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Petra Blaisse: Choreographer of Space

The designer Petra Blaisse effortlessly combines opposites. In her works, she not only addresses the boundary between inside and outside, but also succeeds in bridging the gap between poetic forms and hightech with her research for the Solar Curtain. For this project she works with engineers and textile experts from all over the world. Kayoko Ota describes the designer’s working methods, research, and self-concept.

When designers create space, they might be aiming for an aesthetic organization of things. Or satisfying practical needs with a tactful setting. Or just making things fun for the people in the space, through interaction. Beyond beauty or function, design can also be surprising, witty, or emotional. In designer Petra Blaisse’s work, design can make the user discover unexpected relationships — and have a good time in the process.

Beyond beauty or function, design can also be surprising, witty, or emotional.

Blaisse both creates interiors and works in landscape architecture. She organizes inside and outside space with nonarchitectural materials — typically textiles or plants. It is quite unique for the same person to work in these two territories, but with Blaisse it makes sense. What she is committed to, after all, is to make all the elements in space — inside, outside, or in-between — relate to one another through her intervention, and instigate interaction and fun. “Design is a series of decisions that have to answer a problem that has to be solved,” she says.

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“Curtains” and “gardens” are clever — if perhaps simplistic terms — for her professional territories. The curtain is one means of organizing her interiors, while she also deals with horizontal planes. Thanks to the creative ideas and innovations that she has accumulated through far-reaching and often laborious experiments, her curtains now play an impressive variety of roles and functions in space.

The curtains are a soft, sinuous, and warm contrast to the solid structure of architecture. Blaisse’s curtains create movement interacting with light, sound, wind, or the human body. Often as large as an entire wall, the curtain can be an effective divider of programs in a space, creating different atmospheres on each side or allowing for different functions; or it can be an effective connector and separator of interior and exterior. And even a major element of architecture as-signed with an important task in space. Blaisse fondly conducts experiments to weave technical innovations with stories that she extracts from the context.

Blaisse’s curtains create movement interacting with light, sound, wind, or the human body.

Garden — or landscape design — is a breathing connector of architecture and its surroundings. Using plants and objects, Blaisse creates settings for various experiences in the open air: for a fluid transition between interior and exterior, for leisure, or to be viewed from the inside. Often designed to work as public spaces, Blaisse’s gardens can gradually infiltrate architecture and create a dialogue. It can encourage prison inmates to activate their bodies and minds. Or it can offer pedestrians a cultural or educational program.

This fertile soil of “curtains and gardens” that Blaisse has cultivated over her career has also been nourished by longtime collaborations with architects, most notably Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Blaisse and OMA have been working together over decades, since Blaisse started as a designer. Together, they developed ways of thinking architecturally — design thinking in the form of architecture — that allows for the spaces inside and outside to be profoundly enriched. However, the work of Blaisse and her studio Inside Outside— founded in 1991 — has been increasingly recognized with solo commissions ever since. Symbol for the recognition of Blaisse’s works as “architectural” was the invitation to represent the Netherlands with a soloinstallation in the Dutch pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale for Architecture.

Her strength comes partly from the research and the experiments she conducts as an important process of creation.

Restoration works, urban planning projects, public parks, art commissions and designs of private spaces have become part of her studio’s daily business. And with the transformation of the historical Sonneveld House in Rotterdam (with temporary interior / exterior intervention in 2015), Blaisse’s mirrored floors exacerbated the essence of the architectural intent, while also commenting on its museological context.

So her strength comes partly from the research and the experiments she conducts as an important process of creation. Blaisse recently showed me a variety of undulating swaths of textiles, woven from various fibers, including a metal thread that conducts electricity. They were prototypes of a “solar curtain” that makes use of the sun’s energy over a building façade. For years, Petra Blaisse and her studio Inside Outside, the Textielmuseum Tilburg and technical experts from Solar Fiber have been working on it to overcome tough technical problems. And this is just the latest of the challenges she has been making since the beginning of her career. The fluidity, warm response, witty dialogue, and fun that Blaisse’s work produces are often the outcome of her constant experimentation; her permanent trial and error.

Design is a word that often seems too conventional or limiting to define what Blaisse does.

Design is a word that often seems too conventional or limiting to define what Blaisse does and achieves. After all, she has created and successfully expanded a domain that transcends the conventional notions and categories of architecture, inside and outside.

 
Petra Blaisse, born in 1955, studied art in London and Groningen and worked at the Department of Applied Arts at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 1986, Blaisse began her career as a designer in the fields of architecture, exhibition design, theater, and landscape architecture. She has created an impressive array of indoor and outdoor installations around the world with her Amsterdam-based design studio, Inside Outside.
Kayoko Ota lives in Tokyo, where she has worked as a curator, writer, and editor with a focus on architecture. She was a member of AMO, a think tank for creatives in Rotterdam, and has realized a number of research-based exhibitions and publications. She was also deputy editor of Domus magazine in Milan and in 2014 she was the commissioner for the Japanese contribution to the Architecture Biennale in Venice. Ota is a lecturer at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. As the editor of the book published in 2007 about Petra Blaisse, she is especially familiar with her work. For On Display Ota portrays the designer and presents some of her projects.