I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the most fascinating and talented people living in NYC back in June. The Tulsa born designer and artist, Doug Johnston, opens up to me about how his wonderful line of sewn creations came to be.
Interview and photographs by Jennifer Latour
Additional images by Michael Popp, courtesy of Doug Johnston
Jennifer Latour: You have achieved so much in your young age, were you always a creative mind?
Doug Johnston: I remember being in a car with my mom back in Tulsa, I was 4 or 5. We passed a house that looked so different, it was kind of a Colonial Spanish style, and I asked the question to her “Who decides how the houses are like?” and she responded “Those are people called architects”. I asked, “So they can choose where the walls go and make it look how they want?” she said yes and my imagination took over. I knew then I wanted to become an architect.
Where did it all start with the weaving, knitting and sewing?
I tried to teach myself to sew in college but failed over and over again. When I graduated I bought myself a cheap sewing machine and finally figured out how to get it make basic stitches. I loved it and made a few of my own bags and some random other items. In 2007/2008, I learned knitting from a combination of my wife and our friend and youtube. I just really wanted to learn, but ended up making a few things that were related to my previous work. I had done some stuff with a classmate in grad school where we took plastic irrigation tubing and started wrapping and weaving the tubing around a lumber frame to make these pavilion spaces. They were super lightweight and you could take the frame out to move them around with a group of people. You could also take them apart to re-use the materials and make another. Through that I learned I loved working with flexible linear materials – to connect them in simple ways to create a 3 dimensional objects. And that’s what got me into knitting because that’s even simpler, there’s just one material and one continuous line. There’s a very pure aspect to it that’s so straight forward. I love being able to read the history in the object and see how it was created.
You moved to NYC and worked in an Architectural firm. How did you end up where you are now?
I started out doing these meditative line drawings on my commute to the architectural office where I worked. I think they were a direct response to the stress of grad school, my job and moving to New York City, which was way more intense than any place I had lived before. Then the economy crashed in 2008 and I lost my job at the architectural firm and started working at a metal shop in a navy yard which was amazing but also very stressful. This was at the same time I was knitting, so I guess I was really looking for ways to zone out and de-stress. I had been making my own bags from patterns for a while, and I realized the part that I really loved was sewing – making stitches with the machine. In late 2009 I saw some cotton rope in a hardware store and thought it would be great to make a backpack with it. My wife had learned basic basket weaving in elementary school in Japan and she showed me how to weave the rope into little bowls. The process and results didn’t really click with me, so I thought I would look into coiled basketry. My parents in Oklahoma had a small collection of baskets from around the world and many of them were coiled construction and really beautiful. I found youtube videos of crafters making little coiled bowls on their sewing machines with fabrics scraps and cord, and that’s where it clicked for me, I just modified it to my own aesthetic tastes. Each piece was like a little building, but also a potentially useful object. There were ties to masonry construction, dome-building, ceramics, fashion, art, history – and the process eliminated all the parts of sewing that I didn’t enjoy. It magically encompassed so many of my interests into a single process, and has continued to do so.
Has your background in music helped you create as well?
A lot of what I did in school school was based on improvisational composition and construction, which tied in to the type of music I had been playing a lot of. It allowed me to really listen to what is happening and respond in the moment. The large weavings are like that because it’s such group effort. I loved that – the “designing while you’re making” process. Where you have a general idea of the form and you just start making. I like that it’s less design in that sense. In architecture, everything is about planning and engineering as much as possible to try to eliminate surprises I suppose, so the improvisational approach I can take in my work is very exciting and spontaneous. Its very low risk and low-stress compared to architecture, which is a freedom I really enjoyed when playing music.
You said you started to explore work that is less concerned with the utilitarian function aspect of design and more focused on the art and creative side of it. I think that its very apparent already in your work. When I see of your pieces in a room I don’t necessarily think “Basket” or “Light”, there is such a sculptural feel to it. It can sit there without serving it’s purpose and just be an art piece.
That’s great to hear! The bags and some of the baskets are really the only things I make with utility in mind, but I also try to look at them as art objects in that they have a relationship to culture and history. For the most part I just want to make these objects in the studio without too much concern for exactly “what” they are, and I hope people find them to be interesting and maybe even find a use for them when they go out into the world. It can be tricky though because a lot of people need to know exactly what something is before welcoming it into their lives. Fortunately, there are a growing number of spaces that are that hybrids of retail store and art/design gallery and are very open to this approach. It’s an expanding market and seems to be where we fit in the best.
