Petra Blaisse’s new book Art Applied reflects on a career of trailblazing and multihyphenate creativity

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Dutch designer Petra Blaisse founded her practice, Inside Outside, in 1991; in the 33 years since, the erstwhile “one woman shop,” as Blaisse described it, has evolved into a multidisciplinary design firm whose commissions range across scales and media to include textiles, interiors, exhibitions, and landscapes. A new book, Art Applied (Mack Books), edited by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, provides a comprehensive overview of Blaisse’s varied work—including early projects that predated Inside Outside—in nearly nine hundred pages.

Blaisse is not a typical designer, and Art Applied is hardly a conventional monograph. The book traces the evolution of her unique practice from the very beginning to its current form. Starting out in 1986, her first freelance design projects for exhibitions, interiors, and gardens were commissions that followed almost a decade of work as an exhibition designer for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Inside Outside didn’t materialize until five years later, when she registered her studio with the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. At the time, she was still working solo and carrying her archives in the back of her car, as she recalled.

collage of work by Petra Blaisse and Inside Outside
Inside Outside, from Art Applied (MACK, 2024)/Courtesy Inside Outside and MACK

The projects are organized in reverse chronological order, a structure which converts reading forward into an experience of digging into the past. The most recent work appears at the front of the book—the 2022 exhibition Inside Outside/Petra Blaisse: A Retrospective at the MAXXI in Rome—while the earliest collaboration arrives at the very end: the Netherlands Dance Theater, Blaisse’s earliest work with Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Hundreds of projects were completed in the span of time marked by those two milestones, and many of them are recorded in this volume. Despite the book’s panoramic scope, collaboration in general, and with OMA in particular, forms a clear through line.

Meanwhile, a series of new collages punctuate the book at various moments. “I felt compelled to make statements about the current time in which we work,” Blaisse reported. One such piece reflects on her studio’s obsession with vital soil, while another “addresses changes in the art world,” she said. The latter image, which appears on the spread immediately following the table of contents, is a flashback to Blaisse’s return to work at the Stedelijk Museum following maternity leave, in June 1981: “My boss Wil Bertheux (1916–2004), had the Rietveld buffet brought up to our department so that I could change Anna’s nappies on it.” The idea of a museum piece serving as a baby-changing table is almost scandalous today, but the collage is indicative of how personal history and creative labors collide throughout the book with an engrossing intensity.

Art Applied follows two other books on Inside Outside: Movements 25%: Introduction to a Working Process (2000) and Petra Blaisse: Inside Outside (2007, edited by Kayoko Ota). Both were designed by Irma Boom, and each is a masterpiece of bookmaking that embodies Blaisse’s distinctive sensibility. Movements was created to accompany the 2000 exhibition of the same name at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, memorable almost a quarter century later for the multistory outdoor curtain that Blaisse installed at the corner of Kenmare and Lafayette streets. The pocketbook is a durable artifact of the temporary installation. Each page is perforated with a pattern of die-cut holes that open windows from one project to another; they also lend the pages an airy, wispy lightness akin to a flowing curtain. The dots reappear in Blaisse’s second book with Boom, published seven years later and this time printed in metallic and fluorescent inks that evoke the textures and polychromatic splendor of a lush garden.

illustration by Inside Outside and Petra Blaisse
Inside Outside, from Art Applied (MACK, 2024)/Courtesy Inside Outside and MACK

illustration by Inside Outside
Inside Outside, from Art Applied (MACK, 2024)/Courtesy Inside Outside and MACK

Art Applied is another product of close collaboration between author, the editors, and the book designer, Zurich-based Teo Schifferli. And like Movements, the catalyst for this book was an exhibition. Following Blaisse’s installation design for several shows at the Institute of the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at the ETH, which Fischli and Olsen codirect, the curators explored the idea of staging a retrospective of Inside Outside. It didn’t take long for the team to realize the enormous scope of their plan: “The three of us looked at each other and admitted it would take years because there is so much work,” Blaisse told AN. But then, “all of a sudden they had another idea: ‘Why don’t you design it … in three months?’”

