Late last fall, we met with Katie Stout in her Brooklyn studio. It has large windows that look out over the borough, providing a remarkable amount of natural light, especially for a studio in New York. Amid workstations were multicolored paper pulp bookshelves, Girl Lamps big and small, stuffed chairs, Girl Mirrors, a wood block desk, and a large chandelier slated for The Webster.
At least for us, Stout’s work is easy to fall in love with. Her “Girls” series of lamps, wallpaper, mirrors, and fruit holders are nearly saccharine in color and shape, but darkly hilarious with their oversized lips, labia, and bodily positions. They both allow for the embrace of the female body in all its forms and balk at the absurd standards we have for its perfection.
Stout herself exudes charm and is generous with a laugh. She experiments with putting materials together freely and has found herself intrigued and amused by communicating with fabricators on projects like marble stools and wicker cabinets. She enjoys elevating lowbrow materials—making a FIMO clay model into a marble bench or turning an unsuccessful Tinder date into a collaborator for a side table. She thinks it’s a riot when male patrons confuse her “girls” with sexiness.
When we visited, Stout was preparing for her December exhibition at Nina Johnson gallery in Miami, what she was calling her “heartbreak show.” Her solo exhibition “Side Dish” had just come down at R & Company in New York.
WHITEWALL: Tell us about what will be in the Miami show.
KATIE STOUT: I decided it’s my heartbreak show [laughs]. A lot of the work I make is really joyful and lighthearted, in a way where it’s almost a way to deal with tragedy.
I just went to RISD [where I went to school] this weekend and talked to classes. Everyone was like, “Why do you make furniture and not art?” There’s the fact I really like making useable objects. That relationship is really important to me, when you give something to someone and they can touch it and use it. But also, my mom died when I was a freshman at RISD. We had to get rid of the house. That was before I had to declare a major. I became obsessed with domestic environments—how we relate to them, how dark they can be—and I wanted to make them lighter, I guess. Because I didn’t have a home. So I really like to make work that’s delirious and sort of so happy it’s maniacal.
But this one, everything’s sort of more subdued and maybe a little more overtly sad.
WW: Do you feel like you’re finally ready to address that sadness?
KS: I feel like I’m in a place where I would have more grounding and stability if I had had my mom and a home for the past seven or eight years, or however long it’s been. I’m confronting things in a way that doesn’t have to be masked by anything.
I sort of always related to comedians, in that they go through these moments of depression, and that’s why they are so funny. Someone was telling me there’s this writer who writes dramas when he’s happy and comedies when he’s sad. I feel like this [heartbreak show] is me actually being a little bit happier.
WW: So you’re ready to address the deep stuff.
KS: Yeah. I feel like I can make things that are a little more subdued.
WW: So what does that look like?
KS: Like this table [gesturing to Swipe Right Desk, made from wood in a variety of shapes and finishes]. A little more raw. The colors are not as poppy and bright. More uncomfortable juxtapositions and letting things be as they want to be, instead of forcing it into anything.
Someone helped me make [the table], someone I met on Tinder [laughs]. Which is like my favorite thing ever. So I sent him all of these drawings and he was making these forms for me and I told him to stop working on them because I loved them the way they were. You know my marble furniture? I was inspired by that, but a rougher blob.
WW: You wanted to make it more natural?
KS: I wanted some of the wood pieces to be as they were when they were found. It’s all reclaimed. I’ve never used exposed wood in any pieces. It was more like, what can we find that will work and what’s available?
I’ve really been into relinquishing control. This is the next phase of that, I think. Even not even painting it and hardly any manipulation. I feel like the communication is part of the design and making process. I love how people interpret my directions [laughs]. I was like, “Chop blobs!” He was like, “What’s a chop blob?” and I was like, “Just do one and I’ll let you know if it’s right!”
WW: And for your marble pieces, you first made models from FIMO. You used lowbrow craft material to make something very elevated.
KS: I like starting out with a super-lowbrow material that you’re like, “Oh, I can do whatever with it, it doesn’t matter.”
WW: And then they make it out of marble.
KS: High stakes on you [laughs]. I made it out of FIMO. I had it rendered by this guy so it looks like marble. I’m not interested in making a computer rendering. I’m interested in fucking things up and have other people put it back together.
WW: What other materials are you working on right now?
KS: We’re using this painted paper and then papier-mâchéing it on. I’m revisiting a lot of things that I’ve temporarily abandoned or put to rest. Things are resurrecting. I can just see them in a different light right now.
I’m making giant Girl Lamps. I want the show to have this uncomfortable symmetry to it. So everything is in twos. And the symmetry is broken up with these two wooden pieces.
We’re going to Phoenicia tomorrow to do some chainsaw “girls.” I still have to get the chainsaw.
WW: Will you work it?
KS: Mhmm. I’m going to watch some YouTube videos. It’s like the time I tried to drive stick. I was like, “I think I can do it if I just watch a YouTube video!” Watching it while trying to drive stick.
But with a chainsaw, it’s a little different [laughs]. It could end in a dramatic way. I hope not! The ladies are going to be all in fetal positions, and they are going to lying around the show. Because that’s how I feel right now.
WW: And what about these lady chairs?
KS: I’m making these metal frames and these weird girls are sitting on them. They are going to be looking into mirrors. I love that the crotch is here; it’s just so anatomically incorrect. Like, have I ever looked in a mirror? [Laughs] This isn’t how your body looks? Mmm, got it.
WW: What initially attracted you to working with the female form?
KS: I have this compulsion to do things that make me feel uncomfortable. I think I became more comfortable with doing things that make me uncomfortable when I was working with Bjarne Melgaard. Because he is just so heavy-handed, and I was very inspired by him. I just loved his attitude of being like, “Oh, it’s just the worst. Oh, I hate it! Disgusting! Let’s do it!” I was like, “Yes!” It was so liberating. Being like, “Am I going to get in trouble by the FBI for searching this on the Internet?”
WW: Making something so heavy-handed, what’s it like taking in people’s reactions?
KS: It’s really funny because some people are like, “You make sexy work!”
KS: I’m like, all right. It’s not at all sexy! And someone called it vulgar. I guess I could see that, but it seems too innocent to be vulgar. I’ve always been obsessed with the female form. I found this drawing I did of my mother. And I feel like it’s just been something that’s been inside me and I’ve repressed it because the lamps look exactly like this drawing. It’s so weird. It says, “To Mom love Katie” I drew that of my mother? That is so weird. [She shows us on her phone a drawing of her mom in a bikini with a giant chest.] When I found it I was like, “Oh, my god, nothing has changed! I wonder what she thought when I gave it to her? [Laughs]
WW: Growing up as a girl, it’s confusing to know how you should think of your body.
KS: Totally. In the house I grew up in, both of my parents were very concerned with how my brother and I came off. And it was very stifling for me and oppressive. I had a very difficult time with it. I think that it’s also a reaction to that, making these domestic objects. I want them to be in very public spaces. I would have loved to grow up with a lamp like that. I think it would have changed the way I see the domestic sphere.
I’ve received a lot of scrutiny for not being how a woman should be. So it’s also my way
of way of saying, “Fuck you.” [Laughs]