We had the pleasure of chatting with Patty Johnson this past month – exploring her thoughts on contemporary practice and how she is managing the global shifts of contemporary design. Johnson is one of Canada’s most important designers – working at the intersection of business and culture – balancing teaching at RISD with her global practice, she has created a long list of award winning products and projects.

Tell me more about you, what drives your practice? Product oriented design and practice is being changed by new technologies, global marketing and the internationalisation of products and production. Designers need to be able to think about the identity of products and their cultural backgrounds, issues underpinned by the need for innovation, and, economic, sustainable and ethical thinking.

The modernist and utopian ideals of democratic design also drive me. When I was a younger designer I defined this as accessible, affordable and pared down. But as my practise has evolved it has taken on a broader meaning and has come to include the idea that regional initiatives can sometimes rebalance the often-lopsided free flows of globalization.

Why is design your thing? How does your background inform your product design? I think it’s unlikely I could do anything else. Really. I’m virtually unemployable in any other field.

The combination of skills reflected in my practice – a strong aesthetic sense, material and process driven product development, research methodologies, project design and management capabilities, and, entrepreneurial spirit – have all been informed by my undergraduate degree in theatre and literature and further studies in furniture making. It’s a unique mix that accidently collided with design and through a lot of very lucky opportunities resulted in a culturally complex body of work as well as multiple frameworks for understanding the broader debates in contemporary design.

Design is credited with improving lives, and design is also accused of creating some of the bigger problems we face (like the environment and consumerism). Do you think design is political?  Designers are so arrogant. Can we effect change? Really? In small ways, sure. But it better be commercially viable and it most certainly must benefit as many people as possible. Political? That’s a charged term especially where I am currently working in the US. So much misunderstanding, so little time. Frankly I think designers should stay away from politics. Big statement I know. I will likely be shot at dawn.

Technology is really pushing design open to non-pros. Our tools/processes are now widely available…how do you stay out front of this and how has technology pushed your practice?  Technology has effected my practice in the most basic way. It’s allowed me mobility. I’ve been able to work anywhere and build a new kind of globally networked studio model of work. I’m pretty proud of that.

But I know you are referring to the astonishing pace of new technologies. It’s fascinating and I’m fortunate to have a front row seat with my students at RISD who are doing amazing things with VR and programs like Grasshopper. In fact, the Digital and Media Graduate Program there posits that coding is the most important creative medium and that every RISD students should not only know how to code but should be using it to create work that we can’t even think of yet.

What would you describe as the most significant development in contemporary furniture-making within the last 5-10 years? Oh I don’t know. There is so much good significant work it’s hard to be specific. I guess I’ve noted a couple of things over the last years that are interesting to me. One, the rise of Chinese (and Asian} design and architecture. There are some amazing things going on in Asia and the creative intelligence of the students I’ve had the pleasure to work with is one that is poetically unique. And, I think something that will be more than emerging very soon.

Secondly, the reemergence of studio furniture practice in the US but bigger, better and bolder. There are so many examples of this but I’ll start with these names Misha Kahn, Katie Stout, Tanya Aguiniga, Clark Stuart, Fort Standard, Ben and Aja Blanc Studio, Jamie Wolfond (Good Thing), Furnishing Utopia, Matter Made, Future Perfect, Egg Collective, Lindsay Adelman, David Weeks, and on and on.

It’s an exciting thing to see since when I started going to ICFF around 2004 people were still talking about the American midcentury glory days of design with the only new entrants being Dune and Blu Dot. Well and, of course, the Boyms. But having said that, there has been a lot of change in a short time. And it’s about studio based work at a very high level.

Your work is so timeless and efficient (similar to the work of Jasper Morrison who I admire)– how important is memory and place in your work?  Well thank you. That is high praise indeed and I’ll gladly take it as I love Jasper Morrison’s work.

Place does certainly figure prominently in my work. It’s the very basis of it in some ways. The challenge of working on the ground with many different types of producers, materials and processes and still design something that combines the essence of that place and my own aesthetic inclinations is an ongoing source of creative energy. If pressed, I would have to say that my aesthetic inclinations are memory. All the designed things (and art things and ordinary things and, well, everything) I’ve internalized over the years have been slowly transformed into a foundation of tacit knowledge. This now forms the ground upon which I place every new process and material.

So, after having written that I guess I would have to say that memory and place are very important to my work.

Deep dive us into one of your big hits How did this get started/pitched/developed? How long does it take to develop a product? Oh fine. Big hits. Hmmm. At first I was going to talk about the Maun Windsor for Mabeo Furniture which created a bit of storm when it was launched at ICFF and won an Editors Award. It was the smallness and under-doggedness of a unknown manufacturer from Botswana hitting the ‘world stage’ running straight into the pages of the DWR catalogue that for me was a fresh subversive shot and extremely rewarding as a designer.

