An Interview with Kari Pei, product designer
Since the first phase of the elevated park opened in 2009, the High Line has become one of New York City’s most visited tourist destinations. So, when a cousin traveled to the Big Apple from Omaha in mid-2016, Kari Pei naturally took her family member to the former commercial rail spur, whose three phases weave a mile and a half through well-known Lower West Side neighborhoods like Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.
When she is not working in Interface’s LaGrange offices, Pei, who joined the company two years ago as the lead product designer, spends much of her time on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Although the longtime New Yorker was on very familiar terms with the High Line in both its before and after states, the excursion with her cousin proved revelatory all the same. As the afternoon waned into the golden hour, “People were just streaming onto the area—locals coming from their offices and tourists thronging,” Pei remembers. “It brought such a vitality to the park, and it underscored the enduring importance of our connection with nature.”
That connection is known as biophilia, which posits that humans have an innate attraction to our natural environment. On the High Line, park goers move with unflagging curiosity from a swath of grasses to a glade of trees to an elevated prospect. In witnessing these scenes of urban hiking last summer, Pei also saw first-hand why we seek out primal landscapes to begin with: each has its own calming or invigorating effect that the world of buildings and computer screens simply cannot muster.
As tourist jaunts go, so too this summer High Line pilgrimage concluded with picture taking. But again Pei drew distinctive meaning from the experience. “As I photographed shadows of leaves on the wood planks, I thought, ‘This is going to be beautiful carpet,” she says.
The shade from a tree canopy definitively appears in Shading™ and Glazing™, two of seven styles in Pei’s forthcoming Global Change™ carpet tile collection. In Shading, foliage appears as positive shapes against striations of texture that evoke dupioni silk. Pei explains, “That background is the same pattern you find in Glazing, so the two designs integrate visually and texturally.” Glazing also features a striated background, although in this style the stripes are more geometric and densely laid.
Pei did not hesitate to insert overt references to nature into the collection, her first global project for Interface. Throughout her career, the textile designer has achieved renown as a champion of the environment, and she says she joined Interface after a decade with Wolf Gordon and several years freelancing for high-profile brands like KnollTextiles and Starwood, precisely for the carpet company’s own leadership in that realm. “Interface does everything in its power to turn the negative of industry into a positive,” Pei explains. “You see that in reducing virgin material in the supply chain, in the habitat reclamation taking place around our manufacturing facilities, and in the science that is extracting atmospheric carbon in the chemistry of our products.” Global Change extends that mission by employing a solution dyed Universal™ nylon 6,6 yarn system that boasts a 1:4 carbon dioxide output and 75 percent recycled content. It is also remarkably lightweight, thereby reducing the ecological footprint of shipping.
Interface’s enthusiastic embrace of biophilic design goes hand in hand with this work of turning negative into positive. As Pei describes it, “We have an ongoing mission to use science to create a product that not only does no harm, but actually benefits the human condition in the built environment.” By reminding people of the natural world, biophilic carpet tile can boost the well-being of the building occupants using it.
Global Change is not biophilic for its foliage imagery alone, but also for its configurability. Pei returns to the High Line to illustrate this point: the park’s various landscapes successfully draw visitors along because plants and hardscaping are not mutually distinct; rather, materials interlace just as a coastal forest might meet the ocean in a transitional zone of scrub and grassy dunes. Carpet tiles can embody these transitions, and the interchangeability of the Shading and Glazing patterns allow one to flow into the other.
Both patterns’ striated textures expand the opportunities for mixing. Pei has put those various lines in the forefront of the three gradiated base textures called Progression™ I, Progression II and Progression III. “These are the foundational faces in Global Change,” she explains. “By coordinating the patterns with Shading and Glazing, you can create a monolithic floor in one area of an interior while using the leaf patterns to designate wayfinding or a gathering spot.”
The two final face styles in Global Change are again figural patterns. Raku™ and Ground™ have a similar visual point-counterpoint relationship as Shading and Glazing, though the pair resembles dried earth. They are squares that install non directional, whereas Shading and Glazing are 25 cm x 1 m planks. Global Change’s six organic color palettes add another layer of options to the collection.
Because there is complementarity between the patterns and hues of Global Change, Pei refers to the entire collection as a flexible system across various price points. All seven styles could be specified on a single project, combining to create zones and pathways with fluid transitions across the range.
Striking that careful balance between individualization and integration has inspired Pei to apply systems thinking to her ongoing projects at Interface. “Instead of treating an individual collection as a one-off effort, you have a growing portfolio of projects,” she explains, an outlook that has a lot in common with the phased opening of a project like the High Line. Her designs currently underway for 2018 harmonize with the patterns and colorways of Global Change accordingly. Besides promising even more variety to the interior architect or designer, “this translates Interface’s sustainability mission to merchandising,” Pei says. “As discrete spaces within a workplace change over time, we can offer solutions that minimize disruption to the larger interior and help reduce costs because a full swap-out of product is not needed.”