One recent Tuesday, Curbed put Katie Stout—former director of Johnson's Trading Gallery (the Queens, New York, design Mecca with a cult following) and the winner of Ellen's Design Challenge—to the test. We asked Stout to spend $200 at a Brooklyn Home Depot on her empty apartment and, in a few hours, prove that she's worthy of the fat $100,000 winner's check bestowed upon her by Ellen Degeneres. "I'm more nervous about this than I was on the show," Stout casually remarked, before setting off in a bright-orange cart.
Standing in the aisle of Home Depot, Katie took a moment to talk to me about the show, "You're in L.A., you're starring in a reality television show, you're living in this hyper-surreal environment where nothing feels real." She paused. "It was freeing. The whole thing is just so, whatever." It's easy to dismiss Katie's valley girl cadence as vapidity, but that would be a mistake. Her offhandedness and distinct lilt belies her profound success—In 2014, she was commissioned by Bjarne Melgaard to show at the Whitney Biennial, while, later that year, her curtains were the literal backdrop for New York Magazine's design issue. In short, don't be fooled: Katie Stout is performing for you.
With 60 pound bags of concrete on Katie's shoulders, more than one failed attempt to call an Uber, and a two story walk-up that feels more like seven, we make it inside. However, we've been warned; the space is raw ("I moved in, like, yesterday" she reminds us). As we lay down the green tarp—its color coordination with the orange traffic cones is no accident, I'm told;—Katie begins to fashion a nightstand from our newly purchased haul, with the help of her assistant Zev Schwartz. As the concrete dries, I ask her about stealing from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, her "friend crush" on the late Charlotte Perriand, and why she'd prefer you didn't call her a furniture designer.
Q: Congratulations are in order, since you just won 'Ellen's Design Challenge." How did your work/process change under the surreal conditions of a televised reality show?
It was great. We had carpenters, who knew how to do everything. Carl, who was my carpenter, actually had his own show on DIY. It was truly revelatory and revolutionized the way that I want to create. I remember thinking, 'Oh my god, I don't have to build things myself.'
Q: Sets, scenes, props—these are all words you return to over and over again in your practice. Can you explain why performance matters to someone who, ostensibly, just makes furniture?
I noticed during A Flaccid Domesticity [an exhibition at New York's Museum of Arts and Design]—when I had to talk about my work to a crowd of people—that I was really uncomfortable self-describing as a furniture designer. I was so unintentionally hesitant to use that word and would immediately become super bashful and question myself. Yeah, Im a furniture designer, but I can't remember the last time I made furniture. I guess, I want all these things to be characters. I want all these things in our lives to be characters. The things we live with should have a spirit. Part of the reason I make "furniture," versus art, is you touch it, you live with it, furniture gets marked, it gets damaged, it breaks, and you have fix it. It tells this whole story about something else, which is so beyond me. It's not about me, it's about the person who owns it and, maybe, the person who owns it after them. I like it when furniture sweetly falls apart.
Q: Your work—prepubescent forms coated in a Bratz doll color palette—defies any easy gendering. Who would you name as a role model?
Now, we're desensitized to how truly avant-garde Charlotte Perriand's work was. Yes, her forms were simple and modern with a capital M, but they have these unmistakably playful overtones. There's one photo of her on top of a mountain—shirtless, with her arms out. It's iconic. I feel, like, her furniture could fit inside of my world, and, maybe, my things could fit inside her world, and, maybe, in that way, we would be friends.
Q: You've described your practice as an attempt to "make things for this dream dwelling I have in my head." Can you talk about the world that you make in your work?
I want everything to be saccharine, I want everything to be dripping with sugar. I want things to be so disgustingly sweet to the point where it turns a corner; it becomes sour and disgusting and poisonous. I never quite go there; so I'm always pushing towards that, then falling back, then pushing towards it. I have this vision of the world where we're living in a cartoon and you can do anything and you'll never get hurt. That's part of the reason I'm making these overstuffed furniture pieces. They're cartoonish and soft and safe—but kind of grossly safe. They intentionally droop.
Q: Flaccid Domesticity, your residency at the Museum of Arts and Design, actively pokes fun at domestic objects marketed towards women. Can you talk a little bit about the idea of jokes in furniture design?
I think that a lot of designers, and designs, take themselves too seriously. I consciously make objects that are smart and thoughtful, but never take themselves seriously. A lot of it is rooted in growing up in a home that was really dark and negative. And it's like, but why? [laughs] At least the things you can live with can be beautiful. If I can give some humor to a home, I don't know. That's really all I wanna do.
Q: As someone formerly at the helm of Johnson's Trading Gallery, do you see any emerging retail platforms that produce "affordable" contemporary objects with a similar curatorial spin?
There are a lot of websites that are doing that, or, at least, attempting to do that, but none of them have the same mentality as Johnson's Trading Gallery. If you put an object from Johnson's Trading Gallery into an online setting, it loses value. The whole charm of Johnson's Trading Galley is that there's no sign on the gallery door. Right now, the gallery moved to a converted 1940s cinema in this completely residential area in Queens. It's a place that you have to know what it is in order to know. I mean, you can get cool online design items at an affordable price. You can go to Kiosk, or Sight Unseen. Even the Cooper Hewitt design store has some really nice items. What Paul's doing feels consciously outside of that, in a really soulful and pure way that I don't see elsewhere.
Q: If you could steal one item from the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the New Museum to put your bedroom, what would it be?
I just want a Mummy from the Met, that's all I want. Aesthetically, I want it to be the sarcophagus, but I want to know there's a mummy inside.
So how did she do? Well, she came in $10 and two hours over budget. But, as Katie says, "I'm not a craftsperson," so we're willing to let this one go.
· Play the 'Ellen's Design Challenge' Unofficial Bingo Game [Curbed National]
· All Interviews [Curbed National]
All Photos by Max Touhey for Curbed.