March 26, 2018

5 Questions With… Kelly Harris Smith

Kelly Harris Smith. Photography by Bob O’Connor.

Knowing everything there is to know about a material is a very useful skill in the design world. Kelly Harris Smith is one of those experts, and her primary subject is wool felt. She co-founded FilzFelt, a manufacturer that translates its varied qualities to interior applications. When the company was acquired by Knoll in 2011, she stepped in to lead the new division’s design department. Now an independent creative director, she continues to work for leading brands on solutions that make use of natural and sustainable materials. Flying solo also gives her a chance to think outside the box, on projects such as a site-specific installation during WantedDesign 2017 in New York. We picked her brain about the industry.

Interior Design: What are some of your secrets to being successful as an independent designer? 

Kelly Harris Smith: Having an architectural background comes in handy. I am able to understand scale within a space and translate that knowledge to some of my products that are designed specifically for interior design applications. 

I’ve figured out when to ask for help and when to take on projects alone. If I’m not an expert in something, I don’t try to pretend I am. My studio is a mess, but I’m quite organized when it comes to projects and deadlines. I use the task manager Asana to set deadline dates and sub-tasks within projects. 

ID: What is it like working with wool felt, and how do you believe the material will be used in future applications? 

KHS: I’ve been working with wool felt for almost 15 years and it’s very near and dear to me. I love its structural qualities and that the edges can be left raw, without the need for finishing. I think felt, both wool and PET, has gained a lot of traction in workplace design as an acoustic material, but wool felt is also an 100-percent natural, sustainable, and biodegradable material that designers feel good about specifying. It was one of the earliest textiles (think Mongolian yurts, boots, slippers, clothing). I think it’s come a very long way since then and interior and industrial designers have come up with some incredible uses for this material in interiors that are both visually and functionally successful. 

Dreamcatchers by Kelly Harris Smith, installed in Brooklyn during WantedDesign. Photography by Francis Dzikowski.

ID: What are a few recent projects? 

KHS: I’ve consulted on material research for several furniture and textile companies and have a few collaborations in the works with companies that use natural, sustainable, and recycled materials. I am working on some prototypes to try my hand at furniture and accessories and will show these at WantedDesign in Manhattan in May, and hoping to partner with manufacturers to produce these longer term. I’m also about to open an early education art and design studio in Boston, as I feel strongly that design should be taught or at least explored earlier than college age. 

ID: Which projects are you most proud of and why? 

KHS: It was an honor and a privilege to work with Erwin Hauer, who spent a lifetime exploring a singular vision expressed through a variety of materials and forms. The project I worked on with him on was in leather, and his continued explorations in different materials have inspired me to stay true to my own design tenets and styles while I explore new materials and ways of designing. 

Dash Hanging Panel for FilzFelt. Photography by Bob O’Connor.

ID: What excites you most about your area of the industry right now? 

KHS: I think there’s this sense of community among architects, interior designers, and industrial designers that didn’t used to exist. I love the willingness to share with each other, whether picking someone’s brains about their experiences; seeing, via social media, what they ate for breakfast or where they’ve traveled; or actual collaborations on product collections. I’m flattered to be regarded as a matchmaker among my friends and local design community. I love connecting people and setting them up to learn from each other. 

Also, as resources become more limited and more expensive, I’m excited to brainstorm with manufacturers about new materials and products that use offcuts, remnants, and recycled materials as the ingredients. Combining two materials to come up with a new hybrid is super exciting to me. 

Dart Block Acoustic Wall Tile for FilzFelt. Photography by Bob O’Connor.
Square Hanging Panel for FilzFelt. Photography by Bob O’Connor.
Stripes Floor Coverings for FilzFelt. Photography by Bob O’Connor.
Percentages by Kelly Harris Smith is an ongoing series of stitched paper prints composed of office supplies.
Percentages was originally designed for the Nasty Women exhibition to raise awareness about gender inequality in the workplace.

Recent DesignWire