I can only imagine how hard it was to see a big chain store rip off your designs. I guess it’s impossible to not let that happen but it’s how I discovered your work. The outpour was so very strong.
It was a difficult time but we have truly great people and exposure on our side. We learned a lot from that situation. It was amazing seeing the outpouring of support on social media. We can only keep sharing our story and works and hope that people will choose to support us as well as other independent artists and designers.
Of course the quality is incomparable. Your story and process is also what makes your work such a superior product.
Everything that I love and all my interests can be captured in this process. It’s pretty clear who’s out there copying and make these for money. What we have is more of a creative exploration and that is what we are trying to push.
I have had a lot of material things in my life but I can tell you that your pieces are ones I want to grow old with and hand down to someone and share your story.
Thanks! For me there was a clear path that brought me to this work and continues to direct our approach. It’s fairly obvious who’s out there copying and making these for simply for money. What we have is more of a creative studio and that is what we are trying to push.
Tell us about Brooklyn Nets, the exhibition you had in Tulsa this year. How did it come to be and what was it like to show in the place where you grew up?
The exhibition in Tulsa came about after a few great conversations with the gallerist, Kim Fonder. We had mutual friends and colleagues and I had heard a lot about her space in Tulsa from friends. She had seen some of my work in Seattle and learned that I grew up in Tulsa, so she got in touch and visited my studio during a trip to NYC. Ever since I began making the stitched rope pieces there were a number of specific interests in the process that I wanted to explore but hadn’t had a chance to really dig deeply into them. I had notebooks full of sketches and lots of small studies that I wanted to turn into larger pieces – most of them as wall-hanging sculptures or painting-like panels.
Brooklyn Nets, 2014, Exhibit by Aberson in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo by Michael Popp
Kim was interested in showing mostly wall-hanging pieces so it was a great opportunity for me to work on those ideas and show another aspect of my practice that had only existed in my studio. All of the pieces were a chance for me to work without concern for utility or practical usage; I was primarily exploring the formal aspects of the process and materials and effects that result from specific manipulations. There were 17 wall-hanging works and 7 sculptural vessels, many of which have spawned lots of new ideas and explorations for future work.
Being able to share my work, especially this body of it, in my hometown was wonderful. I moved away from Tulsa in 2005 to attend grad school and my life has changed in many ways since then, but Tulsa still feels like home. Many friends and family members came to the opening – it was an incredibly special night in my life.
Brooklyn Nets, 2014, Exhibit by Aberson in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo by Michael Popp
What is Tulsa like, and what is its creative community all about?
Tulsa is a relatively young city with an interesting history, which I didn’t understand or appreciate until I lived in much older cities. There is a lot of amazing mid-century modern architecture there that I think had an influence on my understanding of the built environment as well as spatial and material aesthetics. Unfortunately much of that architecture has been demolished due to lack of care, but in the last decade the younger generation has spoken up in an effort to protect that part of the city’s history. Along with that effort has come a major boost to the local creative community.
Tulsa’s creative culture has primarily been centered around the great music to come out of the city, which is still going strong. The majority of the art in Tulsa is fairly conservative and there only a few spaces showing contemporary work. It is a relatively small city so the arts community is tight-knit and friendly. Since 2007 or so the downtown area especially has seen a rebirth of sorts and nowadays there is a very popular art-walk event held every month that helps to support several new galleries and art-based institutions that bring in art from outside the city and work to support local artists. While it has a long way to go to become like other Midwestern cities like St. Louis or Kansas City, there has been major advancement of the Arts in Tulsa in recent years.
Tell me more about the work collaborations you and your wife are working on…
My wife Tomoe Matsuoka also studied architecture and has a body of work that is a hybrid of art and design. She has a very unique way of seeing the world that always surprises me. While we have collaborated a little bit in the past, Tomoe started helping me out in the studio about two years ago and since then she has become a major part of the entire operation. Most all of the new pieces in our webshop this year were a collaborative design effort, and she has contributed designs of her own to our catalog that have been very well received.
We will probably continue working that way on future editions of stitched rope work for our wholesale catalog. For several years we have been scheming some designs for furniture and functional sculptural pieces that we are hoping to introduce over the next year or so. They will be a true blending of our interests and sensibilities but right now we are still in the early steps, sketching and brainstorming. She is traveling in Japan for a while this fall and will be working on some more specific designs while she is there.
What direction would you like to see the company grow?
More creative exploration is our goal. We want to collaborate more and expand the possibilities for the future of our company. We’re still agile as a company and can change things to suit it the way we want. It’s an exciting time.
Sash cord studies, 2010-present. Photo by Michael Popp