Inside Outside / Petra Blaisse: A Retrospective was presented in 2018 in the Semper Building, the seat of the ETH, named in honor of its architect, Gottfried Semper. The impressive neoclassical structure was built atop one of Zurich’s most prominent sites at a time when the university was known as the Polytechnikum. As an exhibition venue, however, it left much to be desired: The building is “totally ugly,” Blaisse said. But her visceral response sparked a strong reaction. “We had to influence the architecture because that’s what we do,” Blaisse reflected. “We address the space.” The exhibition presented a selection of 70 projects on a pair of enormous curtains—each 12 meters high and 25 meters long, or about 40 by 82 feet—suspended within the triple-height central hall. The soft curtains animated the stubbornly frozen space. “There was this perfect architectural rhythm,” Blaisse explained, “as the curtains billowed in the draft of the entrance doors.”

Art Applied began to develop in earnest soon thereafter, while the exhibition traveled onward to Milan and Rome, where it was installed at the Zaha Hadid–designed MAXXI Museum in 2022. The first step toward the book was assembling the archive of Inside Outside, a process that entailed organizing “heaps of slides, sketches, and negatives,” Blaisse reported. Gaps in the record were filled in by previous collaborators. “We worked with so many people, and each kept their archives differently,” Blaisse said. “It was a complete hell on earth, but it was also totally fascinating—a process of rediscovery.”

digital illustration of people looking behind a curtain
Inside Outside, from Art Applied (MACK, 2024)/Courtesy of Inside Outside and MACK

Designers tend to be forward-thinking by nature, and that outlook sometimes registers as a suspicion, or even outright rejection of the retrospective framework: Why bother looking backward when the future lies ahead? By contrast, Blaisse clearly savored the opportunity to reflect on decades of creative work. The designer’s voice accompanies each project in the form of a brief text, enclosed in quotation marks, and signed PB. The texts are akin to diary entries in their distinctive mix of reflection and firsthand reportage. They are often humorous and always engaging, as when Blaisse recalls the rapid disappearance of the salvaged-glass chunks that they had installed in a dry streambed within the Rotterdam Museumpark, an early collaboration with OMA/Rem Koolhaas and the landscape designer Yves Brunier (1962–1991), who died three years before the project was completed: “The glass rocks caught every ray of light and turned the river of stones into a twinkling stream, like in a fairy tale,” she wrote. “After a few months, all of the glass rocks had miraculously disappeared—later resurfacing in art pieces and on architects’ desks.”

staging of a large curtain installation
Inside Outside, from Art Applied (MACK, 2024)/Courtesy Inside Outside and MACK

Like the practice it represents, Art Applied resists easy categorization. It bears the hallmarks of a design monograph in its comprehensive scope and significant weight, but it deftly avoids the clichés. It strikes a personal tone where other designers typically opt for distance. The book imparts to its reader the sense of seeing through the designer’s eyes; and in fact, many of the photographs were taken by Blaisse herself. Although architects will find many of the settings familiar—such as the OMA-designed Maison a Bordeaux (1998)—one frequently has a sense of déjà vu as these carefully selected images reveal the subtleties of light, texture, and color that are the focus of her work. Insightful texts, contributed by Charlotte Matter, Jack Self, Penelope Curtis, and Rem Koolhaas, among others, offer outside perspectives that complement Blaisse’s views from the inside. In sum, the book succeeds in capturing the designer’s relentless curiosity and conveying the excitement that comes from discoveries made in collaboration with others—that is, after all, the thread that winds through more than 40 years of work. Is there a name for this subgenre that includes Art Applied alongside the two previous books? With some discussion, Blaisse considered the term “discovery book,” but it would be just as accurate to simply call it a triumph.