Doug Johnston's merry universe

Joy Division

By Anna Carnick

Doug Johnston makes happy work. Over the past few years, the Brooklyn-based multitalent has dedicated his time to crafting rope objects ranging from bags and baskets to less defined vessels, all possessing a singular sort of joie de vivre. Using a unique, layered process of coiling and stitching that he describes as “a cross between throwing a pot and additive sculpting,” Johnston works with his hands and an industrial sewing machine to sculpt cotton cord into vessel-like forms that are stitched together with colorful polyester thread to create embroidery-like patterns. The results feel at once completely plugged into the current zeitgeist and nostalgic—or, as Johnston puts it, both “familiar and unfamiliar.”

The soft-spoken musician-slash-architect-slash-artist-designer remarks that he spent much of his life searching “to find a practice that would incorporate all [my creative] pursuits into one crazy, hybrid career.” In recent years, he’s come to realize that each outlet is just another way of “getting at the same thing, all chasing the same desires.” About seven years ago, he set up shop in a Kensington warehouse studio with his wife and frequent collaborator, artist Tomoe Matsuoka (whom he met at Cranbrook Academy of Art’s architecture department), to launch his rope works endeavors; now he finds he gets to play with many of those interests on a day-to-day basis.

Johnston’s creative dexterity seems to have been with him from a young age. Raised in Tulsa—“I was a skateboarder and played in punk bands”—he recalls that growing up, his family took several road trips through the Southwestern US that had a real impact on his understanding of the world. “We saw ruins of ancient cliff dwellings and surreal canyons and rock formations. I was fascinated by how people inhabited those spaces and created a culture with the materials at hand.” Fast-forward a couple decades, and Johnson’s curiosity for delineating space and exploring materials is still very much front of mind.

We sat down with Johnston to chat about everything from the moment he first knew he wanted to do something creative to his thoughts on the future of the global craft movement—and pretty much everything in between.


Anna Carnick: At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to pursue a creative profession? Was there a specific moment?

Doug Johnston: When I was very young, maybe four or five years old, I noticed a house in our neighborhood that looked a bit different from the others. I asked my mom why it was different, and she told me people called "architects" decide what the houses look like and where the walls go, etc. That was the most amazing thing to me; up until that point, I’d just assumed that houses were like caves or trees—just part of nature. The thought of being able to create and affect space like that was so exciting. I realized I wanted to become an architect.

My mom thought it was cute, but she took it seriously. She taught me how to read floor plans in house magazines, and we’d go look at houses under construction. I also remember at some point my dad said architects have to be able to think three-dimensionally. I asked how I would know if I could do that, and he said, “Imagine a tissue box spinning around in the air. Can you spin it to see all the sides?” I did, and he said, “Yep, you’ll be fine.” Since then, I’ve tried to develop my spatial thinking, and I think that’s perhaps one of the most essential aspects of my creative aspirations.

AC: After graduating with your Master’s from Cranbrook in 2007, you came to NYC. Where did you work prior to launching your own studio in 2011?

DJ: I worked for about two years on various kinds of projects at a small architecture studio. That was right before the recession hit, and I don’t think any of the projects were ever completed. Like most architects at the time, we lost most of our projects when the economy collapsed, but I was very fortunate to find work in an architectural metal shop in Brooklyn. I worked there for about two-and-a-half years, doing shop drawings, project estimates, design, installation, finishing, lots of grinding, sanding, and little bit of welding and machining. The projects were mostly custom stairs for high-end residential projects—crazy curved staircases in celebrities’ apartments on Central Park West. I learned a huge amount from those jobs!

AC: How did you move from architecture to baskets to opening up your own studio? 

Inside Doug Johnston's Brooklyn studio Photo © Michael Popp
It was a pretty gradual evolution of personal work that started in graduate school. I had been working with my classmate, Yu-chih Hsiao, on a series of three-dimensionally woven pavilion spaces, and the process really clicked with me. Being able to shape space so quickly, freely, and improvisationally was a thrill; I loved the idea of transforming a flexible, linear material into something spatial by simply connecting it to itself. That was work I really wanted to continue to explore.

When I moved to NYC, I didn’t have access to large spaces to continue those pieces, so I did smaller works like drawing and hand-knit pieces. I had also been making my own bags, and I loved to sew. When I saw some cotton rope in a hardware store, I thought it would be great to make a bag with it somehow. After some experiments with weaving the rope with my wife, [artist] Tomoe Matsuoka, I came across the coiling method and adapted it to my own interests and aesthetics. I made lots of little bowls and baskets and a bag for Tomoe. That was in early 2010.

