Inside Outside: Designing Textiles As Extensions of Architectural Thinking

Inside Outside shapes its stunning textiles through a constant dialogue with its collaborators.

“It was really scary.” That was Dutch designer Petra Blaisse’s first reaction when she was approached in August 2011 by Amsterdam’s venerable Stedelijk Museum to design a permanent textile installation. Her fear was understandable. The 118-year-old museum was undergoing a rocky reinvention by the architects Benthem Crouwel, who were adding a controversial, white, bathtub-like extension to the neo-Renaissance building. Blaisse’s firm, Inside Outside, was charged with creating a dialogue between the original museum and the new sections for its entrance hall. “It really made me very nervous,” Blaisse says. “This was in my own city, you know, where everyone passes by and bikes by and eats there, and tells me every day what they think about this thing.”

But dialogues are something of a forte for the 57- year-old designer and her team. The firm’s name reflects its twin specializations—textile design and landscape architecture—but also its overarching philosophy. When Blaisse creates one of her well-known curtains for a building, she is always attempting to engage the structure itself in a conversation, speaking out from the interiors or beckoning in from the exterior. “If you do it well, the architecture invites you,” she says. “You’re a team, a kind of a couple.” And in order to achieve such harmony, Inside Outside’s entire process is steeped in dialogue—with the architects, with the clients, and with the manufacturers who produce its pieces. “The most exciting thing for me in any project,” Blaisse says, “is the collaboration with the team that invites us.”

At the Stedelijk, one of the key collaborators was the carpet manufacturer Desso. “Part of the commission from the museum was that we had to work with them,” says Marieke van den Heuvel, a lead designer on the project. “We picked one of their machines, this loom that produced thousands of meters of airplane carpets. We found out that it could make so much more!” Working closely with Desso’s technicians, Inside Outside stretched its capabilities with a concept that called for 14 different weave structures combined into a 2,000-square-foot carpet. Instead of the small, regularly repeating motifs that Desso was used to, the designers developed a bold graphic that was as large as the wall itself. They overlaid the section and plan drawings of both the old and new museum structures with a floral motif that invokes traditional Dutch damask fabrics but has a thoroughly modern twist: The leafy pattern is actually angelica, a weed that grew wild in the bogs that once filled the site of the Stedelijk Museum.

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“We just took a step back and analyzed all the layers of information about the architecture and place and combined all these layers into one weave,” Blaisse says. With many shades of gray, myriad textures, and a range of thicknesses, the incredibly tactile final piece is a product of a hands-on process. “You’re leaning into these machines and seeing the threads being woven, and you say, ‘Stop!’ because something isn’t working and you have to change it,” she says. “You are much more part of the real making of the thing.”

Completed in less than a year (the piece was installed last May), the Stedelijk commission is one of the quicker projects that Blaisse’s office has undertaken. More typically, Inside Outside will be involved from the early conceptual stages of the architectural design process, crunching vast amounts of information even as it is being discovered or created by the architects themselves—the circulation, the volume of the spaces, the height, lighting, climatic conditions, whether people drive by, what’s visible through the windows, and many other factors. “All these things are of enormous influence,” Blaisse says, “and then we need to decide all the technical requirements: Does the textile need to have an acoustic quality or only a light quality? Can it be imagery, or can it be something completely abstract? You need a lot of time for this sometimes.”

Inside Outside’s curtains for the OMA-designed Milstein Hall at Cornell University, completed last year, were five years in the making. An extension to Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, Milstein Hall contains airy studio spaces and a 253-seat concrete auditorium, both of which required some way to control the light coming into the building. “We made many designs, and we had many options,” says Peter Niessen, Inside Outside’s lead designer on the project. “But Rem felt they were too architectural, or too this, or too that. We were trying to find what it was that we really wanted to do until we realized that it was about architecture education, and we should turn to architecture.” More precisely, the team turned to architectural perspective drawings by the Dutch Renaissance master Hans Vredeman de Vries. “They were not only beautiful drawings,” Niessen says, “but they were also instructional drawings.”

In the auditorium, Blaisse’s team wrapped the windows (which run along three walls) in blackout curtains printed on both sides with Vredeman de Vries’s architectural diagrams. Tiny holes punched into the curtains let in pinpricks of light, shimmering in the daytime “like sequins on the fabric,” Niessen says. The holes also light up the perspective lines on Vredeman de Vries’s drawing, adding a didactic layer to the curtains. The same scheme of perspective lines and holes, but without the printed drawing, carries over onto sheer curtains in the studio spaces. “Whether it’s a window or a slit or a perforation, every curtain we make has to have some kind of hole in it,” Niessen jokes, “some kind of opening to the outside world.” At Milstein Hall, the effect is to enliven and activate the spaces. “From the outside, it’s quite subtle,” van den Heuvel adds, “and then on the inside you’re enveloped in it, and it’s impressive. That’s the thing about our work. It can be really quiet or it can take over the room.”

Blaisse was able to exploit this dynamic between textiles and space to the maximum at last year’s architecture biennale in Venice. The project started, as always, with a conversation—this time with Ole Bouman, the director of Netherlands Architecture Institute and the curator of the exhibit in the Gerrit Rietveld–designed Dutch pavilion. “He said, ‘Let’s talk about vacancy,’” Blaisse says. “The pavilion is, in fact, vacant 80 percent of the time. ‘Can you do an intervention that gives it life?’” Her installation, Re-Set, uses moving curtains to entirely transform the all-white interior of the exhibition. Strung along a track fixed to the roof, three curtains—one colored, one transparent, and one opaque—automatically change positions to create different configurations in the space. Mirrors fixed on the roof reflect sunlight into the pavilion, so that when the curtains move, everything shifts—the lighting, the circulation, the colors. The experience of the architecture is transformed. “The Venice installation was an interesting one for me, personally, because everything came together there,” Blaisse says. “It was actually the first time that the curtain had an individual role, a personality of its own.”

Beyond such give-and-take with collaborators and spaces, Blaisse and her team often manage to suggest a much larger context in their work. The theme of Re-Set, was inspired by the huge problem of urban vacancy and the failing market economy of the Netherlands. The monotone color scheme at the Stedelijk was, in van den Heuvel’s words, a reaction to the “black-and-white thinking” of the Dutch government, which has been making huge cuts in funding for cultural initiatives.

But at the heart of Blaisse’s practice is the belief that the design of textiles should evolve as the concept of a building takes form—as an organic aspect of architectural thinking, not a decorative frill tacked on once the structure is built. “Textiles have emotion. They can have an enormous influence on the acoustics and the feel of architecture. With one movement, you can create a totally different world, in every sense of the word—light, acoustics, color, atmosphere, organization of space. It’s an absolutely connected dialogue; it’s not an afterthought,” she says. “Nothing is good as an afterthought.”

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