Feline Space: Modules for Human-cat Interaction
Originating in Asia, pet cafés are becoming popular worldwide. Having a pet is not always feasible, and the pet cafés offer people opportunities to enjoy the benefits of interacting with companion animals when they do not personally own one. Nonetheless, the idea of cat cafés raised ethical concerns regarding commodifying and exploiting cats as attractions for human entertainment. Is this conflict reconcilable?
After observing the human-cat relations as well as the spatial designs in existing cat cafés, I ideated alternate ways for human and pet animals to interact. I created experimental spatial design prototypes that deliberately position humans into cats’ space for them to experience feline movements and postures.
When humans are guided to behave like cats, will the boundary between a human’s space and a cat’s space become obscured? Through the “primitive” and “animalistic” behavior, will people have different understandings towards human-animal relations? By documenting human and cat behavior inside the experimental prototypes and iterating the design, I seek not a solution to the cat café dilemma but different possibilities of future spatial and furniture design for human and animal users.
Neko no Jikan, a cat cafe in Osaka, Japan.
What is a Cat Café?
The world’s first cat café opened in Taiwan in 1998. Although it is not the first café to have cats, the owner commented that “we were the first to be reported on by the media on such a massive scale.” The concept of cat café spread to Japan and gained significant popularity, and the phenomenon started to emerge worldwide.
The popularity of cat cafés is linked to the rise of the healing industry in Japan following its economic downturn, and cat cafés are marketed to have healing effects on people seeking companionship and "cat time" outside the stressful daily life.
The Design of Cat Cafés
Japan’s cat cafés are often designed as cozy, homely spaces, Japanese cat cafés created environments for people to feel that they are at home and playing with their own cats.
When the concept of cat cafés spread from Japan to other countries, many cat cafés designs outside Japan borrowed the Japanese aesthetics of domesticity. Staff at Tiny Lions in Ann Arbor mentioned that they selected bright colors for the interior to make “a comfortable environment for both people and cats and makes visitors feel like home.”
At the three cat cafés I visited in China, I observed that the furniture types were mainly dining chairs and tables, and three places all charged for mandatory food. People tend to stay at those cat cafés for longer times to socialize with friends, but fewer people have physical interactions with the cats. Owners at Miao Le Ge Mi would pick up cats and deliver them to each table in baskets upon request.
Tiny Lions Cat Lounge and Adoption Center
Ann Arbor, U.S.
A cat placed in a basket
Miao Le Ge Mi
The Humans' Space? The Cats' Space?
A majority of cat cafés are commercial spaces that people pay to enter. The modes of human-cat interaction at cat cafés are therefore different when the “interactions” are charged or timed. Additionally, the main residents of cat cafés are cats, and humans are visitors paying to see and interact with the cats. The unique human-cat relationship inside cat cafés creates an interesting question of ownership of space.
Spatial practices in architecture often attempt to define objects in a rationally understood environment and create a hierarchy of spaces with different functions. That is how cat cafés are currently designed. In both home-like or restaurant-like cat cafés, chairs, tables, and cat trees immediately make it identifiable what the cat space is and what the human space is. Human-cat activities and interaction are, however, never bound to the spaces defined by the furniture. How can this space be designed differently from our rationally organized, well-defined spaces of homes and cafés?
If people are paying to visit a cat café for a different experience, can this experience be something gained from behaving like cats? When people move through a space like a cat and encounter cats inside the space, will they perceive the cats and themselves differently? Can cat cafés, an increasingly popular space where interactions between human and cats take place, become not only a relaxation or leisure space but also an experimental space for further research on human-animal relations?
By painting and abstracting cat bodies, I derived forms with the suggestions of cat postures and movements. I further developed objects using clay and added silhouettes of human and cats as a reference of scale. The clay models allowed me to quickly visualize volumes and spaces. space for further research on human-animal relations?
Ideation: Public Space
To challenge the design norm of existing types of cat cafés, I first ideated different open, public spaces where humans can interact with cats. I designed an urban plaza where stray cats can be brought by animal welfare organizations to interact with anyone who passes by. After consulting with The Michigan Humane Societies, I abandoned the idea due to potentially huge investments, the social context and weather condition of the chosen site, and the complexity of managing cats outdoor.
Ideation: Interior Space
After decided to change from an outdoor space to an interior space, I conducted site research and chose a vacant rental space in downtown Ann Arbor for the cat café. I designed a range of spaces, both horizontally and vertically, for different levels of human-cat contact and interaction to take place.
The structure I placed in the café is designed for humans to experience cat postures and movements, and it provides a mode of human-cat interaction hardly explored in other cat cafés and pet furniture designs. To further understand how cats and humans interact, I stepped back from the overall café concept and put my focus on developing this structure.
The exterior of 619 E Liberty St
The interior space
The original floor plan of 619 E Liberty St, Ann Arbor
Zoning based on the level of human-cat interaction
Utilizing vertical spaces
Hiding spaces for humans and cats
Designed for humans to behave like cats
Semi-enclosed spaces for humans and cats
A cat's angle
Prototyping and Design Development
I prototyped low-fidelity mockups of the spaces using cardboard and tape, and I took pictures of a human user crawling through the prototype. By annotating on images of the prototypes, I was able to quickly identify spaces for cats in relation to the scale of the human body.
Through making a more developed, full-scale, modular prototype using cardboard, MDF, and carpets, I was able to gain a better understanding of the structure and make easy modifications through an experimental process. While adding posts as structural supports to the prototype, I discovered other functional use of the posts such as serving as scratching posts for cats and as “barriers” that guide humans to twist their bodies like cats.
I brought the prototype to Tiny Lions, a cat café in Ann Arbor, as study tools and hoped to document the behavior of cat and human users. Three cats at Tiny Lions had physical interaction with the prototype. None of the cats stayed inside the prototype long enough for humans to have closer interaction with them, but I still observed interesting ways the cats explored the spaces inside the prototype. I further developed the spatial design model as modules that can be easily transported and reconfigured for different environments and intentions. I also visualized the design through a physical scale model and digital renderings placed in the cat café environment.
Video Documentation of the Full-scale Prototype
Feline Space: Modules for Human-cat Interaction
Placed in a cat café context, Feline Space seeks new ways to design commercial spaces for human and animal users. It functions both as a piece of furniture for humans and a built environment for cats. Feline Space attempts to address the ethical concerns raised by cat cafés through an experimental spatial design that invites human visitors to actually inhabit the spaces of cats. In the “cat’s space,” humans are guided to crawl down, twist their bodies, and explore the movements of cats. As a study tool, Feline Space suggests different ways of seeing, creating, and using spaces in pet cafés.
Through its modular design, Feline Space can be reconfigured for different cat café environments or to be used in the same cat café for creating a variety of experiences for humans and cats.