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Inside Steven Alan

Studio Visit: Doug Johnston

  • We first met Doug Johnston when we bought his distinctive rope baskets to decorate our own apartments. When we opened our Chelsea store with an expanded home selection, we knew we wanted to share his work with our customers. Doug recently invited us to his studio in Kensington, Brooklyn and chatted with us about his art.

    Tell us a bit about your studio space and the neighborhood.
    This is sort of the border of Kensington and the edge of Borough Park. There’s a large Hasidic population, but then you go over a few blocks and that part of Kensington is known as Little Bangladesh, and there’s a huge Bangladeshi population. The building is a mix of Hasidic tenants and Bangladeshi tenants, and then the third floor is a sewing contractor that employs mostly blind people. As someone who sews all the time, I can’t imagine doing it without sight. Every day they get out of work at 4, so if I’m ever down there at that time there’s this huge group of blind people – it’s kind of surreal. They’re all super sweet and have a great sense of humor. I’ve been here a little over two years and share the space with other artists and a product and portrait photographer, which comes in handy. We’re maxed out on space in the studio so I’m looking for a larger one.  In order to take on more orders and reduce the lead time, I’m going to need more machines and train assistants. I have three right now.

    Your rope pieces are now sold all over the world. When did you first start making them?
    A little less than three years ago, in January 2010. It was wintertime, we had just moved into this new apartment and finally had a studio area, and set up the sewing machine. I had already bought a bunch of rope and wanted to do something with it, so that’s when I started playing around and just got hooked on it. I made a bunch of stuff. A bag for my wife, baskets for friends as gifts – I got really into it. This was all while I was working at an architectural metal shop, so I’d work on this for a few hours at a time when I would come home. I also had this crappy plastic Sears sewing machine that I had bought ten years before, and wore the machine out (that’s what I made the whole Rumplekillskid piece on). I’m surprised the machine lasted that long. That’s how it all began. I quit my job at the metal shop in August of last year and was finally at a point where it could happen. Then my wife quit her job, which wasn’t planned, so I thought I’d sell some of the pieces. I wanted to keep making them but didn’t have the money to, so I figured if I sold a few I could buy more materials. I started doing freelance drafting and everything just fell into place.  Su Wu of I’m Revolting posted some pieces from my web shop on her blog, which got noticed, so I feel indebted to her. There was a lot of interest, and they sold out. My first wholesale account was in November of last year and within nine months I was working with 35 stores in four countries.

    What kind of equipment and materials do you use?
    I have three sewing machines. They’re all zigzag. Industrial sewing machines are kind of made for one purpose. We’re using them totally differently though. I used to use clothesline. The stuff I’m using now is weep cord and much better quality. It’s made in Tennessee from US grown cotton, and it’s called that because it was originally used in masonry construction. When they build a brick wall, there’s always a little air cavity behind the brick and water can get in there. You have to have a place for it to get out or else it’ll freeze and damage the wall. So they create what they call weep holes. When they put down the brick and there’s a mortar joint, at the bottom of a mortar joint they would cut a little piece of cord and then put the mortar on top of it. At first the cotton would help wick the moisture out, but because it’s a natural fiber it rots away, leaving a hole, and that’s how the water escapes. They don’t use cotton rope that much anymore, but you can still find it. And because it’s used for construction, it’s regulated by government specs, so it’s perfect for me because when I get it it’s very consistent and very well made because it has to be made according to these exact specifications. I use two sizes. Originally they just made it in #6, but I needed a little but thicker. They saw that I was ordering a lot of it and now they make it for me.

    Your background in architecture seems to have had a strong influence on your work. What drew you to architecture?
    I always knew that I wanted to be an architect from when I was really little, but as I got older I played music a lot and got into art. In school, I just found that it was the thing that most allowed me to explore all the things that I wanted to do. It was the closest approximation. Sculpture wasn’t big enough, I guess, and though sculpture can be very technical, I liked that architecture has an engineering side to it, and very much has the balance of left brain/right brain. My dad is an engineer and my mom is more the creative force in the family, so I like to think of it as sort of a balance. But I was also very critical of architecture. I had a lot of really strong ideas about it. Even though I was very passionate about it, it still wasn’t fully able to encompass everything I was interested in, so I also studied Studio Art and kind went back and forth between art, architecture, and music, hoping that someday I’d find the ultimate practice that allowed me to do all of these things as one person. It doesn’t necessarily exist, but the closest thing would just be to be an artist. That could kind of be anything.