I would come home from very stressful days at work, and the sewing was very therapeutic. Friends encouraged me to sell the pieces, but I wasn’t happy with the quality, so I just continued making pieces and improving my skills and understanding of the process. In late 2011, I quit my job and took the little money I had and started a web shop with a few of the pieces I liked most. I thought maybe I would sell one piece a month to help me buy more rope, but—thanks to friends and family spreading the word—it quickly caught the attention of design bloggers. In February 2012, it became my full-time job with about 20 new wholesale inquiries within just a couple weeks. Everything happened very quickly, and I honestly wasn’t prepared. I had to learn a lot about selling wholesale, and selling small objects, but I was surprised by how much my previous work experiences helped with turning my studio into an actual self-supporting small business.

AC: Your work appears at once classic and contemporary. How do you see your work in relation to both traditional handicraft and current aesthetics and practices?

DJ: I don’t consider myself a basketmaker, and I admittedly know little about the craft of traditional basketry. I think of my work in a very general way, in that I’m just working with materials and a lot of the [results happen to be] baskets or basket-like forms. Humans have been making vessels of all shapes and sizes, as well as rope and fabrics, for many thousands of years. It’s an ongoing prehistoric global project, and I’ve chosen to be a contributor.

Aesthetically the pieces are informed heavily by modernist design and architecture. The color on most of the pieces comes from the color of the thread that holds them together, and I don’t edit out minor mistakes or variations in the stitching. In this way, they act both as decoration and the structure of the work, and serve as a record of the pieces’ construction. The formal explorations are done in a mode of thinking that I suppose is along the lines of Noguchi, Hepworth, or Henry Moore, but of course mixed with some postmodern and contemporary influences and tendencies.

Early on, I realized that with this process, my sewing machine was working in a way similar to how most 3D printers work. The additive process can realize pretty much any form, so that was an exciting way to expand my own understanding of the possibilities of coiling. When I started using my sewing machine more like a 3D printer, the forms I was making quickly became more complex and lively. However, the shape of the machine combined with the limitations of the material bring in a lot of constraints that 3D printers don’t have. It’s an analog version of “printing” that is not as focused on precision.

AC: From the outside, the process appears quite meditative. How would you describe it?

DJ: I do find it to be very meditative. While sewing I have to focus on the needle, my fingers, how I’m holding the work, the sound and speed of the machine, the thread tension, the stitch quality, and more, so you really have to get into a zone and not let the outside world distract you. Originally, I listened to music while I worked to further block outside distractions, but as I got better at the process my mind would start to wander even with music playing. Now I mostly listen to podcasts and audiobooks, which is a wonderful combination with the sewing. Some pieces, especially larger ones, are very physically demanding, so I have to take a lot of breaks. This means my focus gets interrupted often, but the podcasts and audiobooks help me stay with things.

AC: Your work is—across the board—quite sculptural. That said, some pieces are far more functional than others. What role does functionality play in your work?

DJ: Only a few of the pieces I make really take a utilitarian approach to their design. These would be the bags and very small pieces like the pencil buckets. The rest are more vaguely functional—or put a humorous spin on utilitarian pieces—but I see all of them as sculptural works really. The baskets are inherently useful in my mind because they are containers and can be put to use around the home or office. The multi-hump vessels are the same, but probably take a bit more creativity to put to use.

I think a lot of our approach to function and utility is influenced by my background in architecture, where there is a lot of pressure to make things ultra functional and efficient while still being aesthetically inventive and attractive. Relative to that world of design, it’s super fun and incredibly freeing to take an odd sculptural shape and suddenly “make it functional” by adding a shoulder strap or tote handles.

When I started using my sewing machine more like a 3D printer, the forms quickly became more complex and lively.

AC: Tell us about your material selection.

DJ: All of the cordage we use is solid-braid, and most of it is 100% cotton. We also use some nylon and occasionally I’ll use another type of synthetic rope if it has a nice color or pattern. Most everything is made in the US. I love the texture and color of natural cotton especially, and when it’s stitched together into a textile it has a wonderful feel. The thread we use for the baskets and smaller sculptural pieces is standard, general-purpose sewing thread, while the bags and larger pieces use a heavier thread that is very abrasion-resistant.

Rope appeals to me because it’s very common, but it’s also an ancient human technology with a long and interesting history. When I was in high school I used to keep hanks of rope in my car “just in case.” It made me feel like my life was exciting and I could potentially get into some emergency situation where I’d MacGyver the hank of rope into some shelter or life-saving device. None of that ever happened, but I love that rope has that potential.

