“I hate when people use the word ‘whimsical,’” Katie Stout tells me over the phone. “It’s so degrading, as if the person put zero thought into the work.” That might seem like a brazen statement coming from a designer whose oeuvre, especially her popular Girl Lamps, skews whimsical at first glance. In reality, the opposite holds true: by pushing past typical thresholds of comfort, Stout captures the dark irony of childhood innocence while making poignant statements about the vulnerability, tribulations, and solidarity that accompany being a woman.
Stout’s work beckons one to read between the lines, summoning a thematic tension that defines her inaugural line of ready-to-wear, which recently launched at Forty Five Ten’s 4510/SIX platform in Hudson Yards, Manhattan. Consisting of four shirts, one sweater, and two dresses, the line makes use of a light, free-flowing mesh material ideal for outdoor escapades in the summertime. But don’t get too comfortable—rocks are sewn into the sweater, populate the dress’s pockets, and line the shirts’ hems. “It reminds me of having a rock stuck in your shoe,” says Stout. “Extra irritating.” (She actually handmade each rock out of vitrified colored clay to achieve a smooth texture that wouldn’t cut through the mesh.)
Likewise, the line’s inspiration is rooted in discomfort. When Stout went camping with fellow designer Misha Kahn, who only brought mesh clothing, “he couldn’t get warm because he kept putting on layers and layers and layers of mesh,” she says with a laugh. Those feelings of vulnerability come into full swing at picnics, she explains, where “we all seem to be children masquerading as adults.” The hard-and-soft material juxtaposition perhaps evokes childhood feelings of collecting pebbles by a pond, but the rocks-in-pockets metaphor is partially derived from Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning. “Whimsical” doesn’t quite cut it.
A product designer at heart, Stout also insisted on designing Forty Five Ten’s display racks and hangers in the same language as her previous large-scale works. Her material use mirrors Shelf (2017), an off-kilter papier-mâché standalone that recently landed at the Dallas Museum of Art and Egg Collective’s “Designing Women.” To achieve her signature rough-around-the-edges tactility and eye-catching color gradations, Stout scavenges leftover Amazon Prime boxes and fabric scraps scattered throughout her studio. “I have this tendency to hoard, so making objects from trash and papier-mâché ends up validating and perpetuating it,” she says. “I like to let the trash come to me.”
Would Stout design clothing again? “Absolutely,” she says, noting that working within budget constraints was a healthy challenge she often doesn’t face in her day-to-day practice. “But now I’m convinced I could start a very lucrative aquarium rock business.”