    How did your ideas about design evolve throughout the course of your training and early career?
    After undergrad I worked in architecture offices for a while, and on the side I continued to do my own thing. Music, sculptural architectural installations – all kinds of stuff. I ended up going to a grad school in Michigan called Cranbrook where it’s very multi-disciplinary. You studied architecture there but were kind of treated like an artist. There are no classes and no grades. You just get a studio and do your own explorations. But most of the people have backgrounds in architecture and everything references back to architecture in some way. I spent a lot of time with the people in the sculpture department, collaborating with them. In a way, that’s how I got into textiles. It was an interesting transition.

    In grad school most of the stuff I was doing was with construction materials like lumber, wood, and metal. I was welding and screwing things together, but I was really interested in social interaction and how I could make things that could facilitate that or create a place where people could gather together. I ended up collaborating with another classmate, Yu-Chih Hsiao. We built these large pavilions which were kind of like really large scale weaving. Instead of textiles or fibers,we used plastic tubing and made these pavilions that groups of people could get inside and socialize. You would build a wooden frame, weave the pavilion around it, then everywhere there was an intersection we’d put a zip tie over it, and it just became rigid by connecting this flexible material. It became self-supporting.  You could take out the frame and it’s this lightweight thing that you could even move around.

    What are some of the projects you’ve been exploring since then?
    I’ve done some more of the pavilions. Last year I went back to my undergrad, Drury, and did a workshop with some students. It was part of an ongoing series of events called Art of Space, coordinated by architect and Drury professor Gerard Nadeau. We built a really large one inside of a gallery and a smaller one outside that we then rolled down a mile and a half parade through the downtown and set up. All these people were using it and it was a lot of fun. Someone made a video of it. They ended up building another enormous nest structure around a huge oak tree in the spring. The nest projects really kicked off my interest in taking linear, flexible materials and exploring how you can connect them to themselves to create these spaces or self-supporting objects.

    I continued to be interested in artwork that had an element of social interaction, and I did some pieces that dealt with haircuts because I think of getting haircuts as almost a connector. Everyone, for the most part, gets their hair cut and it tends to be a sort of social thing. Like if you go to a salon, or even to get a manicure or whatnot – people, especially women, tend to do that in groups. If you go to a barbershop, guys sit around talking. The pictures were expressing this connection of an intimate thing that’s also public and banal. It’s such a normal thing but it’s an interesting situation.

    How did you transition into working with textiles?
    I’d been making my own bags just out of fabric and sewing so I was already kind of interested in textiles and fibers and seeing how you could transform flat fabrics through a pattern, folding and sewing them into a container. I was doing smaller scale things because by that point I’d moved to New York and didn’t have space to make these big things, or a studio to be loud and messy. My wife showed me how to knit and I made this big wearable piece that was sort of this tube-like thing. It was right before I started doing the rope pieces. I wanted to make something I could get inside of more than just the typical wearable sweater – I wanted it to be more of a space, related to the body but not necessarily directly made for the body. There were no sleeves or pant legs, but it’s soft and warm and flexible, somewhere between clothing and architecture. Like it’s a really tiny building, or a really big, weird piece of clothing. And I love that in between. To me, the Rumpleskillskid piece was another exploration of that once I started working with this process. My mind was still thinking in those terms.

    Did you have a process in mind before you found the material, or did it evolve from the material itself?
    I got into the technique by an interest in the material. I had become interested in fibers and I loved sewing. I love watching the machine make stitches -  sewing machines are really fascinating to me. When I first moved here, I was working at an architecture office and when the economy collapsed many architects lost their work. It was sort of a great thing for me, as it turned out, because I’d been wanting to get back into more hands-on work. In graduate school everything had been very hands-on. If you got an idea about architecture you would build it. Typically architects don’t really build things. You draw, or build models or computer models, and so much of it is coordinating between the client, the engineer, the contractor, the mechanical systems. You’re sitting there drawing and thinking about materials all day but not actually working with them, and that disconnect was something that was never satisfying to me about architecture. I love designing but I want that next step too, where I’m actually doing the work with my hands and putting the materials together. Leaving school and coming to New York to work in an architecture office, that was missing.