AC: You have a very joyful yet calm color palette. How do you choose your colors?

DJ: Originally it was really just based on the thread colors I could easily find in my neighborhood—navy, red, black, white, beige, grey, olive, yellow—but I loved that they were common colors based on someone else’s assumptions of what would be most useful for mending clothes or home sewing projects. They’re the colors of workwear and home craft projects. We’ve added a few colors [for] variety, but I still like to stick to the basics.

AC: What sort of feeling do you hope your work evokes in others?

DJ: Other than happiness, I don’t know how to describe it. I know the feeling it gives me, which is kind of a warm satisfaction, coupled with newness. A balance between familiar and unfamiliar.

AC: You also cite performance art, music, installation, and photography as major areas of interest. Can you tell us a bit more about your experience in these arenas? How do these other passions feed into your ongoing rope work?

DJ: In addition to architecture, I also studied art (my second undergrad degree), played music in several bands, and did a lot of photography. After art and design, music probably has the biggest place in my heart; I spent a huge amount of time playing music for many years. I’m primarily a drummer, and my favorite part is playing music with others. That taught me a lot about listening and responding immediately and improvisationally to a situation. That’s a skill I’ve been focusing on quite a bit in my design work, and I’m always working to keep sharp.

AC: What’s your take on the ongoing Brooklyn maker phenomenon?

DJ: It’s definitely a real phenomenon, but I suppose it’s hard for me to be objective about it. I love meeting other artists and designers and visiting their studios. We also have people checking out our studio on a regular basis, and it helps to form a great community here. Everyone more or less knows each other, and there’s a huge amount of opportunity for designers/makers/artists, so it’s pretty ideal—with the exception of the very high cost of living in Brooklyn.

We didn’t move to Brooklyn because of the maker phenomenon, we just love the borough and the [Kensington] neighborhood. Many people who visit our studio say they’ve never even heard of the neighborhood before—most creative studios are in Bushwick, Ridgewood, Greenpoint, Sunset Park, or near the Navy Yard—so in a way we feel a bit removed from the majority of artists and designers working in Brooklyn. Because of the very high costs, we’ve been looking into other cities to live and work, but it’s very hard to beat the combination of community, resources, opportunity, and promotion available here. The amount and quality of creative work here is amazing and incredibly energizing.

Objects that reveal their own construction and evidence of human characteristics, such as imperfections and wobbles, allow people to clearly see that another human was involved in making that object

AC: On a global level, we’re in the midst of a serious contemporary craft movement. What do you think it is about handicraft that especially moves people? And what do you predict for the movement’s future?

DJ: It seems that the contemporary craft movement in design came about through a general disconnection with the things that surround us. I think on some basic level, there is a realization that humans make things, but so many of the objects surrounding us do not appear to be made by humans. This is often attributed to a dissatisfaction with mass produced goods, but I think it also stems from a lack of knowledge of modern materials and processes, along with so many people in careers that don’t involve making things. Objects that reveal their own construction and evidence of human characteristics, such as “imperfections” and wobbles, allow people to clearly see that another human was involved in making that object. Maybe it makes people feel less isolated, or maybe people are amazed by the skills involved? I guess it’s different for everyone and for every object.

Handicraft also seems to evoke a sense of nostalgia, which may be invented or connected to a time in which life was supposedly better. I have some of that nostalgia myself, but I also am pretty skeptical of it. I love machines, technology, and inventions that save time and effort. They can make people’s lives much better, and access to tools and technology is access to power. It’s tempting to get romantic about handmade items and old ways of doing things, but we live in a time and place where life is much easier and safer than ever before. To have the choice and ability to support oneself producing handmade craft objects now is a luxury and privilege in the US and many western countries. I try to keep that in perspective at all times.

AC: Are there any upcoming shows or projects we should be aware of?

DJ: I just completed a three-month residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, which was really wonderful and allowed me to play with some new ideas and see my work in new ways. I currently have four pieces in an exciting exhibition at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which is on view through January 2018. I also have some pieces in a great show in Kansas City called Another Country at 50/50 Gallery. I will be showing some work this December at Design Miami with Patrick Parrish Gallery. Tomoe and I are also planning to expand on a collaboration of wearable sculptural bags we did last year.

AC: What’s your biggest goal creatively or professionally for 2017?

DJ: The residency at the Bemis Center really allowed me to open my work to new ideas and forms, and my goal now is to keep that momentum going and adjust my studio practice so that I can continue to explore those ideas and see where they take me. 

Thanks so much, Doug!

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.