Studio Tour & Interview: Doug Johnston

by Maxwell Tielman

I know we throw around the term “obsessed” on this website fairly often. What can I say — we’re a very enthusiastic crowd here at Design*Sponge. Can we really be that obsessed with animal figurines? (Yes.) Is it really possible to be obsessed with coasters? (Darn straight!) Still, I understand that some of you may take it with a grain of salt whenever we use the phrase. (You really shouldn’t.) So before we go any further with this studio tour and interview, let me clarify something: When we say that we’re obsessed with something, we mean it. And when I say that I was obsessed with artist/designer Doug Johnston’s work from the minute I saw it, I don’t mean that I liked it but was searching for a more sensationalistic adjective. No, when I first laid eyes on one of Mr. Johnston’s fabulous baskets, I was head-over-heels, me-want-it-now, crazy rabid o-b-s-e-s-s-e-d.

Above image: Some pieces from Doug’s online shop

Often baskets aren’t all that much to write home about, and if one were to describe Doug Johnston’s basketwork, it might sound like more of the same. From a process and materials standpoint, Doug’s work is remarkably and almost rudimentarily simple. His works, whether they be small trivets or large tote bags, all feature the same cotton rope and the same basic coiling technique. To fully appreciate the delicate and striking beauty of his basketwork, you really need to see it with your own eyes and touch it with your own hands. The very reasons that one might find his work basic and elemental are also why it is so visually arresting. From the untreated, raw cotton that forms the bulk of his baskets to the primary-colored thread that holds them together with a simple zigzag stitch, Johnston’s work is an aesthetic breath of fresh air. Devoid of pretension and frivolous ornamentation, these baskets are a perfect physical representation of how erring on the side of simplicity can often produce the most beautiful results. It’s fascinating how, despite working with such basic and quotidian materials, Johnston has been able to create a style that is instantly recognizable. It’s even more fascinating to hear him talk about it. Continue after the jump for our interview with this fantastic basket maker. — Max

Design*Sponge: Much of your work is constructed from raw cotton rope and thread. What drew you to these materials and to fibers in general?

Doug Johnston: Raw materials are always attractive to me because of all the inherent possibilities, but I think rope tends to be a bit more suggestive of uses or functions. For years I always had some rope in the trunk of my car or packed away on a shelf “just in case.” But cotton rope took on a new set of possibilities after years of working with other materials. I had been sewing my own bags from raw canvas and denim and loved the way they felt, looked and aged, as well as their connections to art, industry, workwear, etc. I typically used contrasting thread because I loved seeing how the bags where constructed, how they were held together. In my studio work I had been exploring ways of transforming flexible linear materials into three-dimensional pieces by connecting them to themselves, such as knitting or large-scale weaving. So when I was in the hardware store one day, I saw some cotton rope and immediately knew I wanted to somehow make a bag with it.

D*S: You’ve described your technique as an ancient basket-making method. Can you describe your process? What about this technique interested you?

DJ: Coiling is one of the oldest techniques for creating basket or ceramics vessels, and there are many variations. The technique I use is modernized a bit because it uses a sewing machine to connect the cording. Basically the cord or rope is coiled in a spiral and the resulting spiral-seam is stitched on the machine. For most pieces you start with a flat spiral and flip it vertical to start building the walls, stitching the rope into a helix. There were so many things about this process that clicked with me at the time. It was a natural progression from my knitting, weaving and sewing projects in that I was transforming the linear material into three-dimensional shapes, and the process was very similar to a series of ongoing drawings I had been doing where I basically filled up pages with freehand parallel lines. It’s a very meditative process, and I found it very stress-relieving. In sewing with fabrics, I always had little patience for making patterns, figuring out seam allowances, ironing, etc. I just wanted to be making stitches on the machine because I thought sewing machines were fascinating. This process is nearly 100% machine stitching, so I was able to cut out everything I didn’t enjoy about sewing! Lastly, when I started making the coiled pieces, I was working at an architectural metal fabrication workshop, where we were fabricating curved and spiral staircases all the time, which are basically giant helixes, and that geometry was in my head all day. At the metal shop we had a few formally complex projects, so we decided to have some models 3D printed, and I learned how 3D printers work. I realized that the coiling technique was essentially analog 3D printing with a sewing machine. That opened up my mind to many more possibilities for the technique.

D*S: Your basketwork features primary colors almost exclusively. Although coiled baskets aren’t exactly uncommon, the technique combined with your signature palette is totally recognizable. How did you come to such a pared down, simplified aesthetic? What are you trying to accomplish aesthetically with your basketwork?