    When I got laid off my boss helped me get a job at this metal shop that we had worked with on one of our projects, and they happened to need a draftsman at the time. I had a little bit of metalworking experience, so I went to work there and it really opened up my mind about metalworking, building and craft in general. The guys that worked there were amazing craftsmen and it was really inspiring to see not just how much they cared about their work but how they managed balancing production with the business side. You had to get things done very quickly, but they had to be done perfectly. So much of being a craftsman is knowing how to do that. That really helped me in what I’m doing now, in so many ways I didn’t imagine. Understanding the sewing machines themselves was really wonderful and has helped improve the quality of the pieces I make. If the machine breaks down I can fix it now.

    How did you decide to use rope as your primary material?
    I’ve always been attracted to rope as a material (which sounds sort of funny). I grew up in Tulsa and my friends and I would drive around as teenagers out on the town in the middle of the night because we were bored, and the only place open would be a 24-hour Walmart. So we’d go in and be walking around Walmart, doing nothing, and I would go to the Sporting Goods or Outdoor section and was always finding myself buying rope. It just seemed there was so much I could do with it. It was just this interesting thing to me. When I moved here I’d find it in these little local hardware shops and dollar stores.

    What sparked the idea to make the baskets and how did you develop the technique?
    I’d been making bags and thought I’d really love to figure out how to make a bag with this rope. I could turn it into a surface, and I could figure out how to connect it to itself and make these spaces or containers. I looked into weaving. My wife is from Japan and they learned things like basket weaving in school. She remembered how to do it from when she was a kid and showed me, and we made these little baskets. They were really lovely objects in themselves but the process didn’t really click with me. I’d remembered coil basketry because my parents back in Oklahoma collect Native American art and have some of these coiled Native American baskets. I thought I could use this technique with the rope. I started looking into coiling and found that these crafters online were posting videos. They were taking cord and wrapping fabric scraps around it as a way to use the leftover fabrics from the margins when they were done sewing. They would use up the strips and make these fabric bowls using their sewing machines and do a zigzag stitch using a matching thread color so it would be hidden, just as you would when stitching together a garment.

    I didn’t have any fabric scraps and thought the scrap bowls were kind of ugly, and I loved seeing the stitching, like on jeans when they use the yellow contrast thread – I love being able to actually see how things are made. I coiled the rope just by itself and stitched it using whatever thread I had and it just totally clicked with me. I loved that you could see the rope, you could see the color of the stitch, and see the process in the finished object. The decoration of the thread was also the structure that held everything together and how you formed it on the machine kind of determined the overall shape. I realized there were so many things I could do with this and started making sculptures. I also realized I could use my sewing machine sort of like a 3D printer, in analog – which opened my mind up to all these shapes that I could make. That’s sort of how I think about the things I make – as 3D prints. The 3D printing technology I used in metalworking really helped in the thinking, for instance figuring out how to make the three humped pieces and join them together. It’s been amazing because all of these things that I’ve done over the years and things from my past and background are kind of merging into one thing. As an artist and designer it’s really exciting to see that. It’s been cool to see everything fall into place. It’s kind of what you hope to happen as a designer.

    What’s coming up next?
    I’m working on some colored pieces with nylon cord. I’m also going to do some bags, and definitely more sculpture pieces. I’m really excited about the light fixtures. I’m working on a really big 5 hump lighting piece right now. For a project I’m doing with Caitlin Mociun, we dyed rope. It’s actually one huge gradient, so the start of the rope is very lightly dyed gray and then it gets darker and darker.

    You and your wife are about to go on a trip. What’s on the itinerary?
    We are going to Taipei for four days and meeting up with some friends we went to grad school with. I’ve never been there so I’m really excited. We’re going to go to the night markets, eat lots of awesome food, go to museums. From there we’re going to Osaka where she’s from, then Kobe, and visiting her grandma in Okayama. She lives in a little house. We did sort of a wedding ceremony there two years ago, and she’s really cute. Then we’re going to Kyoto and we’re going to stay in one of those capsule hotels there, and probably go to Mie and Nara. There’s a store there that carries a lot of the pieces called Barnshell. It’s a converted barn out in the countryside. It’s over this mountain range and we’ve talked about maybe hiking over there. It’s going to be good. I’ve been so busy – I’m really looking forward to a vacation.

    Many thanks to Doug! You can find some of his pieces at our Chelsea store at 140 10th Ave.

    This entry was posted on Friday, October 5th, 2012 at 4:08 pm and is filed under Home, On Location. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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