However, in the day to day world of design I would have to say even more rewarding is the Reeve Chair I designed for Keilhauer in the early 2000’s. And by rewarding I mean financially rewarding. I still make handsome royalties every year on that product and that gives me quite a bit of satisfaction.

How long? One year to develop it. One year after that to start seeing royalty payments. All good.

You are not a high volume creator, or selling your own brand as part of your client work. Is this pace and attitude part of your design thinking? Tell us about your approach to making. I’m not sure I have an approach or even control over my practice. I wonder if anyone really does. I am reliant on briefs from manufacturers and contracts from government agencies and that has shaped my work and my practice as much anything. And I think that’s kind of true for everyone. It’s how we continue to reflect on it, constantly creating narratives that provide cohesion and perspectives not only for ourselves but for those we work with. In fact, that might be the hardest part of the job. So to speak.

Having said that, I am currently working on my own brand. Made Away (ICFF 2017) was the first debut and I’ll be showing a continuation of it this year in NY during Design Week. I’m building new collections with the all best companies and groups I’ve worked with over the years. Mabeo is certainly part of this but this year’s focus will be on India and will include wooden objects made on the streets in Delhi, brass work from master artisans in Rajasthan, traditional weaving presented in not so traditional ways, etc. Made Away India 2019.

Your designs have been described as very human and empathetic – deeply rooted in a craft process, with evidence of the hand and approach of the maker. Do you agree?  I agree. It’s everything. I think my respect for craftspeople and makers from all the places I’ve worked is at the core of everything I do. And I’m fascinated as a designer and maker with all material culture. I know that sounds insanely general but I really do mean it.

What is your favorite thing that you didn’t design…why do you like it and what design lessons are demonstrated in it?  You could have done a whole article on this. One? Favourite thing? I know. I know.

Thonet Chair #14 (volume, simplicity, ubiquity)
Marlboro Gold Regular Flip Top (same but add addictive which has its own evil brilliance)
Pesce’s hand molded urethane Pratt Chair (audacious, material and process led, presentient, and just so much better than similar contemporary attempts at the same)

In the waves of conformity/sameness and the push for work to be commercial and marketable. Do you think that design can really create new ways of living (or is this more marketing to sell design as valuable)? I’m surrounded in my job as professor at RISD with people who are allergic to commerce. Quite common really, it is an art school.

But you are probably looking for a real answer. And I’d have to kind of give the same answer. Sort of. I do think design is an optimistic field where people are always striving to create better things, better experiences, and yes, better (or at least) different lives.

The difference between my answers is that young designers can’t cope the with idea of commercial constraints and view it as something separate from their practice. Or something that must be endured in order to ‘do what one really wants to do’. Experienced designers know that there is no difference between commercial and artistic impulses. That when these are in harmony great work emerges.

Not sure I really answered your question. Sorry.

Tell us about working in the creative industry in Canada, are there advantages or disadvantages to being a designer here? I haven’t really worked in Toronto much over my entire practice. And for the last 6 years I have lived there only very part time. I will say it certainly served me well. I had a lot of support from press and institutions over the years and ‘from afar’ it seems like things are really getting much better. Better work, more designers, prestigious city. Heck, even my RISD students know who Johnny Sabine is. And worship him. (I get a total kick out of that).

Some of Johnson’s Favourite Things:

Place to work:
272 B Benefit Street Providence RI because my RISD apartment is austerely furnished and houses my current work and when I come back it is exactly the same as I left it.

OR

Liana Cane Factory, Guyana, South America because of its equatorial friendly chaos and because they are still the damn fastest prototype makers I know.

Flower: Any gaudy arrangement that my husband regularly gives me because my husband gave it to me.

Fashion designer: Acne Studio (currently and this could change tomorrow) because their collections seem like a series of basic pieces but they always have some completely crazy oversize thing that totally works. Also because they have great shoes. Also because although it’s pricey it’s not too pricey. Also because they do a lot of manufacturing in Italy and so the quality is excellent.

Phone: My office push button land line throwback because every once in awhile it rings and it seems like an exciting adventure to answer instead of an intrusive and constant burden.

Painting: So so many. I mean really. Okay.

The Fall of Icarus by Jacob Peter Gowy because it was the first painting that I was profoundly affected by as a child. It was in the AGO and could not stop looking at it. In the same way I learned to read by connecting the letters b, r, o, w, n with the sound broun and the colour in split second of clarity which made me understand the concept of ‘reading’, The Fall of Icarus made me understand the power of art for the first time.

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