Doug and Tomoe are partners from opposite sides of the world, brought together almost serendipitously by shared interests, now living and working in Brooklyn. They work together under the name Doug Johnston Studio to create many intricate and spirited sculptures, most of them wearable or somehow practical. Their most popular, a coiled rope basket (in all kinds of shapes and sizes) is sold in home stores and concept shops all over the globe. Doug grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Tomoe in Japan but both were primarily inspired by cultures outside of their own; Doug by Native American vessels, Tomoe by techniques discovered on her frequent museum visits. Their result is entirely unique. We stopped by their studio to meet the masterminds behind the baskets we’ve all had our eyes on for quite some time.
How did you two meet and decide to start creating together?
Doug: We met as students, in grad school, at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2006. We were both in the architecture department but were doing work that was outside of the conventional scope of that field, so we kind of naturally gravitated towards each other.
We worked on a series of photographs from 2009 to 2012, in which we gave each other haircuts, which grew out of our relationship and our shared interest in Relational Aesthetics. We've always helped each other with our individual projects but we really started working together every day in the studio in 2012. Tomoe has created numerous designs for the retail collection and we have collaborated on a number of wearable sculptural objects occasionally since 2014. Our interests and aesthetics overlap quite a bit so it has always been pretty natural to work together.
When did you realize that you wanted to make baskets?
Tomoe: Doug started working with the process of coiling and stitching rope in early 2010, which immediately took the form of baskets, bags, sculptural vessels, and large wearable objects. This grew out of previous work he had done in grad school with weaving room-sized nest spaces out of plastic tubing, line drawings, then later explorations of knitting and sewing his own bags.
He began making the pieces after buying a hank of cotton rope with the idea that he would make a bag out of it somehow. After looking into a few other processes, he began making them using his sewing machine with colored thread. The coiled rope pieces tend to naturally become baskets, or bags, just due to the shape they take in the process.
D: I was also really drawn to the very long history of basket making and coiled vessel construction and its endless formal possibilities.
Do you use your creations yourself?
T: The Backpack was the original piece that Doug sought to make which lead him into working with this technique in 2010, and he uses the Backpack as his main bag everyday!
D: Tomoe has a few bags she's made that she uses as well.
What’s your favorite piece to make? The most difficult?
D: My favorite to make from our retail collection is probably the "Coyote" vessel because the size, proportions, and shapes are just very satisfying to me. The most difficult is the "7H" from my series of lighted pieces because it's very large, very heavy, and very time-consuming.
T: I also like making our sculptural vessels, which I think look like art objects but suggests some sort of function as a basket. I've always been interested in making something that crosses art and design. The most difficult for me is the "Fune" pouch that I designed and our clutch bags. Adding the zippers is difficult and time-consuming!
What else do you guys create?
T: Doug has been almost solely focused on the stitched rope works since 2010, but has also created a series of sculptural beeswax candles, as well as some explorations in other materials and process such as 3D printing. On the side, he’s also done some work in architectural metal fabrication with Metalform Studio in Brooklyn Navy Yard.
D: Tomoe's studio work often revolves around ideas of public and private space. She has created a number of works that incorporate wearable pieces that transform and couple with furniture-type objects that she’s also created. Additionally, she has worked on several installations and collaborative events and performances. Recently she has explored kintsugi, and loom weaving with spun paper.
What inspires you to make these objects?
D: This work, in general, evolved from prior years of making a variety of things and is a consolidation or convergence of many different interests and experiences. I love that the process is like drawing in 3 dimensions and that it can be very improvisational. I typically start with a sketch and quickly move to sewing and often the end result is very different from my sketch, which is often very exciting.
The pieces and process connect a series of technologies such as rope, sewing, coiled vessel construction, basketry, and 3D printing with the formation of earth and landscape features, architecture and evolution of human culture. That collapsing of deep time and broad, simple technologies is an exciting perspective on the world for me.
T: I get a lot of inspiration from looking at vernacular architecture, tools, and clothing. We love visiting ethnology and natural history museums and seeing all the variety of objects people have made around the world. Discovering unique shapes and uses of materials invented outside of the culture I grew up in is exciting.
Is sculpture your favorite form of art as an observer as well as an artist?
D: Yes, with painting, photography, architecture, and furniture design all being tied for second place.
Which artists, from all eras and mediums, are your favorites/most influential?
D: It's really difficult to pin it down to just a handful, but Atelier Van Lieshout, Franz West, Jessica Stockholder, Charles and Ray Eames, and Bruce Goff have been long-time perennial favorites amongst an ever-changing roster of influences.
What are you currently working on?
D: I'll be away at a residency for the entire summer where I plan to work on some large-scale pieces as well as new sculptural vessels and wall-mounted works. We're also releasing a few limited editions this year for our retail collection!
T: We're working on new limited edition designs with our assistants. I'll be participating in a fiber/weaving artist's symposium in Palm Springs this fall and I'm planning on making some weaving samples for the trip.
Do you have any plans to create different/other home objects in the future?
T: Yeah, we would like to diversify our studio practice and make a wider variety of furniture pieces in the future.
Photos by Heather Sten