factor in shifting the perception of cat people. Wu believes that cats are just having a long-overdue “moment.” “Millennials are now becoming or have become the largest group of both pet owners as well as cat owners, and I think a lot of them do approach the category a little bit differently,” he says. It’s something he attributes, in part, to an increase in adoptions and reliance on the animals for emotional support during COVID-19. The result of more people spending time at home, he says, is that the relationship between people and their cats has magnified. “Up to 60% of cat parents have actually relied on their cat for emotional support or comfort or last year, and I don’t think that’s surprising just given all the things that have happened out in the world,” he adds. Young believes that since we became so dependent on social media throughout the pandemic, it’s helped cat people gain more visibility. “We’ve spent the past years living so closely with our animals, [and] that has been the content that people are sharing on Instagram,” she says. The cat person aesthetic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon; if anything, it’s on the road to becoming the status quo.

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This post originally appeared on Vogue and was published May 4, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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