Atlanta – Apart from his notable work in stage and fashion design in the early 20th century, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo can be credited with having aimed a spotlight at the enchanting world of textiles for Kari Pei, lead product designer at global modular-flooring company Interface. ‘I was fascinated by his incredible breadth of work, which included everything from the Delphos Tea Gown in pleated silk to his printed velvets and his work with lighting and stage design,’ said Pei.
Fortuny drew you into the textile industry, but what’s kept you there?
KARI PEI: Fortuny struck me as being an early 20th-century Renaissance man. It was his work that compelled me to go into this industry, which continues to fascinate me. You can do so many different things. Textiles combine engineering, invention and beauty.
And your career has allowed you to explore every facet of the business.
Precisely. Prior to joining Interface, I had co-established Repeat, my own studio in New York. At Repeat I did textile and product design for clients like Starwood Hotels and Knoll. Prior to that, I was the design director at commercial wallcovering company Wolf Gordon, and prior to that I was senior upholstery designer for Maharam, where we used 70 mills around the world. Prior to that, I served as head of studio for fashion-designer Jhane Barnes, whose office pioneered the use of computers to interface with the looms, permitting us to create really unique fabrics.
It is our responsibility to know the product’s chemistry and what will happen at the end of its useful life; it's not right to simply design something and say here, have it world!
Which of your former jobs most informs what you do today?
It would be my time at Wolf Gordon. That’s where I really fermented my belief that we have to be responsible for the materials or products that we create and put out into the world. As designers, it is our responsibility to know the product’s chemistry, its chain of custody and what will happen to it at the end of its useful life. We need to be aware of the impact of the entire production process, as well as the end result. It is not right to simply design something and say here, have it world!
When Interface asked me to come on board in 2015, I think it was our shared values that made me uproot my life in New York, close my studio and start anew in Georgia, working for a company in a position that had never existed before. I had all the faith in the world that it was worth it, because of our common concerns.
Those concerns go further than a design’s environmental footprint, though, to embrace its influence on society. An example is Interface’s Human Spaces Report. How would you introduce the report to people who are unfamiliar with it?
I would say that there is a study, led by organizational psychologist and Robertson Cooper cofounder Sir Cary Cooper, that shows how biophilic design has a direct bearing on the way people behave in the workplace. Whether lowering blood pressure or increasing performance, references to nature in design can affect the health of employees and, consequently, the health of the company that employs them.
Offices designed as neighbourhood-like spaces have also proved beneficial to the performance and wellbeing of employees. Why do you think that is?
In a neighbourhood people come together, part, and meet again. Most neighbourhoods are extremely diverse. The people who live there have constant opportunities for stimulation, engagement or reflection time in quiet areas. Neighbourhood-like design in the workplace offers the same opportunities.
What’s really great about these kinds of spaces is that when opportunities for interaction are provided through design, you’re enabling something called ‘the adjacent possible’: until two people get together and exchange ideas, the possibility of any sort of outcome doesn’t exist, but when they do meet, the encounter triggers any number of possibilities. That’s what happens in communities – it’s sort of what communities are all about.
Whether lowering blood pressure or increasing performance, references to nature in design can affect the health of employees
How important are materials in this equation, and how can Interface’s products contribute to community building in workspaces?
Materials are essential. The thought that goes into the choice of materials needs to be in tandem with the design of the overall space. My view is that the floor acts as a blank canvas for a designer’s approach to a project. When it comes to Interface, both our soft and hard modular products support and clearly define spaces, while serving as guiding elements and establishing different moods with texture and colour, uninterrupted by transition strips. Our strategy in developing a product line is based on a total-systems concept. We don’t make one-off, stand-alone collections. We pull colours and textures into the new designs, choosing those that go well with our previous offerings. In that way, we can compile an entire library of options for our customers, complete with a vocabulary of texture, colour and pattern.