Published  04/09/2016

Katie Schwab: ‘I like the idea that works can begin to generate their own history once they enter people’s homes’

Katie Schwab: ‘I like the idea that works can begin to generate their own history once they enter people’s homes’

Keen to learn traditional, craft-based skills, the artist explains why she is drawn to processes where she has a direct hand in production, staying in contact with the things she is making and the people she is working with


Katie Schwab’s practice interweaves personal, social, and craft-based histories, often drawing from marginalised and overlooked traditions of making and working collectively. She has made tapestries, embroideries and furniture, as well as using woodblock printing methods and hand-painted 16mm film. Born in London in 1985, Schwab studied fine art at Goldsmiths College, following which she helped to establish LimaZulu project space, a communally organised home and gallery for artists in a north London warehouse. She left London in 2013 to study at the Glasgow School of Art, and in 2015 was awarded the Glasgow Sculpture Studios Graduate Fellowship. She had a solo show, Together in a Room, at Collective in Edinburgh earlier this year, and recently produced a body of work inspired by 20th-century female printmakers as part of Jerwood Solo Presentations at London’s Jerwood Space, as well as exhibiting at Glasgow Sculpture Studios. She is the 2016 recipient of the Nigel Greenwood Art Prize, for which she is undertaking a three-month residency in a cottage in the Scottish Borders, from where she wrote to me.

Rosanna Mclaughlin: As part of your fellowship exhibition Making the Bed, Laying the Table at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios (GSS), you produced a range of furniture and other domestic items. Can you explain the genesis of this project?

Katie Schwab: Since moving to Glasgow, I have lived in a shared flat and the GSS fellowship coincided with a time of transition for the household. Our lease came up for renewal, the rent was increasing, and we made a decision to move out. Our plan was to move into another shared flat, which would be available in July, around the time that the GSS show would be opening. I moved all my belongings into my studio, and my flatmates and I stayed in friends’ spare rooms in the months leading up to the show.

For a long time, I have been interested in ideas around dweller-control, autonomy and shared space in self-build projects and wanted to use the fellowship exhibition as an opportunity to explore some of these thoughts. My flatmates and I put together a proposal for GSS that would involve working together to design and build a collection of furniture for our future home.

RM: So the outcome of the exhibition was the direct result of your living conditions?

KS: The work we produced was a direct response to the changes in our living circumstances, and to certain needs that had been articulated by the flat as a whole. It is not a comprehensive collection of furniture – there are only two beds, for example – but it is a start at beginning to furnish our new home.

When installing the work, it was important to us that it was arranged with the idea of provisionality and moving house in mind. We didn’t want the exhibition to feel like a showroom, but rather that the works embraced their paused position in between production and use. The work was built using a model of co-production and co-ownership and will go into our shared home: it is not for sale.

RM: In the introductory text to your exhibition at GSS, it says: “The building, designing, furnishing and upkeep of rooms can reveal the values, economies and politics of the people that live there.” What politics are revealed in the interior you designed, and the way you produced it?

KS: For me, the politics exists in the flow between relationships: between the people, the objects, and the histories and futures of the artworks. I wanted to create a space where the hands and voices of others were explored and acknowledged in the way that the show was put together and spoken about. We – my flatmates, Simon and Flo, and I – understand the collection of furniture to be a single work that incorporates multiple authors.

In moving house, we talked a lot about how and why groups of people might choose (or not) to live together, and what constitutes “family”. I wanted this show to explore how exhibition and object-making might provide a space to reflect on autonomy, authorship and ownership, and ways that we might begin to define our own types of families.

RM: Does the fact that your works are often either not for sale, or priced very low by the standards of contemporary art, mean that ownership and use are more important to you than collectibility?

KS: Much of my work is rooted in histories of domestic design, and I am curious about the life that works can have beyond an exhibition. I like the idea that works can begin to generate their own history once they enter people’s homes, and that the changes brought about by use are an inevitable part of their lives. How much a work costs determines the kind of home it is able to go into.

RM: As part of the exhibition at GSS, you worked with your father to produce House, a portrait of his home. How did this come about?

KS: I began this work two years ago while on my MFA. I took a camera to my dad’s house and recorded details of his living space. The footage was put to one side, but this year we restarted conversations about it, and I asked if he would be willing to record some footage to go alongside the shots that I had taken. He agreed and sent me a collection of shots of his house, and, together, we worked on an edit: the resulting video is a pairing of my footage and his.

