“My wife and I share a cozy 200sf space in the Kensington area of Brooklyn, which is also where we live. It’s one unit in a space shared with about 5 other local artists, who are all super friendly and the general studio vibe is perfect. My wife Tomoe (Matsuoka) makes furniture-like pieces and she’s currently working on a commission for a small puppet theater for kids. The space gets kind of crazy when we are both working. Since making the stitched rope pieces has become my full time job, most of the time the studio is arranged for that work. In taking photos I had planned to arrange everything neatly and compose things in a thoughtful, designerly way, but I chose instead to show the comfortable bit of chaos that I work amongst daily. We dream of someday having a studio with separate woodworking, metalworking, sewing, and work areas, but for now this space has been really great. I use four desks.”
Born in 1979 in the west Texas desert and raised in Tulsa, OK, Doug Johnston lives and works in New York City. After graduating from Drury University with undergraduate degrees in Architecture and Studio Art, Doug later earned a Master of Architecture Degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Professionally he has worked as a designer and project architect in several architecture studios, as a professor of architecture and design, as an architectural metal fabricator, as a freelance photographer and digital model builder, and as an artist assistant. His work has been presented in numerous exhibitions around the United States and in online journals and he has served as a guest critic and lecturer at several universities.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
DOUG JOHNSTON: I usually get to my studio mid-morning after answering emails at home or running a few errands. I do administrative work or begin sewing. I have two machines now, one set up for bags, one set up for baskets. I put on my headphones and get some music going and sew for a couple of hours. I take breaks to answer emails, check FB/Twitter/blogs or eat. I usually work at studio from 9 or 10am to about 9 or 10pm because I am very busy lately!
I’m really glad I spent so many years straddling several creative disciplines.
FYD: What is your favorite sentimental object at your workspace and why?
DJ: I have a lovely briar pipe (see top photo of desk #1) that brings me instant comfort. I bought in on a whim at a drug store in college. It was about $60, which was not in my budget, and I have never smoked out of it. In architecture school I would spend long, delirious hours drafting and model building and I had a habit of chewing on my pens so this was a more classy alternative I guess. The pipe feels perfect in my hand, it’s perfectly balanced and a beautiful little object. It keeps me from grinding my teeth when I’m stressed out and helps me focus when I am sewing or drawing.
FYD: What is your favorite or most required work tool?
DJ: I’ve grown to love industrial sewing machines and the two machines I have are amazing and beautiful. They are pretty common models as far as zigzag machines go, but every machine has its own personality and quirks so you really start to feel connected to them; they are your working partner.
FYD: How did your native West Texas and rearing in Oklahoma influence your aesthetic?
DJ: That is something I’m still figuring out. I spent a lot of time outdoors growing up, and there is so much wide open outdoor space in that part of the country. Even the downtown area of Tulsa has a lot of wide open space and lawns. I think it affects your experience of time passing and your relations with other people. My drawings and rope pieces are the result somewhat meditative actions involving the continuous drawing or sewing of lines, sometimes for hours. There’s some relationship between these actions and the long expanses of space and rolling hills in the area I grew up. My family and friends back home are laid back, friendly and welcoming — the people are generally pleasant and warm. This attitude reflects in my design and aesthetic sensibilities as well. When I began working in the often uptight NYC design world I definitely felt a little out-of-place.
FYD: You tap into various disciplines. Is this how your mind works…you don’t settle for one medium or method?
DJ: That is definitely how my mind works. For years I struggled with having so many passions, interests and outlets. I was never able to make much progress in any of them. I’ve always had a gut feeling that there’s some sort of singular way of existing that could somehow encompass all of my interests and I was always scheming utopian projects or lifestyles as a result. In recent years, my dedication to the group was stifling the individual efforts to a certain degree. It was a frustrating way to exist. I pared down my activities so that I could focus. I still play music, draw, build, design, take photos, and research a wide variety of subjects, but I chose to focus on just one or two things. The result is that the variety of background experiences and knowledge have informed my work in surprising and rewarding ways and I’m really glad I spent so many years straddling several creative disciplines.
There is a desire to shape the world around me and the nests and baskets go after that idea in a simple and straightforward way.
FYD: Your most recent project, based on ancient ceramic coiled pots and basketry, involves handmade bags and totes. How did you first learn about this technique and decide to introduce it?
DJ: I was telling my wife that wanted to make a bag out of the cotton rope I had seen in local hardware stores and she showed me the basketmaking techniques she learned in school growing up in Japan. While the results were beautiful, the process wasn’t what I was looking for. Researching Native American coiled baskets, I came across some videos on YouTube showing how to sew rope and fabric into coiled baskets with a sewing machine. The process was a natural extension of the drawing, weaving, and knitting I had been doing.
I altered the process to fit my material and aesthetic interests and made several baskets and a bag for my wife. I improved my skills and started working with better materials, and made some larger pieces. At the time I was working at an architectural metalshop and worked with 3D printing technology, which opened my mind to trying new forms and shapes with the coiled rope pieces. I launched my webshop (in 2011) with the idea that I might sell a few pieces to help pay for materials. The pieces were blogged on a few great sites and the exposure snowballed more than I ever imagined.
FYD: Your Tube is a knitted piece using enough yarn to adorn the human body. Would one feel trapped or is it pretty flexible?
DJ: It’s definitely tight-fitting and a constricting, but it’s so soft, warm and flexible that sometimes its just what you want. On a cold winter evening its great to get inside the tube, flop onto the couch and watch a movie.
FYD: In your Nests collaboration with Yuji Hsiao you seem to be drawn to items (like your current baskets) which encase or house.
DJ: I have always been a spatial thinker and wanted to be an architect from an early age. There is a desire to shape the world around me and the nests and baskets go after that idea in a simple and straightforward way. There is a great sense of gratification I get from making something I can get inside, that surrounds my body, or that I can climb onto or into. Being able to make those pieces or spaces from commonplace flexible materials added others layers of interest that Yuji and I shared and that we both continue to explore.
FYD: What is the perfect Nest for you?
DJ: I don’t know of a specific place or space, but I think it comes about after combining simple elements together into something with its own welcoming personality. The process makes it meaningful, but it’s not too fussy.