katie stout is bushwick's martha stewart
After collaborating with Bjarne Melgaard for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and a season on Ellen DeGeneres’s reality TV show, the Brooklyn-based artist is figuring out her next move.
photography katie mccurdy
Katie Stout owns a lot of glitter, and Martha Stewart (the brand) made most of it. "For a while, I wanted to be Martha Stewart," she tells me as we stare at the colorful vials on the shelves of her Bushwick studio. "But, like, the Roseanne version of Martha: kind of gross and sweaty and loud... but crafty! And with my own show."
Actually, Katie did (kind of) have her own show last year. She appeared as a contestant on HGTV's Ellen's Design Challenge, in which six furniture designers competed to win a $100,000 check from Ellen DeGeneres. In a strange turn of events — stranger even than being on Ellen DeGeneres's reality TV show — Tim, the fan-beloved cowboy woodworker whose desk won the final project, was disqualified, and Katie won by default.
Doubly surreal: the show filmed during the same year that Katie exhibited her furniture at the Whitney Biennial. She worked with her frequent collaborator artist Bjarne Melgaard to create the setting for his demonic funhouse installation Think I'm Gonna Have a Baby. She made a large sectional sofa covered in Melgaard's prints and NSFW life-size dolls; plush emojis; and a throw pillow with Skrillex's face on it.
In 2015, when the Ellen show eventually aired, Katie would go on Twitter after each episode and read viewers' comments. "People couldn't stand my voice," she says. Though she grew up in New Jersey, she speaks with a slightly Valley Girl drawl that makes her animated way of speaking even more captivating. She talks about avant-garde European art movements with the style and authority of Cher Horowitz talking about Alaïa and Fred Segal.
Katie's aesthetic is also an ongoing exchange between playfulness and sincerity. "I like to make silly things, but take it reeeeally seriously," she explains. She shows me a set of pink placemats shaped like lips with bright red napkin tongues, and a mockup for an outdoor sofa that vaguely resembles a dinosaur with its curved Memphis-like lines.
In the center of the floor is her current project: a mirror with a frame made from dollops of multicolored resin and glitter. It has a hot pink plastic chain at the top for hanging, like something from the Barbie Dreamhouse. As we talk, she intermittently splatters it with more beige and copper liquid resin — because at the moment, she says, all the blues are pinks are making it look "too The Little Mermaid."
Katie compares her studio to a playroom, and her intuitive, spontaneous-seeming style of working has a certain child-prodigy flair to it. But since enrolling as a student in RISD's furniture department in 2009, her style has matured, she says. "Freshman year, I got really obsessed with farm animals," she remembers, fiddling with a half-finished lamp held together with what looks like bubblegum. "The first piece of furniture I ever made was a carved wooden cow-udder table. It had milk coming out of the teats and I even put fake flies on it. I would never make that now!"
After her farmyard phase, she moved on to toys — specifically dollhouse furniture. "I love that if you scale it up, the proportions don't make any sense any more. I like making things that feel cartoon," she says. She points to two chairs to illustrate. One is the size of a kid's chair but stuffed and floppy like a teddy bear. Though it's stitched from delirious sparkly silver fabric, it's part of a series called "Sad Chair," which she showed at Gallery Diet in Miami last year. The second piece is the next evolution of the series: it looks like a cartoon chair, thanks to its squashy upholstery, but unlike the Sad Chair, it has a metal frame so you can actually sit on it — which makes you feel like an IRL Michael Jordan entering Looney Tune world.
While Katie rarely makes furniture with the intention of appealing to kids, she's becoming more open to the idea. For Design Miami in December, she created an installation inspired by the frenetic, weirdo energy of teenage girls. The bed had bendable furry bedposts and a pastel rainbow-quilted comforter. The textile walls were printed with naive renderings of cats and flowers. It was like a colorful cocoon in which Tumblr-obsessed teens could browse the internet for hours in coddled safety, and a perfect set for expo visitors to take selfies in.
What's next once you've shown work at the Whitney Biennial and been handed a $100,000 check by Ellen DeGeneres? Right now, Katie is preparing for an upcoming show with Melgaard at Karma gallery in New York, opening in February. As she did for their biennial installation, she's creating furniture and textile pieces that will feature his visuals. "I'm printing his images onto these six really weird curtains, then I'm making a resin table and chairs — basically a deranged domestic environment," she explains.
Beyond that, she likes the idea of going in a completely opposite direction once again, and collaborating with a brand to make something mass-produced. "A company like Hasbro," she suggests. "They own Play-Doh, so I'd make one of those weird kits. Or I'd love to make my own version of Little Tikes furniture."
Once, someone came up to Katie at a show of her work and said, "You must never have grown up." She widens her eyes to recreate her indignant reaction. "But also maybe, in a way. I feel like I've grown up so much that I'm coming back around."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Katie McCurdy