February 20th, 2020

By Lucia Tonelli

The Brooklyn-based designer debuts her latest collection with ceramic pieces crafted to make you laugh, and think.

It was mostly a coincidence that Katie Stout’s Sour Tasting Liquid exhibit opened on Valentine’s Day, but you can't help but feeling love in the air when surrounded by her work. It’s the Brooklyn-based designer’s third show at Nina Johnson in Miami, and is composed of just over 20 ceramic pieces—ranging from six-foot-tall Arcimboldo-inspired lady lamps to asymmetrical mosaic slab stools. Challenging the ideas of function and form, art and utility, Stout’s latest collection includes both abstract sculptures and functional furniture, and is often a combination of the two.

For years, Stout has used her work to deal with the world's absurdity “with absurdity,” blurring the lines between art and design with her humor and eclecticism. Feeling exhausted by America and American politics, Stout took a step back from the world and dove deep into various ceramic processes as a way to reclaim what American art—and more generally, America as a whole—means to her. She applied a variety of techniques to each item on display—using ceramic slabs, epoxy, mosaic, etc.—because, according to Stout, “American craft doesn’t really exist, “So I wanted to blend the techniques of various cultures to create something completely different.” It's the combination of Stout’s formal education (a degree from Rhode Island School of Design) and inherent curiosity that makes her work feel boundless. Layers upon layers, each piece in the collection feels as intricate and intense as it does lighthearted and fun. She admits that ideation can become never-ending, but the basic principles of design keep her grounded. “At the end of the day, you might draw something up that’s wonderful, and gravity will tear it right down.”

No matter what I ask her, Stout's answers are long and complex, with no clear beginning or end. She views her work with a certain casualness; responses like “I just love how it looks,” or “because it feels cool,” remind you that Sour Tasting Liquid, while serious, shouldn't feel intimidating or unapproachable.

Here, we caught up with Stout in celebration of Sour Tasting Liquid, which will run through March 28th.

ELLE DECOR: Tell me a little bit about Sour Tasting Liquid.

KATIE STOUT: The show is about 20 pieces total, all made of ceramic. The starting point was the notion of craft. There’s this whole movement happening right now in art and design where people are making this really absurd work. I’m seeing things like Styrofoam covered in resin, and I discovered that I really liked using those techniques myself. A lot of it is a reaction to the political uncertainty that we’re feeling in the states right now; this “dada” type of work that deals with the world’s absurdity with absurdity. I’ve been making all of this work out of clay and experimenting with various processes, and came to realize that American craft doesn’t even really exist. We grab from all of these different cultures, so I explored different methods in working with clay, and then looked to various cultural images too. So a lot of the pieces are fragmented and broken up then reassembled after. I’ve been making these large ceramic floor lamps of nude women holding up lampshades, or nude women holding up other nude women who are holding up lampshades. There are a few table lamps of these pseudomythological creatures; female centaurs and reverse centaurs, ladies made out of fruit, and so on.

ED: And where did you get the name “Sour Tasting Liquid” from?

KS: Vinegar. I use vinegar in my studio to fix broken pieces that haven’t been fired yet. You can put it in the cracks with a coil of clay to fix it.

ED: This is your third exhibition at the gallery. From your first exhibition until now, how have you seen your work evolve?

KS: There’s such a huge difference between my first show and this show. Sour Tasting Liquid offers this deep dive in the materials I used and the processes I applied. Here, there’s a devotion to one material; exploring it in many different ways. In the other shows, which felt more Memphis-y, I used a lot of fabric and stuffed furniture, which I designed on my computer. That felt less organic and intuitive and handmade than this current show. With Sour Tasting Liquid, you can literally feel that I hand made each piece. Now, my pieces feel more focused, and at the same time more expansive.

ED: And at what point did you see an actual shift in your work?