This piece draws on House: After Five Years of Living (1955), a film that American designers Charles and Ray Eames made of their Case Study House in Los Angeles. The film is composed entirely of still photographs and explores the textures and materials within their home. I worked with my dad in a similar way to document moth holes, the outside toilet and the nettles in his garden: to create a portrait of a space that feels both historical and lived-in.

RM: House: After Five Years of Living is remarkable for the way it is both utopian and tender, pushing the point that it is the way of life that architecture facilitates that is important, above the purity of the design. The camera lingers as much on their modernist spiral staircase as it does on tatty rugs and overfull spice racks. Do you imagine your work as utopian in this way, that you are creating objects to aid a better quality of life?

KS: I am interested in design from the postwar period that embodied such hopeful thinking, but I don’t presume an outcome of “better living” from the objects that I make. I am interested in the capacity of objects to give form to a network of relations, histories and material processes, and somewhere within this is an invitation for a different way of looking at, or thinking about, the world around us.

RM: In addition to the film and the furniture, you painted the walls at GSS in bright blocks of colour and called the work Mural. What is the significance of this work?

KS: A common practice among demolition companies is to knock down a wall of an empty property prior to razing it. This is done to deter squatters, and effectively slices the side off a building, exposing the interiors. Often what remains visible are the colourful blocks of painted kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms and living rooms, making an abstract, open-fronted facade of interiors. Mural is a way to think about this opening up of private space and also to reflect on the history of the mural as a tool to attract public attention to social issues.

RM: The homes you have lived in, and the way they have been lived in, have featured heavily in your work. One of the spaces you lived in was the collectively run project space LimaZulu, in north London. What impact did living there have?

KS: After I graduated from my BA at Goldsmiths in 2008, a group of us moved into a warehouse, which was a long, empty space with parquet flooring and one working plug socket. Together, we partitioned the warehouse into bedrooms and studios, a kitchen, gallery, bathroom and toilet. We bought and found tools and building materials and, together, built walls, shelves, workbenches and mezzanines.

That experience had a huge impact on my understanding of how people might work together to design and construct a home. Despite the challenges and negotiations involved in such an undertaking, I have always valued the agency and determination of the residents to create a space in which they wanted to live, essentially trying to build their ideals into the plasterboard and timber around them.

RM: As part of your solo exhibition Together In A Room at Collective in Edinburgh (2015), you showed the film Dedicated to my great teachers (Becky Lewin, St Catherine’s College, Oxford, Madeleine Ladell, Phoenix Pottery, London, Mia Schwab, London), an ode to female friends, relatives and teachers. Teaching is also part of your practice. As an artist, what is education’s significance?

KS: This work was titled in homage to Anni Albers, a weaver, jewellery designer, teacher, writer and refugee. Albers studied at the Bauhaus and later taught at Black Mountain College and her book On Weaving (1965) is “Dedicated to my great teachers, the weavers of ancient Peru”. In her epigraph, Albers honours the role that education and history has made to her work and this is something that is also important to me within my practice.

A dedication is both a homage and a thank you, and is a way of acknowledging the support and learning that goes into the making of an exhibition, artwork or project. Within my practice, I am constantly learning from others, whether from friends, family members, teachers, students or other artists and designers, and it’s important to me that my work acknowledges this.

I have worked in learning departments in galleries for many years, and I perceive education to exist in spaces where thoughts, knowledge and skills are shared. This is a two-way process, and education is an important and necessary part of my development as an artist. Evening classes and weekend courses have been vital in teaching me craft-based skills, for example weaving and ceramics: skills which are becoming difficult to access elsewhere. As these courses and departments become increasingly threatened with cuts and closures, it feels important to speak out about their value and importance.

RM: For Together in a Room, you made the large embroidery, Sampler. Among the materials listed for that work was “Grandma’s wool”. Can you tell me about the history of this material, and why you used it?

KS: My grandma was born in 1920, in a part of Germany that is now in Poland. As a child, she spent holidays with her grandparents in Dessau. She describes Dessau as a “small market town”, and I imagine they resided not too far from the Bauhaus school [based in Dessau between 1925-1932]. My grandmother moved to Berlin in 1936 and her movements share some similarity to the movements of the Bauhaus school, which also moved from Dessau to Berlin some years earlier. By the time she arrived, the Bauhaus had been closed for three years, but she began studying textile design at another art school in the city. In 1938, her education was cut short because, as she writes in her memoirs: “Jewish students were no longer permitted to attend schools.” In 1939, she moved to England, where she took on au pair work, and, later, work in a factory sewing uniforms for the Wrens [the Women’s Royal Naval Service].

Like my grandma, at the outbreak of the war, many of the Bauhaus students and teachers also emigrated. Josef and Anni Albers went to the USA, and Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy moved to the Lawn Road Flats in London, not far from the flat where my grandparents lived out their retirement.