DJ: I have an odd relationship to color because I am somewhat colorblind. I have trouble identifying red-based colors unless they are very red. Browns often look like greens to me, and purples often just look blue. (Here’s a color-blindness test: if you see the number 74 you’re OK, if you see the number 21, you’re colorblind.) I used to buy navy blue clothes, only to find out later that I was actually wearing purple. Painting classes where kind of a mess. Over the years, this led to me sticking with colors that I knew I could identify (probably) and that I enjoyed. Primary colors were used in much of my favorite modern architecture, in buildings by Le Corbusier or the Eames house, for example, and that made me feel like not only was it ok to stick with just a few basic colors, but that they can still be rich and joyful. I also saw what I was making as akin to modern architecture, where the “decoration” of the colored stitching was also functioning as the structure for each piece so the color palette seemed like a natural fit, and it works well with the cotton.

Above image: The windowsill features a few little experiments and some great gifts from our employees — a jade plant and a little acorn-shaped basket.

Above image: My first industrial machine and the one I use the most, a Japanese-made Singer from the 1960s. I now have a second one, and we make all the bags, big baskets, stools and lighting pieces on these machines.

D*S: You currently share a studio space with your wife, Tomoe Matsuoka, who also makes fiber art. Has working together influenced your work and your aesthetic?

DJ: Definitely. Tomoe has a really amazing way of seeing the world and looking at objects, and I never really know how she is going to react to or perceive something. Her way of designing and working is fascinating to me and has encouraged me to be more free at times and more orderly at others. She has made some really complicated garments for her projects that I would never have the patience to engineer or to fabricate, but her discipline is inspiring. We are both highly curious about how things work and enjoy seeing clever solutions for simple things like hinges. She has started designing and experimenting with the coiled cord technique in our studio, and I love seeing her approach and the pieces she makes.

D*S: Both you and your wife have created works that one could describe as nests — small spaces in which people or a single person can gather and get away from the world. Both projects seem to speak to an increased desire for relaxation, relief and simplification. What inspired these projects, and how do you think they reflect the larger impulses and desires of people today?

DJ: Tomoe and I both became interested in those kind of spaces after doing a lot of traveling. She is from Japan but left on her own as a young teenager and has been able to travel around the world. She would love to be totally nomadic someday. My experiences with traveling were in road trips around the country with my family, and later touring with bands. When you’re traveling, you need a home base of some kind, even if it’s a little pod in a capsule hotel, where you can relax, reflect on the journey, plan out the next day or just be alone. Today people are becoming increasingly mobile, and as a result we feel those kinds of spaces are increasingly relevant. Both of us studied architecture, and we met and bonded over these ideas in our graduate studies in architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Tomoe was interested in nest-type spaces as personal or private, and I was interested in it as a social space, but both of us were interested in how those spaces interacted with the public realm and how their construction or design could somehow speak to that interaction. Her work has continued exploring those ideas, and I veered off course a bit.

Above image: My Pfaff 138. I think this is also from the 1960s, but I’m not exactly sure. It’s a great machine, and it stitches beautifully.

Above image: On the shelf are sample basket shapes for reference and finished pieces waiting to be shipped.

Above image: We love our big window! That’s one of our wonderful employees, Sarah Finkle, sewing up one of our new bag designs.

D*S: From your “nests” project to your baskets, comfort and the object’s interaction with the human body seems to be a recurring theme in your work. Why do you think that is?

DJ: I tend to be a spatial thinker, which led me into architecture. Architecture made me engage with material, form and construction in relation to space making. I realized I have this basic desire to create things that can the interacted with on the scale of the human body. I want to be able to stand or sit inside or on top of an object, or I will imagine a small object, like one of my baskets or bags, scaled up to allow that to happen. My work with the coiled pieces is mostly going in that direction.

D*S: Although much of your work features “domestic” materials, it seems that only recently you’ve begun crafting what one might describe as “home goods.” How do you think this has influenced your work and creative considerations?

DJ: A few years ago I realized I was really attracted to work that is made with really simple processes because they retain or bring out the natural qualities of the materials. Generally speaking, I like work that has very little, or very direct manipulation of the material. Max Lamb is a contemporary designer whom I think exemplifies this in his work. Working with rope, especially cotton rope, is interesting for me because its still very raw cotton, and you can still see that it’s a plant but has been through just a few steps — spun into yarn, yarn braided into rope — to become something incredibly useful. I think it’s important to live with these kinds of objects that can tell you, by looking at, holding and smelling them, what they are and what processes they went through to become a useful object. Maybe there is something primal about it — like it can connect me with my essential human-ness of using tools and transforming raw materials. Since I want people to be looking at and experiencing my work on that level and in that context, I became much more detail and quality oriented. My previous work was more conceptually driven.

D*S: What are your creative toolbox essentials? Are there any items you can’t live without?

