Felt, Now And Then

For the past 15 years, felt believed to be the first man-made cloth, known since at least the Neolithic period (9000 B.C.) has been making a comeback. Thanks to intensive experimentation and innovation, felt has transcended its traditional uses to include everything from fashion accessories and costume design to architecture, home furnishings and product design. Fashioning Felt, a comprehensive exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt in New York beginning March 6, will provide a timely overview.

Felt has played an important role for millennia, says Cooper-Hewitt director Paul Warwick. This exhibition will explore its origins and bring the material fully up to the present. The single most significant material for the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, felt was used to make everything from clothing to their flexible, collapsible dwellings known as yurts. Made from a renewable resource, it is a perfect material for our own, green times. Its manufacturing is low-impact and virtually waste-free; it is made simply by matting together wool fibres with humidity and friction. The manufacturing process is readily customizable, and the finished product has a versatility rarely found in other materials: it can be made flexible and translucent or very dense and hard; it can be cut without fraying and molded into three-dimensional forms.

Featuring more than 70 felt works from a range of fields, the exhibition will include historic examples; showcase innovations in handmade felts; present the issue of sustainability through the re-use of waste wool and felt; and explore the recent adoption of felt by a wide variety of architects and designers, from Gaetano Pesce to Tom Dixon.

Design objects on display will include Sren Ulrick Petersen’s Swing Low cradle for PP Mbler, whose cocoon-like shape muffles noise and keeps out drafts; Louise Campbell’s origami-like Bless You chair, which takes its shape from the thick, sculptural quality of the felt; Tord Boontje’s Little Field of Flowers carpet, for Nanimarquina, in which six different leaf shapes are die-cut from felt and woven into the carpet; Concept’s Cell carpet, by Yvonne Laurysen and Erik Mantel for LAMA concept; which features LEDs inserted behind the felt nodes in the carpet; and Felt Rocks, by Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen for molo, a byproduct of a process for hardening high-density industrial felts.

Fashioning Felt runs at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, from March 6 to September 7.