By Abigail Best
Photography by Tom Haonan Zhou
Furniture artist Katie Stout’s vibrant personality was apparent as we spoke candidly about her newly opened solo show Side Dish, on view until October 26th at R & Company’s gallery in New York City. “I’m really irrational about these girls,” Stout laughed as she talked about the pieces for the show. “I get attached and parting with them is sometimes really hard. I need to spend more time with real people.” Indeed, her “girls”—a nickname for the humanoid figures that form her pieces—seem to have taken on a life of their own.
Stout focused on keeping the raw materials evident in the works that make up Side Dish, crafting each form according to her gut feeling. “Remember sleepovers where you would stay up late and be delirious and weird things would happen? I wanted [my work] to have that vibe.” Additionally, Stout’s commentary on women in domestic spaces as well as the way her figures look (“like weird goddesses coming out of the mud”) add deeper layers of meaning. The girls seem to take on their own struggle, although the playfulness imbued in the pieces still feels true to Stout’s original intent.
Hoping that the observer will sense Stout’s lighthearted intent, she still feels very strongly about what the figures represent. “They are trying to free themselves from domestic preconceptions and notions of what they are supposed to be.” If you cannot feel playful and excited about women’s liberation, what are you supposed to be happy about? “When I see them all together, I feel like they are these free women—they have a shared vision and energy.” That energy manifests itself in Stout’s use of material as well. While working on this series, Stout found herself fighting with her materials, wrestling with the clay or paper to fit her notions of what she wanted it to do—a parallel to the commentary she is making with her work. Just as the material wants to be itself and do its own thing, so do her girls.
While all of Stout’s works are functional as traditional furniture pieces, there is a special element of whimsy that allows them to transcend their use as basic housewares. “It’s a shift of expectations,” Stout laughed as she talked about some shelves she is building out of paper mache. They are a wonderful fusion of color and shape, but impractical to use for books or objects. A similar expectation is required of many of her lamps, some of which have solid ceramic lampshades. They are not ideal for actually lighting a room, but beautiful while emmiting what light they can. “They are art objects that you can also use,” she said, emphasizing that in her work form is of greater concern than function.
Most of Stout’s pieces are handmade, but for Side Dish she employed new materials and outsourced methods. Chief among these is a massive marble and upholstered bench which Stout commissioned to be manufactured in Portugal. “I love how outsourcing is like a game of telephone,” she laughed, referencing “weird miscommunications.” Stout embraces those small mistakes and reinterpretations in various parts of her work, including the wallpaper she collaborated on with Flavor Paper. An assemblage of watercolor figures she asked other people to paint for her, the wallpaper was installed, and subsequently drawn on again by Stout, as the backdrop to the objects in her show.
“Part of the reason why I’m making things that people use is because there is a relationship that you form with it that is different than with something that you only look at,” Stout said, explaining why designing furniture is central to her practice. The physical interaction with her objects lasts long after she has parted ways with them; she hopes the scratches and flaws that the pieces accumulate as their owners use them will make them a part of the home and less of a precious object. “This might be too creepy,” she confided, laughing, “but I feel like there is then a little part of me that is living with the people who buy the work.” Not creepy, but a comfort that Stout cares about what she is making and a reflection of how deeply personal her work has become.