KS: When you give yourself a restriction, you end up discovering so many more channels and opportunities. It makes things easier once you learn the material; there’s far more pleasure once you get to know something. So for instance, I was at a residency at Anderson Ranch, and the people there kept questioning why I didn’t use paper clay for my lady lamps. And all I could say was “I don’t know.” And then when I started using the paper clay, I realized “Wow, this stuff is magical.” From there, I began sticking these already-fired clay pieces, and rocks, and metals into my work, which transformed what I was creating.

ED: I imagine that having a 27-inch kiln had some effect on the process as well.

KS: Making these pieces and then having to cut them up to fit them into the kiln was kind of a fucked up process. Sometimes I’ll think something is going to break into three pieces, and then it breaks into seven. But it changes your relationship with making something; the idea of being precious about the end result of what you’re working on. It makes you much more open to the things that each piece could be, and you let the art almost decide what it wants to be as opposed to forcing it to be something. Allowing things to break is something that’s ended up inspiring me throughout the process.

ED: So when you’re creating something new, do you have an idea of what the final product will be?

KS: I usually do a drawing, and will make a model out of clay to see how it translates into three dimensions. Sometimes I’ll realize that things I’ve drawn can’t support themselves at a certain size, and I’ll confront the obstacles of making it bigger as I go along.

ED: What have you found to be the most interesting part of fusing art and design, especially when it comes to disregarding distinctions between the two?

KS: I think it’s all about breaking down the notion of a hierarchy. When you do that, everything becomes so much more fun. One time a piece of mine—a shelf—was getting picked up to go to an art fair, and the people who came to grab it were like “We were told this would be a shelf, not a sculpture of a shelf.” And it totally changed the way they were going to treat the object. They had to reorient around this “thing” because all of a sudden it was a sculpture and not a shelf.

ED: It’s very telling of the way we look at objects in general; whether we determine something as functional or art. It can be very black and white.

KS: It’s really funny; people need to categorize things and get so frustrated when they can’t. I think it’s great that categories are deteriorating across the board.

ED: Do you think this idea is something that more people should experiment with?

KS: Oh my gosh, yes! I think it’s so amazing to make something for yourself and for your home. Everyone should do it. There’s such a spirituality in the process of making, and you end up learning so much about yourself. It’s a practice that carries over into other parts of your life, too.

ED: Your work is so complex, and plays with ideas of the female form, femininity, gender, etcetera. But furniture, at its core, is a functional part of our lives. How did you connect the dots between the art and functionality of your creations?

KS: When you use an object every day, it affects the way you view the world. With my lady lamps, you turn them on by touching the nipple (tap it up to three times to make it brighter) so that, in itself, can affect how your day goes. You come home after a hard day and you’re greeted by a welcoming boob. It’s really important to me that the objects invite you over and feel like they’re almost a friend. Like, I was looking around my apartment the other day and literally thought “Oh my god every piece of furniture and art is like a little friend.” You never really feel alone. And I guess I’ve always dealt with difficult situations through making and through humor and through a lightheartedness.

ED: On another note, furniture can be directly connected to domesticity or the importance of maintaining the “home”—something that has only recently become a less gendered duty. Do you consider that at all?

KS: My freshman year at RISD my mom died, and my brother and I had to sell our house. So I went through college without having a home to go home to. After I graduated, I was like “Oh my gosh, I majored in home design. I’m creating these things that I wanted to live with and create a sense of home.” So I ended up dealing with the trauma by creating these objects that are humorous and happy but with darker undertones. So with the furniture, I really wanted to create these environments that people want to live in, and that maybe even shift your perspective a little bit…without taking domestic life too seriously. I also think domesticity is definitely becoming less gendered. My generation as a whole doesn’t know as much about creating a domestic life in the traditional sense.

ED: Do you have a design ethos that you like to apply to any and all work that you create?

KS: My design ethos is about guiding the objects along into existence, rather than forcing them. It’s about acceptance too; if something breaks, that’s okay. I’ll use it for something else or turn it into something else. It’s all about being flexible.