PHOTOGRAPHY by Michael Popp

Meet the Maker-Doug Johnston

Born in the West Texas Desert and raised in Tulsa, OK, this trained architect is now creating vessels and sculptures by sewing braided rope on his vintage Singer sewing machine
Posted in Meet the Makers | Posted on by lianna | COMMENT

Doug Johnston
Hometown: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Current Location: New York City
“I want to allow humor or quirkiness to be seriously beautiful”

Where do you find the inspiration for your work?

It comes from many places. With the rope pieces it primarily comes from the process itself – shapes and forms are often informed by surprises that pop up while working. I am also inspired by free-form or traditional masonry structures, work by ceramic artists and contemporary basket weavers, and often by forms that I see in nature. My background is in architecture and so much of my work is inspired by buildings and construction methods that I have seen over the years.

How did you get started in this field/ industry?

I wanted to be an architect when I was a very young child and in hindsight I see that I have always had a desire to shape or build the world around me and architecture was the best fit. That desire, interpreted in various ways over the years, took me on a path exploring architecture, but also art, photography and music since I was a teenager. I studied art and architecture in university and graduate school, worked in architecture offices for years while exploring my own projects and ideas on the side. Finally about a year ago, I decided to really jump fully into my own work and quit my job. It has been going well so far and I’m having a great time!

Tell us about your design process.

Typically I will be working, sewing away, and something happens that gives me an idea. I usually stop and sketch out the idea and that brings up more ideas. Its important to get them all out on paper when they are fresh and while they are freely flowing. I keep a little sketchbook in my back pocket or in my bag and I’m always jotting down little ideas or notes. When I get a moment or opportunity to create something new I typically reference my sketches and see which one jumps out at me the most and try to make it. I might make a few versions before I feel satisfied. Sometimes I sit alone in the studio for hours, just sitting there thinking, and then boom! an idea hits and I have to make it immediately. I think those long hours of sitting and thinking are so crucial for me, they can be very fruitful.

How has your design process changed since your started?

For the rope pieces it hasn’t really changed much, except that it moves along more quickly now. Its always been very immediate and hands-on, which is very satisfying. Before I got into work with these types of materials I would get an idea, sketch it on paper, then make digital models of it, typically in Sketchup or Rhino or autocad, then start building it and make adjustments to the design along the way. I’m a firm believer that designing and thinking are physical, action-oriented processes; my work is a physical thought.

What is your favorite material to work with?

I guess its pretty obvious that I have fallen in love with braided rope and cord. I will probably never get tired of the way it looks, feels, moves and sews. But honestly my favorite type of work is probably metalwork. I worked in an architectural metal workshop for a few years and it is so fascinating. I am a complete novice at all of it, as it takes quite a bit of skill and knowledge that can only come about through years of practice. Welding is magical and zen-like when you see the metal melting in tiny pools before your eyes. Not to get all romantic about it, but it’s incredible. In the future I would love to have a little metal workshop.

How does your personal style influence your brand/ company/ products, etc?

This is something I am still trying to figure out. I get the feeling that people who know me or meet me could probably answer this better than I could, or articulate it better. There is a balance between plainness and weirdness, between exploration and restraint, and acceptance of wobbles and blips. I want to allow humor or quirkiness to be seriously beautiful.

Where do you imagine you’ll take the company next?

Several directions are being pushed currently, as is typically the case. The sculptural pieces are getting larger and more ambitious, while I am adding new functional basket and bag designs. There are several collaborations in the works, which is always exciting. There is always non-rope work happening in the background, which will present itself more in the near future.

Who would be a dream collaborator?

There are many, but my wife, Tomoe Matsuoka, is probably highest on the list. I think her work is so brilliant. We are both designers/artists pursuing our own things, but our ideas and aesthetics sometimes overlap in exciting ways. We’re hoping to work on several new pieces together in 2013.

What colors/ patterns are you drawn to right now?

Color and pattern have become secondary or background considerations for me over the past few years while material, process, forms, ideas, or simple gestures tend to be more of my primary interest. For the past 10 years I have been doing many loose drawings and sketches of parallel lines. I love the patterns and effects that emerge from that process and physical act, and it’s something that is carried through in the stitched rope pieces.

What’s one tip you would give to people getting into this business?

Work hard, always practicing, listening to your work, making, observing. Then work harder!

Who do you see as an innovator or who do you look up to in this field/ industry?

Over the past few years I have been watching Minneapolis-based ROLU. They have been blowing my mind over and over again. Their works span landscape architecture, land art, furniture design, installation, art history, social practice and more. This year they’ve been so prolific, I can’t keep up with them. They are champions of aesthetic experience in every sense, constantly mining the past for forgotten gems of art and design history; forging their own hybrid practice.


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