Are Pillows the Next “It” Accessory?

by Sara Radin

Animation by Tilden Bissell for W magazine. Pillows by Jiu Jie, Batsheva, Nina Cherie, Emily Ridings, CRCL.EARTH.

This past year, while quarantined, many people took up bread-making. Others started hiking and doing puzzles—many more joined TikTok. I, on the other hand, turned toward a design-based hobby: buying abstract pillows made with upcycled fabrics. Falling down a rabbit hole on Instagram, I came across a sea of artists and designers making pillows and soft sculptures of all varieties. Before I knew it, I had a full blown collection; there was a velvet comb by Rose Greenberg; a green pear by Lorie Stern; and a two-tone, recycled denim cylinder stuffed with shredded fast-fashion waste by Elyse McMahon of LikeMindedObjects.

Multi-colored knitwear, crocheted accessories, and a general DIY aesthetic have been trending for a while now, especially with designers like Raf Simons and Ella Emhoff making blankets and handbags. Artists like Glenn Ligon and Emily Adams Bode have found inspiration in the patchwork and quilts made by Rosie Lee Tompkins. (It's not a pastime solely for art obsessives, either—the trend has moved into the celebrity space thanks to musicians like Dua Lipa.) My particular assemblage led me to wonder, why are artists and designers turning to soft sculptures and pillow-making right now, and what is it about this trend that is so appealing to collectors and consumers stuck inside their homes?

“Comfort and resourcefulness have become imperative in the design process as a new generation of creatives begins to take shape,” said Amanda Farr, Home & Interiors Editor at trend forecaster Fashion Snoops. “Over the past year, we have collectively sought out a sense of peace and control through creation: the creation of objects through craft, the creation of new worlds through gaming, the creation of ourselves through introspection, the creation of change through action.”

New York-based curators Julia Sub and Michelle Le Nguyen, who jointly run ongoing curatorial project Slow Burn New York, believe that the pandemic has forced us to reframe our understanding of comfort. “With the uncertainty of life during Covid-19, there is a lack of daily consolation causing people to seek comfort in new ways in our most immediate surroundings,” they said. Their next young artists’ group exhibition, Anywhere But Here, opening on March 22, also features soft sculptures and works made from recycled materials.

The themes of solace and being soothed are woven through the stories of artists and designers who sought out soft crafts amid the pandemic. Fashion designer Emily Ridings said she started making soothing pillows at the beginning of lockdown—stress inspired the fashion designer to make joyful, comfort-driven objects rather than garments. Emerging brand Dauphinette turned excess printed fabric into pillows, and so did Batsheva Hay, founder of famed prairie dress line Batsheva. She started to make pillows using excess fabric, expanding into home goods for those who didn't want dresses. Gabriela Noelle, a Miami-based artist and designer, had focused on furniture and sculpture until New York-based fashion designer Tyler McGillivary commissioned her to make some throw pillows; using hand-dyed, velvet cushion remnant fabric, she created flower-shaped soft sculptures inspired by her “happy flower logo.” Irina Kaschuba, who makes scarves, capes, and ponchos created neutral-toned pillows from natural fibers and upcycling that could serve multiple purposes, including as meditation aids. Hadley Clark, an artist and sewing educator based in Kansas City, Missouri, used remnants of her other garments to make pillows. Then there’s Shannon Stutenford of So Squish who couldn’t afford new clothes, so she reworked an old piece and wound up making “pillows” to create new wall decor.

But not every artist has only recently begun to turn their attention towards home decor. It was in sixth grade that visual artist Isa Benson, aka “gentle thrills,” first began sewing pillows. With help from her mom, needle puncher Christie Beniston, her pillows became an extension of her whimsical motifs. Expounding on her checker print and slime-like textiles, a creator like Nina Cherie sees her pillows as an extension of the self. And sold under the name Jiu Jie Decor, Jeanette Reza, 27, makes handmade knot pillows, which she sees as playful soft sculptures. DaddyBears started making abstract bears and dolls in 2017, which have now developed into soft sculpture pieces and homeware. Madeline Cortopassi, a student in Chicago, makes Lavender Potion “dream” pillows, which contain herbs like dried lavender, mugwort, and roses. Pillows have become functional art pieces based on her drawings and watercolor paintings.

Meanwhile, in Melbourne Australia, Monique Chiari, an artist and “cushion craftsman,” began pillow-making as a bit of an “absurd obsession” to fill time in lockdown. She learned how to sew deadstock and upcycled fabrics from YouTube, eventually launching a brand named Clumsy Cushion. In 2019, Moe Noza began making organically shaped soft sculptures in response to their struggle with PTSD and chronic pain.

Where does the allure of these pillows stem from? “What makes these soft sculptures so tantalizing to us is the purity in motivation of which we usually deny ourselves,” Farr said. “Individuals are diving deep into their creative wells, both as makers and consumers, and are seeking to recontextualize the limitations of lockdown.”

As curators, Sub and Le Nguyen have seen an influx in textile and soft works in their art community this past year. “A great example of this is pillow work and soft sculpture which, we feel, speaks directly to the current cultural climate and new isolated way of life,” they said. Artmaking, they believe, has largely been a way to explore uncharted emotional territories. In other words, it can be a method for finding outlets and safe spaces to share vulnerable ideas and own difficult or uncomfortable feelings during unstable times.

Additionally, in the last couple years of curating their group art exhibitions and working with the artists in their community, they’ve seen a huge spike in interest in sustainable production, using recycled and upcycled materials in both art and fashion. Upcycling is a longtime practice that has recently entered the mainstream with brands like Burberry and Alexander McQueen jumping on the bandwagon.

According to Sub and Le Nguyen, the trend makes sense since people are inspired by their immediate surroundings. “With most of the world working from home, we tend to be creative with what we already have around us so it just makes sense to re-imagine an old blanket, sweater or pillowcase,” they explained. “There’s a desire and urge to explore softness and how to physically represent it through the things we own and have a strong connection to, because they are symbolic of comfort and security.”

From a psychosensorial perspective, Farr believes playful shapes and otherworldly details inspire our innate curiosity and sense of wonder, prompting us to develop an emotional connection with the objects. These injections of mood-boosting pleasure are counterweights to the paired-down minimalism consumers are gravitating toward in fashion and beyond.

“[The pillow is] a comfort object used to support you while in a state of dreaming, fantasy, and in some ways, detaching from reality,” Sub and Le Nguyen said. The curators wonder if we preserve some of these soft works as artifacts from 2020 and 2021 to be studied decades from now, what will be said about our current cultural state and our artistic coping mechanisms?

We’ll have to wait some time before we find an answer to that question, but for now, one thing is clear: quarantine has sparked a creative renaissance, and soft sculptures and pillows are becoming an accessible and sustainable way for people to make their own art while also bringing comfort into their homes.