A TikTok watched nearly 650,000 times opens with green and white frosting smeared onto a regular phone case. A reading of a Creepypasta about a faceless man plays over the fast clip as a hand enters and frostily swirls around the edges. One by one, plastic decorations are added — a butterfly and flowers, glitter powder, small beads around the cutout for the camera lenses.
The icing is not edible, and the phone case is not just an exercise in decorating. TikTok is part of one maximalist design aesthetic that is starting to catch on in the US, where clean and minimal phone accessories are being abandoned in favor of the busiest cases you’ve ever seen. Every corner of a case is covered in gems, glue, glitter and 3D additions, including mini stuffed animals. The result is a sumptuous – and joyous – embrace of the impractical, attached to the devices on which most of us conduct our life’s business but which look almost indistinguishable from one another.
“It would be extremely uncomfortable to hold,” reads one comment on TikTok. “The girl shouldn’t upset you, but how will it fit in your pocket?”
The decoded believers are phased by the questions. “Decode” style — short for “decorated” and “denwa,” the Japanese word for phone — is reminiscent of the 21st century’s dazzling flip phones, where every inch of the device is covered in embellishment. But compared to the clunky, clicky cell phones of the wretched, the extravagant decoding aesthetic is even more at odds with the devices it now covers: sleek, understated smartphones defined by a corporate minimalism it has become synonymous with “high technology”. All our phones look the same now — We might as well do something interesting with the cases.
“The girl shouldn’t upset you, but how will it fit in your pocket?”
It is easy enough to visit Cute house, a small DIY craft studio in Flushing, Queens. It’s still easier to choose charms for your phone case. The hard part is finding the self-control to quit.
An entire wall of the studio is covered with rows of small acrylic boxes and shallow dishes, each containing a unique miniature figure – or “charm”, as they are often called. They vary in size, color, style and material, from a dime-sized rubber fried egg to three-inch KAWS dolls, mini typewriters and telephones. A box for a miniature plastic baguette is empty, all consumed by DIY customers.
Emily opened Cutes House in October 2021, inspired by similar businesses popular in China. (She asked for it The border just use their first name.) Although DIY stores are more common in China, Emily says this is the only DIY decoding studio in New York. Her customer base is largely teenagers and young women between 16 and 24 who come in groups – especially on weekends – to decorate phone cases, photo frames, hair clips and AirPods cases.
For $39.99, customers get a new clear silicone case for their phone, plus any charms, beads and figurines they can fit. The charms are attached to the case with a super strong “whipped cream” glue that looks like frosting but is thicker and stickier. Customers choose a plastic tip that gives the cookie-like effect, and Emily gives a quick lesson on how to hold the squeeze tube to make the glue look nice.
“Some people go crazy because they see so many charms,” says Emily. Others bring a reference image from Instagram from which they copy a design they found. Hello Kitty and Kuromi figurines are particularly popular with customers.
For one, I settle for an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink setting: Mario and Pikachu, a television set that says “TV,” and a squishy peach that I later realize is scented. On the second, I decide to be more restrained and choose shimmery yellow frosting glue, plastic diamonds and a fluffy stuffed bunny and strawberry.
After I carefully press the charms onto the bed with glue, Emily places phone cases in clear plastic boxes with a handle on top—like something a slice of birthday cake would be delivered in. Several days later, once the glue appears to have dried completely, I ditching the battered plain dark blue case I bought when I got my phone and replacing it with the stuffed animal loaded Decoder case from Cutes House.
The case is comically large in my pocket. The blurred strawberry is a little too close to the wide angle lens of my camera, giving ultra wide shots a hazy red blob in the corner. Most of the time, the case is an effective distraction and fidget. As I wait for the train, I find myself petting away the soft mini plush toys that are now superglued to my iPhone.
Is it the most practical for daily use? No. But it’s perfect to use when the mood strikes and to take mirror selfies.
In an age of mass-produced uniformity and low-risk, algorithm-friendly tastemaking, there is an allure to having something unique and unique
There’s something special about decoder cases, even though they’re a bit bulkier than a standard option. In an age of mass-produced uniformity and low-risk, algorithm-friendly tastemaking, there is an allure to having something unique and unique, even if the item is as common as a phone case. You might hate my bunny-strawberry-glitter-frosting case, but you can’t buy yourself one even if you wanted to. Likewise, every person who comes to Cutes House and decorates something will leave with an item they intentionally chose and made their own.
The desire to adapt and adapt our technology is insatiable. Apple, perhaps realizing this, introduced more tools to tweak iPhone lock screens last year. iPhone colors continue to grow. There is a vast market for custom app icons and platforms like Snapchat has offered feature for paying subscribers. In a way, decoding is just a more physical, more glitzy manifestation of the exact same market.
As the origin of the name suggests, the decoder has historically been popular in Asian countries such as Japan and China. Many decoding artists and business owners are also Asian and take advantage of trends and aesthetics popular in Asia that have yet to catch on in the US.
The desire to adapt and adapt our technology is insatiable
Decoden sellers believe the style will continue to expand in the United States. In the first four months that her Etsy shop was open, Qian Qian “Fiona” Lin, an LA-based decoding artist, says she didn’t sell a single phone case. A fan of the style at first, she bought cases online and later stocked up on accessories to make her own. Lin now runs her Etsy shop, Fifi’s handmade, as a side gig, sells decoded phone cases, hair clips, hand mirrors and other items. Relatively simple cases cost around $20, with more ornate styles costing around $55. Since the orders started coming in, however, Lin says her business has only grown.
Lin has dozens of small charms in boxes at home, in a workspace where she makes cases to sell online. She has made hundreds of cases by now and has perfected the hand movements to make the whipped glue look even and the charm placement balanced. It takes her about an hour to do each case.
“It doesn’t take too long,” says Lin. “But the design and the idea, it takes more time.”
The extravagant decoder may look chaotic, but there is a fine art to squeezing dozens of tiny charms onto colored frosting glue. Add too many pieces, and the design can end up looking cluttered, warns Lin; Choosing charms in the same color scheme also helps make the final product more cohesive.
Lin works with clients to come up with a design or color scheme for their case and sends photos of available charms and possible arrangements. Lin, like Emily, says her customers especially love Sanrio and Disney characters. The anxiety I felt when running an errand at Cutes House seems to be a familiar feeling. Lin had a hard time choosing a favorite charm.
“They’re all cute,” she says, laughing. “I love them all.”
Consumers have countless options for mobile accessories, and phone cases are a billion-dollar industry — from sculptural resin cases handcrafted by artists into mass-produced pink camo OtterBox cases sold at local Verizon stores. Lin, who also sells cases in person at craft fairs and markets, says a big draw for customers is the novelty of decoding cases — despite the bulk and extra weight of glue and embellishments, customers want something that’s not like what anyone else has.
“They don’t want the same style as other people,” says Lin. “They want the special one.”
Lin uses a decoding case and often replaces it. She estimates that she changes phone cases about once a month to test new designs for her store. But I’m surprised to see Emily opt for a matte, plain case with a minimal Year of the Rabbit design, something you’d find hanging on a shelf in a store – no beads, charms, glitter or toys to be found. She prefers to keep something simple on her own phone, so it doesn’t get dirty at work.