Working globally at the intersection of art, design and material culture,  Kathryn Walter is inspired by her Toronto hometown as a burgeoning design centre. She founded FELT as a studio and a label, and as a company that extended her family felt business into a material laboratory, where she explored new applications, art projects, and products. We had the chance last week to talk about her practice and what she is currently planning.

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Your work has been focused on one material, restricting yourself in some ways but opening up deep exploration, tell us about this journey and what are the highlights of your work with felt. I should draw a distinction here between handmade felt and industrial felt because there is a long history of making felt in cultures across Asia, and a craft tradition of making felt by hand that I’m not so connected with. This interests me, but I work with industrial felt, manufactured by machine in rolls and sheets. These forms inspire my hard-edge, clean-line aesthetic and dictate my approach to design—I use simple squares and rectangles to maximize the yield of material and to set limits for myself. I find I’m most creative when working within certain parameters.

My family’s business began with my great grandfather importing felt from Germany when he first immigrated to Canada. The company then became an agent for felt manufacturing in North America and has since evolved into other markets, but felt was at its root. I tapped into this personal history and founded FELT to explore this modern material through art and design.

While I’ve designed and made some product, I favour working with architects and interior designers to produce feature walls for a range of spaces, drawing from the rich material properties of felt including its warmth, tactility, and ability to absorb sound. My work varies through adaptations to sites, scales and budgets.

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Highlights from the past year include a wall with superkul at the Aesop flagship store on Queen Street West, and I’m currently working on wall panels with Two Trees for a lounge in the new residential tower at BAM South, Brooklyn. I’m looking forward to this fall when I’ll be conducting a workshop in the Interior Design Department at Ryerson, and having my FELT spool stool included in True Nordic, an exhibition at the Gardiner Museum curated by Rachel Gotlieb and Michael Propokow.

In the search of sustainable practice, designers and makers have been drawn to felt – but what are the eco/footprints of the material? Showcase the material for us, what are a few felt pieces that you like? Felt is made of wool—a renewable resource, and often combines recycled fibres, but it is not recyclable except through reuse. The matted fibres will break down over long periods of time, but many of the thick felts are so dense that they will last indefinitely.

Yurts: These impressive shelters are mobile homes that have been made for centuries by peoples from Central and Northern Asia using ancient traditions that are still employed today.

Robert Morris’ 256 Pieces of Felt: I’ve often quoted this work. Of the visual artists that have used felt, Morris is my favorite. He’s the great minimalist. His series of felt pieces from the 70s is monumental and elemental in its use of gravity to create form.

Josef Beuys’ Felt Suit: It’s hard to speak of felt and not acknowledge the artist most famous for it. I especially like this piece because it walks a fine line between art and design, and highlights the artist’s personal mythology with felt.

0c5ce7dd66d28433e6f0304309e4ce3fGeatano Pesce’s Feltri chair: This chair is a classic, predating most contemporary design that uses felt. It’s bold and pushes the material’s sculptural properties.

Freyja Sewell’s Hush chair: This is also wonderfully bold and sculptural. It’s a bit like my Retreat project, a convertible armchair, but hers is more grand. It’s a contemporary piece I wish I’d done.
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Do you think that art is still able to bring/support change? What do events and exhibits do for the public? [‘ I’ve managed to find a balance in making things to make money and making things that matter. I believe in maintaining that balance because I need to earn an income but I also feel strongly about producing meaningful projects. I think artists help to generate change by modeling creative approaches and creating desirable models. I don’t think this kind of change happens quickly; rather an engaging art project can resonate with its viewers over time.

New projects/what are you working on? My recent venture, called dittybag, is a division of FELT and collaboration with my partner Greg Woodbury. It began as an outlet to make use of remnants and stock from FELT design projects, and to pursue work with a critical edge. Greg and I combine our backgrounds in textiles, design, art and film to shed a modern light on mending through events and partnerships. Our latest endeavor is The Mending Lounge presented with Craft Ontario forth-coming this May 7 and 8.

Dittybag and The Mending Lounge, what are you trying to say/do with this work, what are you hoping they will generate? We have brought together nine artists from the fashion, design, craft and visual art, all with some background in textiles. Each was asked to come up with a signature mend to showcase in this public venue and inspire interest in mending. I think the diverse approaches—some political, some poetic—will demonstrate that mending can be decorative, it can be engaging, and that it is not only practical, but it is essential.

Why is mending emerging as a ‘thing’, what is driving this desire and what now? What is the history that supports the The Mending Lounge? Mending has been around since people started wearing clothing but it has been fading out of public consciousness with the rise of fast fashion. Why mend your socks when you can buy a new pair for $1.00? The tragic irony is that while mending has faded from the public consciousness here in Canada and the United States, many people overseas and out of site spend their days in deplorable conditions, sewing cheap, new clothing for the North American market. We need to rethink how we value our clothes and understand how they are made.

I think mending is making a comeback back through endeavors like The Mending Lounge that make mending a social thing. I’ve been aware of projects in the UK, and there are corporate models such as Patagonia’s Common Threads repair program as well as local initiatives including Repair Cafés.

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The Mending Lounge has such a collaborative and social component, is this important to your practice? Do you think that Toronto creative community is coming together, working to help each other grow? I’ve chosen to keep FELT pretty much just me, which gives me full control but can also be isolating. I love the energy that comes from working with people on a project basis where collaborations happen in intensive ways. On some level, organizing events like The Mending Lounge is selfish in the sense that I get to jam with people whose work I admire. It’s been great to collaborate with Janna Hiemstra, curator at Craft Ontario. With assistance from Ontario Arts Council, we’ve been able to invite all these great artists and designers to contribute their ideas, and provide us the opportunity to meet and work with some of Canada’s best. The Mending Lounge will be a community, even if only for a short time. The interaction that can happen between participants can breakdown borders between disciplines and create fertile ground for building allies and possible futures.

What are your favourite:

building/ My home.

flower/ What’s blooming locally in season.

fashion brand/ Thrift store.

season/ Springtime is best.

painting/ The empty spaces of de Chirico.

Join Kathryn during her latest project in Toronto.

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