Observed

Emily is an architect, kite-maker, and textile designer from Brooklyn, NY. She founded the interdisciplinary design studio Haptic Lab in 2009, an experimental practice that explores the sense of touch.


What is your favorite wall decoration in your home?

I have a six-year-old who makes some really great kid art. That’s a big, beautiful part of our home decor. But above my bed, there’s a quilt that I made. And as an artist, you don’t really keep a lot of the stuff you make by hand because of the insane amount of time it takes to produce handmade quilts.

I made a map of the Arctic when I was pregnant with my daughter. And it maps out the extent of sea ice loss through my lifetime from 1979 to 2079. I am very concerned about climate and climate activism, and that’s sort of the driving force behind a lot of what I do. 

It’s a weird thing to have up. Whenever I post about it online, people are like, “It’s really dark and kind of weird that you would do that.” But it’s meant to inspire and light a fire. Each of us has such a fixed and limited time to do something and make an impact.

How would you describe your sense of style?

My friends make fun of me, saying I cosplay Ally Sheedy in Breakfast Club all the time. 

During the pandemic, maternity wear got some heavy rotation. I’ve kind of fallen off the wagon of cool kids style because I think we can just wear maternity pants all the time, and it’s okay. Comfort is very important. 

But style-wise, I would say it’s more a collection of all the cool design things that inspire me or weird things that friends make. Vintage stuff. I’m wearing this really old Hunt Club denim blazer. I’m wearing a dress by a niche fashion brand out of Los Angeles, that kind of thing.

Haptic Lab recently released a very distinctive collection of 12 stuffed creatures representing the constellations of the Zodiac. What inspired those?

Right, we call them Star-Stuffies, and it was a really fun project to take on. We made a constellation quilt about 9 or 10 years ago that’s a map of the night sky. Stars have always been a source of inspiration to me personally, and the ceiling of the Grand Central Station is my favorite place in New York City. 

These drawings are from the first Star Atlas made in 1603. It’s called Uranometria by Johann Bayer. At the time, people didn’t really know what bears looked like, so some of the medieval shapes are very whimsical and goofy. And so, to make those three-dimensional, we used some of the same craft techniques that we used for quilt making.

Fairy tales were a source of inspiration too. My favorite childhood story has always been The Velveteen Rabbit. To make toys that harken back to this antiquated, extremely handmade process, we had to go back to basics. There’s this old way of toy making where you essentially create a wood sculpture then two-dimensional pattern pieces from that three-dimensional model. That’s where a lot of the patterns came from.

Is it true you can’t officially designate it as a “toy?”

Yeah. It’s complicated. Basically, there’s a little-known law in the State of Pennsylvania from 1961 that mandates every single stuffed toy sold in the US be made with all-new material content, which was at that time a sort of sweetheart deal with the plastics industry.

In the ‘60s, poly fibers were being marketed for their hypoallergenic qualities, the inherent safety of plastic that’s so safe that literally, DuPont was running ads with babies wrapped in plastic to show you how great it is. 

Cut to 70 years later, and there’s a microplastics crisis, among other things. But you cannot use recycled material content in stuffed toys because of this law. There are plenty of companies that ignore it. I’m basically using my own little company as the example here. We’re going to try to change the legislation.

Who’s a living creative person you really admire?

There are so many. I’ve been reading a lot about Eileen Fisher right now just because she just retired and is kind of passing on her brand to others. 

As a business leader, she’s someone that I find very inspiring. Her work, fundamentally, is not about trends. It’s about just doing your thing, liking your lane and staying in it, and being true to what you believe in. And she’s really old school, talking about B Corp sustainability when no one was talking about sustainability. 

Also, that company is extremely transparent. One of the difficulties we’re having as a company right now is that we rely really heavily on GOTS organic certification for our fabrics. Unfortunately, the volume of organic cotton that’s being sold in places like India does not match what is actually produced. Straight-up fraud is everywhere in the system. 

As a company, Eileen Fisher was like, “Hey, we want everyone to know this. We’re selling this as organic. We actually can’t prove it to you even though we have these certifications. Even though there’s this certificate system in place, we can’t trace our supply chain back. We can only trace 17% of it.” 

They let their customers know. I trust those kinds of companies. So we’re trying to figure out our relationship with cotton right now. But knowing that they kind of put themselves out there and decided to be vulnerable as a really big company is pretty inspiring.

You’ve been very transparent about your journey to get B Corp status. What advice do you have for other companies that want to go down that track? 

