Katie Stout’s playful, provocative pieces are changing the face of collectible American design, one Lady Lamp at a time
In this excerpt from the Design District Magazine (Winter 2021), writer Chloé P. Santos profiles New York designer Katie Stout. Portrait photography by Balarama Heller.
The world of collectible design exists within polite society, where forms and ideas are usually judged with a masculine eye and the no-nonsense spirit of modernism. But designer Katie Stout is neither of those things. “The very act of making my work and taking up space is a feminist gesture,” she says. “Big sculptures, big studios, and big hands are still things primarily reserved for men.”
Stout, 31, is one of the most provocative young talents working in her field today. Her rainbow-colored sculptures and furniture pieces defy any trend or easy-to-identify historical reference. Instead, she combines a playful, almost naive style with an air of what can only be described as naughtiness.
Her most recognizable design is her ongoing series of functional Lady Lamps, which perfectly encapsulates her portfolio: electrical cords flow from gold-leafed vaginas, colors such as purple and teal clash like an experiment in Play-Doh gone wrong, and figures balance on one another in sometimes sexual positions. Stout’s other whimsical works include hot pink clay sconces, botanically themed wool-and-silk carpets, and sets of hand-painted dinnerware in glazed porcelain with gold-leaf details.
Despite her wildly diverse output, Stout’s anatomically correct lighting speaks the loudest. “I feel an obligation to talk about my Lady Lamps,” says the Brooklyn-based talent, who studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design. “They were originally informed by the idea of women in the domestic space. I made them as a commentary on the objectification of women by way of extreme kitsch. They’re extreme in the sense that you have to touch a nip or a butthole to turn them on.”
While Stout’s work may seem frivolous to the uninitiated, its inventiveness and precious construction have made her a hit with collectors, critics, and interior designers, and her pieces have been added to the collections of various American museums. For this year's Design Miami/, Stout is exhibiting new Lady Lamps and other designs via New York’s R & Company, the celebrated gallery known for representing radical talent both young and old, including Sebastian Errazuriz, the Haas Brothers, and Italian legend Lapo Binazzi.
Stout has become a poster child for Millennial creatives eager to make their mark. The New York Times Style Magazine counted her among the emerging designers who are “redefining ugly” and thumb their collective nose at the establishment. She’s also the perfect avatar for this year’s Design Miami/ theme of America(s) and all the diversity and complexity that come with that, especially in an election year. “The America I know best is the United States, the values of which I don’t know how to define because they’re so individualistic,” she says. “This individualism is part of the cause of the splintering U.S. we’re experiencing. The only way I can succinctly define my country is with the concept of the American dream, an abstract ideal we’re always trying to get to and one we’re willing to fight for.”
Getting inspired by American culture in 2020 can be a challenge, Stout notes, but she’s recently discovered a creative kinship with its past. She’s in the process of curating a show for Shaker Museum in upstate New York, where she’ll make new works inspired by the proto-modern furniture and fashions of the ascetic Christian sect that peaked in the 19th century.
“There’s so much to unpack about the feminist roots of the Shaker movement,” explains Stout, who points out that the group’s celibacy practices were a form of birth control that allowed women to lead productive lives outside the home. “The furniture is often defined as pure, a word I take much issue with, and I think is somewhat violent because of the clean lines and simple forms. In fact, ornamentation and color were just as important to the Shaker aesthetic as functionality.”
We’ll never know what those early Shakers would think of Stout’s Lady Lamps, but Stout finds hope in what they can teach her generation. Her connection to the movement “might come as a surprise based on my penchant for maximalism,” she says. “In many ways, we’re all yearning to find ways to connect with—and to feel proud of—the United States right now, and Shaker furniture is definitely one of those ways.” ◆