Attendees of last month's Sight Unseen OFFSITE exhibition during New York Design Week may have found themselves transported back to an easier time, one filled with colorful blocks for building and playing. Adult-size versions of the popular children's forms filled an interactive installation by Katie Stout, the New York–based designer-slash-artist who recently made national headlines when she took home the gold from Ellen's Design Challenge on HGTV. Not conventional by any means, Stout's work is always a crowd favorite, and her exhibition at this year's OFFSITE was no exception.
But when she first received Sight Unseen's invitation to participate, Stout wasn't sure what direction to take. "I wanted to make these wearable cone things, but then I started thinking about the way we interact with rugs," she says. "I thought it could be so cool if you could build out of rugs." Stout went to work sketching potential designs for an immersive space where viewers could build and construct scenes from large blocks—finally arriving at a drawing similar to the one below.
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"I copied the form of the building blocks I had grown up with," Stout says. "At first, I was making all these random shapes, but they didn't look good together. The building blocks that I had grown up with looked great together. So I used those."
For producing the individual pieces, Stout reached out to Colonial Mills, a braided-rug manufacturer in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Stout first began working with the company in 2011 while she was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Back then, she had an idea for a project called Bump in Your Rug, and enlisted the manufacturer to help. "It was nothing like we were used to doing here," says Meredith Thayer, creative director at Colonial Mills.
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Since then, Stout has reached out to Thayer and her team for numerous projects that push the limits of what braided rugs can be. "Because we have worked together for so many years, we've been able to develop a pretty strong understanding of each other," Thayer says. "Katie typically will talk me through what her ideas are, and provide sketches for what she's hoping to achieve. We generally have multiple conversations back and forth about what can work, what needs to change. She really has a good understanding at this point of what we are capable of and how the process works, so that her ideas are usually very attainable."
For the building blocks, Stout had a tight turnaround time: a little under a month and a half to get the pieces designed, manufactured and shipped to New York. "We had a number of projects we were working on with her, so we just planned everything according to due dates and based it around other things we had going on in-house," Thayer says. For this installation, Stout mocked up prototypes of the blocks in Rhino, initially based on a system of 12 inches. "I gave them a very specific drawing," she says. "Usually, I send them really rough crayon drawings. I still might do that for something like the Bump in the Rug, but something like this was very specific and I was very specific abut the ratios, so I sent them CAD drawings."
Making the blocks at Colonial Mills
Stout wanted the blocks to be huge, yet comfortable to sit on as cushions. "I also really wanted the arch in the arched block to be 24 inches wide, which would sort of be wide enough to sort of sit in," she says. Due to the size of the foam Colonial Mills had available on hand, Stout had to scale the blocks down to a system of 10 inches, making the largest rectangle blocks 40" W x 20" H x 10" D. "I think that ended up being more manageable and therefore perfect," she says.
With CAD drawings in hand, Thayer and her team sat down to decide the best possible approach. Their process begins with creating the initial braided yardage of rope, which requires winding yarn onto multiple bobbins. These bobbins are sent to the braiding machine, where they are braided together around a filler that provides the necessary width and stability. Next, a sewer starts at the bottom of the block using an industrial PFAFF sewing machine, and sews from the center to construct the diameter. Then, the piece is turned on its side to add the height. Once this is completed, the sewer will attach the top piece with a zipper, leaving space for the foam to be inserted.
With the less curvaceous shapes, the bottom and top pieces are created separately, cut to the correct size and serged to finish the edges. The sewer then adds the sides of the block to the bottom piece and attaches the top piece much like with the round version, sewing a zipper in and leaving enough room for foam to be inserted. For Stout's building blocks, the foam had to be cut to a specific size in order to be fit into the block.
"Some of the biggest challenges are around the sewing of the specific shapes," Thayer says. "Just keeping the dimensions accurate. We are very lucky to have such a talented sewer, Fatima, who works on all of Katie's projects." Thayer adds: "After so many projects, we know what to expect with Katie and have figured out how to create some pretty interesting pieces, so that now it doesn't take us as long to figure out some of her stuff." Once started, it took Colonial Mills five days to complete Stout's blocks.
The final pieces were installed at Sight Unseen OFFSITE inside four walls of beige braided carpets to provide the perfect setting. "I'm so happy about the way everything turned out," Stout says. "It was so fun watching everyone splay the boxes and seeing what sort of things they came up with, how open they were to really building something and being a weirdo." Stout sold half of the blocks straight from the exhibition at Sight Unseen, but hopes to produce more and make them available for others to purchase.
When I asked Thayer if Colonial Mills collaborated with other designers like Katie, she had to laugh. "There is no one else quite like Katie—and I mean that in the best way," Thayer says. "She certainly pushes us."