DJ: My sewing machines and associated tools (snips, scissors, measuring tape) have definitely become primary vehicles for creative output. Before I start sewing, though, sketching is really important and always has been. I sketch with Pilot Precise v5 rolling ball pens on gridded paper, and I can’t live without these. Sometimes I use non-gridded paper, but sometimes I get lost on those surfaces. You can take away the rope and sewing machines, but please leave my pen and paper or I will die.

Above image: Here I’m almost halfway finished with one of the BIG baskets. This one is going to one of our stockists in Japan.

Above image: More experiments, samples and sculptural pieces waiting for new homes.

Above image: Prototype bags and sample shapes. The hanging net-like piece is a prototype for one of our new bag designs that will be available later this month.

D*S: What are you finding inspiring right now?

DJ: I have been trying to deepen my knowledge of general physics — such as matter, the particles and interactions that make up the cosmos. Lots of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson and science packaged for mass consumption. Much of it is over my head, but it’s really fascinating, and I like to think I get it. I’m not sure how it directly inspires me, but I trust that it will eventually become apparent.

D*S: What sorts of artists are inspiring you right now?

DJ: My friend Michael Popp is the photographer who took all of the images of my ropeworks last year. He is an amazingly detail-oriented product photographer, but also a great artist and a wonderful friend. In November he was diagnosed late with acute lymphocytic leukemia and was immediately admitted to the hospital to begin treatment. In the first 30 days, he nearly died twice, but made an incredible comeback. He started chemotherapy and has been remarkably strong throughout. The experience has brought out the best in him, and he has been writing a blog about his treatment, which I highly recommend reading. He will undergo a stem cell transplant in the coming months, which is a very risky set of procedures. He is the strongest person I know, and watching him go through this with so much confidence and optimism is incredibly inspiring. You can learn more about Mike and help support him on his website.

D*S: When do you feel the most creative?

DJ: When I’m alone in the studio, working on something late at night.

D*S: Describe your perfect home.

DJ: One that is filled with things that Tomoe and I made, or that our friends made, or things that just make us happy. Ideally we would have made the home ourselves, too, but I’m starting to think that might not be necessary. There would be three studios attached but distinctly separated from the living spaces: one for Tomoe, one for me, and a shared workspace. Lots of plants, lots of light, some dogs and cats. Simple but spatially interesting. We’ve talked about having an attached space that is open to the public, and Tomoe even drew up some really great plans incorporating that idea.

Above image: I keep my old sketchbooks nearby to reference old notes and ideas.

Above image: I’ve been starting to make some bottle shapes, and these are a few experiments. The shapes can be tricky to make, so they all come out quite different.

Above image: These are some stamps of my new logo designed by my good friend Jan Olof Nygren. I really love the design he made. I think it suits me perfectly. Also my trusty pipe, which I have never smoked. I just think it’s beautiful, and holding it seems to keep me focused and calm when things get busy.

Suggested For You


  • I love getting a sneak peek into people’s studios, all the mess and chaos behind the finished product. His bags are beautiful!

  • His work is beautiful!! I just love it. I’m going to have to have the 200 bag for this summer!

  • What an interesting interview! I love his work and he had such a unique thought process behind it all. Really inspiring.

  • What a lovely & thoughtful interview! Really love Doug’s work and after reading this interview I love it even more!

  • Awesome interview! I believe I first saw Doug’s work on Design Sponge, and will be forever grateful for the “discovery” of his work via DS, and the sensitivity and beauty of the work he and his wife produce. THANK YOU! I now represent his work at my gallery in St. Petersburg, Florida. I am certain they will continue to do amazing things!

  • Gorgeous work. I’ve been wanting a basket exactly like these, but until now I hadn’t seen anything quite right. Hoping to purchase one soon!

  • I was super excited to see this interview. I saw his baskets in LA a few weeks ago and had been thinking about them ever since. I didn’t take the time to write down the designers name then so I’m glad I took the time to read my DS post today. Thank you for continuing to seek out such interesting people and products!

  • I love these baskets! Incredibly inspiring. There is an abundance of cotton rope where I live now, and it’s very cheap. I’m going to try my hand at making a basket. :-D

  • It is just so beautiful , the work shows simplicity and elegance, but I want to see how it actually goes into stitching under the needle.

  • I really like the uniqueness in his creations of storage containers that are not common designs which you can easily find around. They are also made of fabric which means you can customize your containers according to your preferred colour schemes and personal tastes. Therefore, the design of each will not repeat, making your own preferred choice an original piece.

  • What is the secret of going from wide to narrow to get the bottle effect? I am in awe of your work.

  • I do this also. Love doing it. Where do you get your rope. Would love to find a place to buy in bulk.