Double Agent

It's difficult to classify Doug Johnston, but that only makes him that much more fascinating. Here, the artist-designer lets us into his studio for a closer look.

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Johnston in his Brooklyn studio.
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"I like when objects have a double life," says Brooklyn-based artist-designer Doug Johnston of his category-defying sculptural works that are sometimes functional, sometimes sculptural, and often both: Johnston's interests collide at the intersection of art, architecture, and usable objects, and his work is never just one of those things. 

Johnston works on the beginnings of a coiled piece at his industrial sewing machine.
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By coiling rope, Johnston creates bags, wall-hangings, and ambiguous objects whose function can be determined by the user. "I've always been curious about how things come into existence," says Johnston. "I was always amazed that humans are capable of making things and transforming the world around us." Johnston studied architecture in college, but was frustrated by the separation of the design and construction processes. "I wanted to actually be building the thing that was in my head," he says. So he began experimenting with other crafts, including sewing and 3-D printing, which offered more gratification (he's also an improvisational musician).

Soon enough he had arrived at the coiled rope technique which has gone on to define his practice: He begins at what will become the center of each object (similar to the bottom of a woven basket), turning the rope until it creates a coil. A machine-sewn zig-zag stitch secures the rope as it takes its form. With this technique, Johnston finally satisfied his fascination of merging materials to create spaces. 

A few of Johnston's versatile creations.
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Beyond thinking of his sewing machine as a non-digital 3-D printer, Johnston also relates his coiled-rope pieces to architecture ("In my work, I like that you can see the rope and the thread—it's like this idea in modernist architecture: that the structure of a building can also act as decoration"), and to traditional weaving and basketry from Africa, the Americas, and Japan. He explores how humans have always made vessels, but how their meaning has changed from being utilitarian to ceremonial to aesthetic.

Johnston's studio is decorated with project prototypes.

This spring, Johnston and his wife, Tomoe Matsuoka, who also works across art and architecture and contributes to Johnston's bag designs, are creating a line of sculptural accessories for concept store Bota Boutique in Kobe, Japan. It's a similar idea to those in his recent gallery show at New York City's Patrick Parrish, which included a mix of lighting and objects with ambiguous functions, like his "shrouds" (basically a woven mound resembling a footstool) that can be used to conceal something, as a child's small climbing structure, or simply as a design piece.

Some of the smaller, more functional objects.

 Some of Johnston's creations are more obviously functional—that comes from a need to sell work to the design stores that he works with across the U.S., Europe, and Asia. But if he was working in his dream world, Johnston says he would mostly be creating larger-scale sculptural works that investigate the relationship between functionality and artistic design. "Both function and aesthetics are equally valid and exciting to me," Johnston says. "When the function is vague, it encourages the user to be more creative and open-minded about how the object could function in their lives."

Johnston wearing his Everyday Backpack

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