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Democracy In Design: Patty Johnson’s Vodunuvo

For many designers creation is their greatest gift to society. For Patty Johnson, the gift of giving developing countries an outlet for their own self-sustained designs just keeps giving. Through her global endeavors, she has single handily changed the way the design world views globalization. In addition to her own practice, Johnson has also worked on global projects in South America, Africa, the Caribbean and India.

Today, after almost 18 years of having her own practice in Canada she continues to be one of the most sought after designers for government projects worldwide. Winning awards including three ICFF Editors Awards, Wallpaper’s Best of 2010, Fast Company’s Design Issue 2011 and many more, Johnson has also received The Skoll Foundation seed grant to “Investigate new economic and design models for alternative means of organizing creation and production.” She has also consulted and designed for large names such as Pure Design, Sephora, Nienkämper, and Keilhauer.

Johnson has pioneered platforms for understanding the possibilities of sustainable design in developing countries. As her exhibits often headline furniture shows she has captured the attention of the global design community as well a manufacturers worldwide. Her most recent project Vodunuvo from Haiti recently debuted at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York and this past April at The Saloni in Milan.

As her first developing world exhibit, North South Project in 2006 was produced in both Botswana Africa and Guyana South America, but put together as one. Johnson also exhibited New Caribbean Design at the ICFF prior to Vodunuvo.

Johnson attended University of Toronto and received a Masters degree in Design from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. Originally interested in literature and drama, it wasn’t till she became a furniture maker, and began traveling and working with manufacturers worldwide that her design life flourished as she brought attention to what she calls “Democracy in design.”

In addition to exhibiting her efforts, Johnson is also one of the stars of the CBS documentary “Great Minds of Design” showcasing her sustainable advancements in the design community worldwide and the people whose lives she changed because of it. Speaking with Johnson about her start as a designer and her efforts in Haiti, it is very clear she is a great mind of design.

When did you know you wanted to be a designer?

I have an undergraduate in literature and drama. I started actually as a furniture maker, and found myself more interested in production. I was pretty influenced by modernism and the idea of modernism as expressed through literature and drama. I did quite a bit at the University, and I found that furniture production and products made sense for me philosophically, and so I started working more in a production way. There are actually two strands to my practice; one is working with manufacturers in Europe and North America, furniture mostly. But I also work on large-scale government funded projects in the developing areas, places like Haiti, the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa with groups of manufacturers.

What was your draw to these regions as a designer? And how did you begin to create these platforms?

Well, it was pretty accidental. I was recommended over 10 years ago now as a furniture design consultant for the furniture industry in Guyana South American, which was on a Canadian government contract, a services project. I went, and I had really never done anything like that before, and I was really surprised to find some amazing manufactures there, on a pretty large scale, really set up and working in a very sustainable way which was part of their mission. So they’re working in an incredible poor environment, yet here they are pulling hundreds of people, all locally known, trying to work in a sustainable way around the rainforest and with no access really to designer markets. And I was really moved by this, it was pretty amazing. For me it fit into my whole philosophy of democracy in design, and accessibly. And it really got me thinking about how the role of design could be different from the traditional way I was trained or trained myself or the traditional way I was working. It’s not like I was unhappy designing furniture for manufacturers. But there was a bit of a missing link there philosophically, and that is how it started. I was pretty influenced by one of the manufactures in Guyana, and we still work together. It really builds into quite a large thing, on this topic of social design, new roles for design and being part of the larger discourse. At the same time, I built this reputation in economic development for organizing and implementing projects of this type, and so it’s kind of a happy marriage of my interests and governments and developments banks, so It has been a privilege to work on quite a few projects like this.

Vodunuvo is your most recent project, can you tell me a little about this project?

Vodunuvo is a project based in Haiti, 8 manufacturers and communities, and about a year and a half long project, product development focused, In working with a couple of funding agencies one BrandAid project, and the other the Trade Facilitation Office of Canada. I also was working with a local design team two people I had worked with before both architects living and working in Port-A- Prince. Haiti has such a very distinct and not very positive point of view, there is a lot of concern, and it’s also viewed as being an abysmally poor setting, which it is, but there is much more to it then that. They have a long history of craft production in Haiti, and I mean on a large scale. Many of the organizations I have worked with there, one of them has 2000 networked garment workers and the other employs 500 people. The community-based organizations are 200 people all making metal projects, so they are big scale and they are getting done some major work. We wanted a way to change the view on Haiti a little bit as a source for design and designed objects that they owned and that were being made, so we developed a conceptual platform, which was resituating Voodoo as a way to understand this artistic process in Haiti.

So all materials used for this project came from Haiti?

Absolutely. Because most of the making is historically connected to Voodoo, and Voodoo artists making things for rituals, and transforming spaces with the things they make and most things that they still make there are materially connected to that as well. So that became both are starting point and our ending point, and all the things that were produced which are about 40 new products are all based in some way on Voodoo, the religion, the object, the artifacts and the process and the materials used.

Can you tell me a little about the name Vodunuvo?

We wanted the name to really express this new view, so nuvo meaning new, and then Vodu is actually the Haitian spelling of Voodoo, V-O-O-D-O-O is actually the
americanized version of it from 50’s movies and the misunderstood versions of the religion. So we really wanted to suggest Haitian and Voodoo in the word.

What’s next for Patty Johnson?

I have just done a new chair for David Design in Sweden. I am also working on a very interesting project with Ophex, also in Sweden, which represents a real mix of both of the strands of my practice. I have designed a line of furniture for them, chairs and tables, and they partnered with Architects Without Borders in Africa. This line of furniture will be produced both in low-tech factories in Africa and then high-tech factories in Sweden and sold both in the African market and in the European market. They will also be used in all the buildings that Architects Without Borders are working on in Africa. Really it’s a project that I love, because it brings all the things that are near and dear to me in a new way.


Article Written By Emma Watson


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