In the UK, my grandma did not return to formal study, but continued to sew throughout her lifetime and was a keen embroiderer. When she died, I inherited bags full of the wool she had collected over the years, the thread-ends of projects colour-coded into reds, greens, blues and browns. I also inherited many of her sewing manuals, which I see as markers of independent learning, and of her interest in creating embroideries to share with friends and family. I used these manuals to learn the stitches used in Sampler, and the piece is made from the remnants of her wool.

RM: Why did you call the work Sampler?

KS: Historically, samplers are pieces of fabric containing examples of stitches and patterns, which were often passed down through generations as learning tools or as designs to be copied or imitated.

The shapes and forms in Sampler are taken from the work of a number of artists and designers, many of whom were working between the two world wars. The piece can be read as a collection of visual quotes, referencing the colours and patterns in the work of Sonia Delaunay, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Enid Marx, Phyllis Barron, Dorothy Larcher, Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl. I have always been drawn to the rhythm, energy and movement of abstraction within modern design. Recently, I have been reflecting on the ways in which this movement might relate to the movement of bodies and people, and the sharing of visual languages across borders in the postwar periods.

At the time of producing Sampler, I was also researching large-scale tapestries made for the atriums, hallways and libraries of public buildings. I went to view Tom Phillips’s tapestries in the dining hall of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and visited West Dean College in West Sussex, and the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, two of the last remaining tapestry studios in the UK. Tapestry works produced on a large scale involve a slow, expensive and labour-intensive form of production. I was interested in creating a large-scale work for Collective that reflected on these histories of tapestry and design for public space, but which also explored economy in its materials, using found wool and hessian.

In these ways, Sampler is an entry into thinking about modern design, and about exile, economy, public space and memory.

RM: You give what ostensibly seem like abstract patterns, a social and emotive history. Is this a refusal to strip the formal properties of artworks, those things we imagine as abstract, of human context?

KS: To strip my works of the history they belong to would be an act of brutal separation. Objects have played a particular role in my family: my grandparents always said they found it hard to throw anything away. For them, objects took on the histories and stories of people and places, and I often wondered if this was because their lives were marked by displacement and exile.

The exhibition at Collective came about at a time when my family were clearing out my grandparents’ home, after they had both passed away. Many of the things that they had held on to were from the postwar years: objects that incorporated the colours, lightweight materials and technological advances characteristic of postwar modern design. In my grandparents’ lifetimes, a sense of home shifted dramatically from a space “for life” to a space that was provisional, movable and subject to change.

You asked before about utopia, and part of the definition of that word is a “homecoming” to a perfect place. The desire for utopia, then, is related to exile, to being sent away and trying to find a way to return home. I think my practice exists somewhere within these geographical and temporal shifts: trying to find roots in a moving and changing world.

RM: You also exhibited at the Jerwood Space in London, as part of Jerwood Solo Presentations. As part of this exhibition, you hung an enormous, block-printed curtain in the central space.

KS: The curtain is made from a wood block printed on to cotton dustsheets. Block-printed textiles became popular in Britain in the 1920s and 30s, as women set up small industries and businesses in their homes and studios. Around this time, there was also a growth in the number of women running galleries and craft shops promoting the work of other female artists and designers. I am interested in the work of Phyllis Barron, Dorothy Larcher and the Footprints Textiles Workshop, who were using wood blocks to print fabrics for furnishing, textiles and clothing. The curtain is printed using an adapted design by Barron and Larcher called Lines.

This curtain serves as a backdrop to a collection of striped tables and stools, and a video documenting the moving feet of the all-female Deep Throat Choir as they rehearse a cover of Billie Holiday’s Easy Living.

RM: Almost all your work relates to a specific history of production, whether weaving, ceramic, or the woodcuts you used for the Jerwood show. Even your videos are made using 16mm film. Do you consciously reject digital production?

KS: I am drawn to processes where I have a direct hand in production, and where I am in contact with the things I am making and the people I am working with. I don’t reject digital production, but I do make certain decisions about the tools and processes I use, and when I’m in the studio I often move between modes of production. For example, right now, I am writing on my laptop, but also in front of me is my notebook, an electronic typewriter, an embroidery frame and a loom. I work with 16mm film as a drawing tool, but I get this Telecined [transferred from film to digital] and I edit on Final Cut Pro.

Within my work, I am interested in histories of production relating to the workshop, the factory and the home. There are other forms of labour that are also present within my practice which are maybe not so visible – the work of caring, supporting or hosting – types of labour that come from working in a social way. 

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