I talk to people all the time who say, “We want to be a B Corp.” And I tell everyone just to do it, just take the assessment. You might surprise yourself.

The hardest part is just to take that initial assessment, to take the questionnaire. It takes a full day to do it. It’s a ton of work. But once you get your answers lined up, you start to look at some of the things that you might be doing as a brand and think, “Oh wait, there’s a lot of things to talk about.” And you see all the room for improvement, which is why I’m a huge fan of B Corp. 

I know there are companies out there that probably don’t deserve to be B Corps, which is a hot topic right now within the community. But you know what? It’s fine if Nestle wants a seat at the table because they can open doors to lobbying efforts that other brands can’t. 

So, it’s a mixed bag. But for small businesses, it seems impossible. Haptic Lab is very small. There are only four of us, six if you count our helper team members. It’s a lot of work to take on as a small business. But it’s important to me because you can’t just say you’re a good company. You have to provide evidence, and I feel the B Corp platform is the most robust microscope you can put yourself under, right?

What’s an under-the-radar trend that the clothing industry should pay more attention to?

Circularity. Take-back programs. A lot of people are already doing this, but I think we’re going to start to see it with bigger brands.

I’m wearing a vintage thing that’s been around for probably 40 years. When it was initially made, what are the intentions behind that? It goes back to what materials are being used, where the materials come from, and the entire journey it takes.

Circularity is about making something not for a season but for decades. That’s a huge shift, but it’s coming. Brands are going to have take-back programs, where you effectively sell the thing you bought back to the company you bought it from in exchange for a discount. Patagonia, for instance, has a really great worn wear program.

People are realizing they don’t want their clothes to become garbage. And the brands want to control the secondary market, because sites like The RealReal are already ahead of the game making money off their products.

You’ve been invited to go back and teach a class in architecture school, and it can be anything you want. What would it be?

Oh my gosh. I mean, I really, really love diagrams, and there was a design fundamentals course that I taught as a teaching assistant. That’s really useful information for architects. 

I’ve been helping out at my kids’ school right now, doing some website, social media stuff. I feel young people probably already know that no one’s giving you the instructions anymore. You just have to go and learn how to do it. 

A big part of that is just being intellectually flexible and being able to put yourself into different software or ideas or settings and be able to organize those thoughts. My husband is a college professor. He teaches English, and his two cents on education is that he’s basically just trying to help people develop their bullshit detector.

What’s your favorite outdoor space?

The Rockaways. I love winter beach time. You’re in the city but it’s just very desolate, nobody’s there, and I like being at the edge of something. Just being by the water and the edge of the city.

Do you ever listen to music while you work?

Yes. It’s funny, we have a shared Spotify at the studio, but everyone’s taste is totally different. Our algorithm for determining what we want to listen to is just really confused. I’m a big fan of Big Thief and the whole genre of Sad Girl Freak Folk.

What’s your preferred place for takeout?

I live in Bed-Stuy, and my favorite place is Trad Room, a Japanese restaurant on Malcolm X Boulevard. The food is next-level crazy. I like it because my six-year-old also likes it, so it’s not a stretch to figure out what everybody’s going to eat. 

It’s a super creative kitchen, but during the pandemic they did so much takeout they added burgers and sushi rolls, stuff like that. It totally worked, they just knocked it out of the park. 

What’s a famous piece of entertainment everybody loves but you just can’t get into?

I can’t watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. My husband loves it, and he’s a little bit like Larry David too. It makes me so uncomfortable. My father-in-law’s the same way. He can’t watch it, either, yet we find ourselves deeply connected to someone who has that sense of humor.

For instance, the other day he told this 10-minute story about how he was convinced someone was following him, and then confronted the person who we thought was following him. And this person was definitely not following him. My husband has these kinds of comic, cosmic experiences all the time!

Was Haptic Lab always going to be the name of your brand or were there other options in the running?

My thesis project coming out of grad school was called the Haptic Theater of Cruelty, which is an allusion to Antonin Artaud’s piece on theater called The Theatre of Cruelty. I actually revisited some of the writing that I’d done back then about that project, and it’s exactly what the studio became.

As a student, I also did a bunch of experimental gloves that you would wear when you met somebody for the first time. Haptics deals with the sense of touch, and the hands really are the mode of interaction to design things that explore physical connections.

It’s funny how, without even meaning to, my business kind of reflects what my academic pursuits were. There’s always going to be something haptic.

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