Genuine Article: Julianne Johnson

Genuine Article: Julianne Johnson

Julianne Johnson and I had been circling each other for months before we finally met, and then the conversation was immediately deep and magical. We had been journeying similar paths for years – as corporate designers working up the courage to set out and create our visions. Julianne left the cocoon of visual merchandising for Room & Board three years ago, and now works as an artist, design consultant and woodworker under her brand Casual Surveying Co. from her studio in Sodo in Seattle WA. 

JF-------If our purpose is not a job, but an emotion or feeling we seek to amplify, how would you describe your purpose?

Oh, just a simple existential purpose question, haha! It is funny that these questions become enormous for us adults, occupying much space in our heads, and that my answer today may be different tomorrow. For today, I’ll say that we seem to be born with an easier relationship with purpose - before it reaches our brains, we live it through our be-ing. 

Thinking back to when I was young, I recall my chief concerns as things like reading other people’s cues, snuggling, yummy foods, twirling, not stepping on cracks, caring for animals, coloring, and seeing what’s happening in the sky. In a panned-out view, these are all acts of love, and allow me to see my purpose as returning over and over again to this knowing: that being a human body, consciously connected to my place, people, plants, animals, and objects around me is purpose and that’s enough. That, and to turn norms on their heads! Questioning jobs that are gendered, that we can’t make new choices later in life, and that following our hearts is risky.

woman smiling with dyed white hair in a rust tiered sleeveless dress in her kitchen with studio in background

JF-------Before I was a designer, I saw it as this precious thing that felt unreachable, but once I started to meet actual designers, I realized it’s just a job that many people have. And also, not something everyone wants to do. But I wanted to do it and that had to mean something. How did you see woodworking before you got into it, and how do you see it now that you’re doing it? 

My relationship with design and the word designer has always been tense, in that I’m totally drawn towards it while being equally critical of it. Starting in school where I studied Urban Design. I was swept into the dream of urban design’s potential in my final project for a landscape architecture class, designing a garden around a specific emotion. But subsequent classes taught me about things like designing public space for social control, and the long history of this. I became aware of “hostile architecture” and I could see nothing but uncomfortable park benches, out-of-service drinking fountains, and cities made for cars, where people are confined to small sidewalks or called jaywalkers and liable for fines. I became critical and despondent; it was impossible to find meaning there. 

Fast forward 20 years and a few careers, and I had the opportunity to consult on the restoration design of some cabins on Orcas Island. Simple, fun things like where windows and doors should go, which siding to re-purpose on what walls…. Consulting turned into the opportunity to frame-in the doors and windows, and hang the siding, and I ended up partnering with my friend and unofficial mentor Arne to build two cabins. We lived on the property as we worked, so it was natural to talk about it holistically, expanding to what furniture and cabinets we would make. Back home in the city, Arne and I got to work on these new pieces and have been building together ever since.

This shift from design to building was a major AH-HA! for me, it was like finding the missing link. Whereas previously all my design ideas needed to be explained, believed in, and executed by someone else, this I could do myself, on-the-fly, designing as we went. It re-oriented my center of power: from one of ideas to one of ideas + action, grounding me in the physical reality of materials and the work of assembling them. I loved the nature of it, being tired and satisfied at the end of a workday and having an actual thing to show for my labor. 

pale pink tiered dress woman standing on sofa in studio with light coming in from behind monotone palette

JF-------How important is collaborating to your work?

Collaboration is at the center of everything I am interested in, and I aim to practice co-everything. As a strong-willed and opinionated first born child, I’ve also found these strengths can be blind spots. I’ve come to see in the design space, my ideas are stronger when tempered with other people’s ideas, contributions, and lived experience. This has not been an easy lesson, it’s taken me years to acknowledge, and all I’m admitting is that I see it as something to work on, not that I’m good at it! Partnership is difficult, and yet collaborating is always more fun.

JF-------How did you build a habit of trusting yourself?

To talk specifically about learning to trust myself in the design process, I’m 40 years old now and have been working in creative capacity all my life, which is important only in thinking about developing self-trust like any other muscle, through time, attention, and work. It’s cringey, recalling the “self-trust” I had as a young person, which vacillated from an ungrounded and dodgy confidence to its opposite, being crushed by feedback or ideas not working out. I had lots of time to cut my teeth in this sphere as a visual designer at Nordstrom, merchandising the store interiors and creating window displays. The feedback I received there was constant because the work was so big and public, for better and for worse.

But what gave me a home to build trust was a close partnership with my mentor, Robbie. We were the window building team and he taught me to conceptualize space and use power tools to build it. Because it was just us two in the windows, I could make mistakes without melting down; he taught me that messing up was part of making, and the difference between a beginner and a pro is knowing how to hide your mistakes. Robbie is one of many people I have aligned with to learn new skills, and I see this mentorship space as invaluable for building self-trust. If I have any advice worth sharing, it’s to find someone whose work you admire and learn from them first. 

woman stretching overhead near a window with lots of light wearing a wheat colored dress with long ties a lovely green plant nearby

JF-------I’ve been reading this book you lent me: Proposals for the Feminine Economy. How has this book evolved what you are doing and your vision for how you would like to create?

I love Jennifer Armbrust’s work because it reminds us that we always have the power to make new choices. Yes, we currently live in a culture that holds up traditionally masculine values - individualism, domination of people and nature, speed and efficiency, etc. - as the norm, and skips over the other half of what makes us whole human beings, the traditionally feminine aspects. But as a small business owner and self-employed creative, my daily practice and business structure is a perfect laboratory for the practical application of feminine values and making new choices.

Proposals for the Feminine Economy suggests a redistribution of values and asks what it would look like to build a business around interdependence, connecting with nature, generosity, ease, and so much more. More than evolving what I am doing and my vision for how I would like to create, this framework feels like returning to what I have always valued: reading others cues, snuggling, yummy foods, twirling, not stepping on cracks, caring for animals, coloring, and seeing what’s happening in the sky.

tiered wheat yellow dress with long puffy sleeves and neck ties hanging on curtain rod in front of white curtains with light shining through artists bedroom white bed with old typewriter and stack of books