Doug Johnston

December 1, 2015

Doug Johnston‘s work includes art, design, architecture and music, utilizing and exploring a variety of mediums and methods such as installation, fiber art, sculpture, photography, and collaborative performance. Since 2010 he has focused on a process of coiling and stitching rope into a variety of functional and sculptural objects. His work has been presented in numerous exhibitions around the United States and in online and print journals; an ongoing line of coiled and stitched rope pieces is available in boutiques and galeries around the world.

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. He has served as a guest critic and lecturer at several universities. His professional experience includes architecture, teaching, and architectural metal fabrication. Currently Doug works with his wife, Tomoe Matsuoka, in their Brooklyn studio.

Photo by Michael Popp
Photo by Michael Popp

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. I make a variety of things by sewing rope together with sewing machines. The things range from simple retail-focused bags and baskets to high-end design objects to sculptural works. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, playing music, skateboarding, and eventually discovered my love for art and architecture, which I studied at Drury University and Cranbrook Academy of Art. I currently live in Brooklyn, NY where I have a studio with my wife, Tomoe Matsuoka.

“Brooklyn Nets” solo show at Exhibit in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2014. (photo by Michael Popp)

How did your interest in your work begin? There wasn’t an exact starting point of “ah ha” moment for what I’m doing now. Rather it has been a gradual process of working through many interests, starting with architecture and art but also music, social practice and fabrication. In grad school a classmate, Yu-Chih Hsiao, and I worked on a method for making large three-dimensionally woven pieces from plastic tubing and zip ties. The process was fascinating to me in that it involved taking a flexible line of material and creating space simply by attaching it to itself. The process was also largely improvisational, which was incredibly fun and was a way to merge my interest in improvisational music into making spaces and objects. Upon moving to NYC I had to scale down my work but I really wanted to continue working in that manner. I did some explorations of knitting and had been making my own bags for a few years and found sewing to be fascinating. After buying some cotton cord in a hardware store I thought I would try to make a backpack out of it somehow. After a few experiments I started coiling and sewing the rope together with my sewing machine. At first I just made simple baskets and bowls but quickly moved to bags, sculptural vessels, and wearable pieces. I have worked to develop a vocabulary of techniques within the process and continue to learn about it with each new project. My interest in the process has only deepened and new questions keep coming out of the work.

"what it is" at Patrick Parrish Gallery in New York (photo by Clemens Kois)
“what it is” at Patrick Parrish Gallery in New York (photo by Clemens Kois)

How has living in New Tork affected your work? Before living in NYC I lived in the Detroit area and Tulsa, Oklahoma. In those cities I had much more space for working and the cost of living was much more affordable. Upon moving to Brooklyn my space and budget both shrank quite a bit and the work followed suit. I also found that my work became much more personal, inward focused, and process-based. In the previous cities there were less people and much more personal space, while in New York City you are always surrounded by many people. This was a new and surprisingly shocking situation for me. I used to do a lot of socially-oriented work and in NYC I haven’t felt compelled to work like that, turning instead to processes that favored material manipulation and aesthetics over relational aesthetics.

Labyrinth, 2014 (photo by Michael Popp)

What kinds of things are influencing your work right now? “Deep Time” or Geologic Time has been on mind a lot over the past year or two and has given me a new perspective on literally everything, but especially on my work in relation to the historical forces that brought it into being. For the first several years of working with coiling I tried to avoid looking at a lot of similar work as I wanted to work through my own ideas and have those experiences for myself. In the last year I have been looking more into traditional and contemporary basketry and it has been wonderful to see how my impulses differ or align with other artists and craftspeople, and to learn from their work. I have also been introducing other elements such as resin, foam, and wax into the work and its opening up many new questions and avenues to explore. In general I love to learn about indigenous, vernacular, or even “primitive” methods of building construction. I love watching the videos of the “Primitive Technology” guy/channel on youtube for example.

drop out, 2015 (photo by Michael Popp)
drop out, 2015 (photo by Michael Popp)

What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? I just opened a solo exhibition here in New York at Patrick Parrish Gallery that I’m very excited about. It is titled what it is and includes 20 new objects that demonstrate how this process I use allows me to filter questions I have about the world or specific objects into a spectrum of pieces from design to sculpture. I also will be showing a new lighting piece with Patrick Parrish at Design Miami in December. After that my wife and I plan to collaborate on a collection of unconventional bag designs, which will most likely expand into photography and video with our friend Michael Popp. Some of those pieces might be part of a small exhibition in Kobe, Japan in the Spring. Next year the studio in general will be focusing more on commissions, new sculptural work, and larger scale design objects.

Spring/Summer 2014 collection (photo by Michael Popp)
Spring/Summer 2014 collection (photo by Michael Popp)

Who would you ideally like to collaborate with? In future collaborations with Tomoe and Michael, we’d love to collaborate with someone who does film or video production to create some video pieces. I’ve always dreamed of collaborating with engineers to further develop the technical aspects of the sewing process — for new specialized machines and software that can analyze designs and calculate materials and other data.

How long have you lived in New York and what brought you there? I’ve lived in Brooklyn a little over eight years. I moved here after graduate school because there were many jobs available in architecture at the time. Also I had met Tomoe, who is from Japan, in grad school and NYC was the only place in the states that we could both agree on. We probably wouldn’t have stayed together if I had moved somewhere else, so it was the right choice! I also had a few friends living here, which made it more accessible and livable.

2-hump haus, collaboration with Tomoe Matsuoka, 2014 (photo by Michael Popp)
2-hump haus, collaboration with Tomoe Matsuoka, 2014 (photo by Michael Popp)

What’s your absolute favorite place in the city/the world to be? In the city I would say my favorite place is in my studio. That probably sounds cliche, but it really is like a sanctuary for me. I feel very lucky to have that space here. Of all the places in the world that I’ve been I think the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is my favorite place. My family visited there when I was a kid and it blew me away. Tomoe and I took a trip there last summer and I sat and looked at the canyon for nearly six hours. It has taught me so much about space, volume, material, earth and time.

Top 3 most visited websites and why? Instagram, tumblr, and Facebook because they allow me to keep up with nearly all my interests, the news, and friends and family in three endless scrolls. They constantly deliver new things to my eyes in a way that has caused something of an addiction for me.

What are you really excited about right now? Mars colonization schemes! I’ve been reading books and watching documentaries about Mars quite a bit lately. The plans and ideas that people have been working up to not only send humans there, but terraform it into another earth-like planet really fascinates me. I really hope to be alive to see the first humans land on Mars, and I hope I don’t have to wait long.