Dakar-born, Paris-based Sylvie Johnson ventured into the art world completely by accident after visiting a textiles exhibition and falling in love. She immediately took a year off to dive into learning to weave, which led to an apprenticeship for a couturier that had worked for Christian Lacroix and Chanel. She founded her own Parisian atelier and earned the honor of being considered “the refined designer’s source of textiles.” Now, the textile designer is the Creative Director of Merida, a textile design house in Fall River, Massachusetts, where she’s reinvigorated the brand by re-engineering the looms, experimenting with new materials, and working on new techniques. For this month’s Where I Work, Johnson shares a glimpse of the two spaces she works in and how she goes about it.
What’s your studio/work environment like?
I actually have two spaces I work out of on a regular basis. One is in my Paris studio where I am based most of the time. When working in Paris, I prefer my environment to be very organized & quiet. But I also work out of Merida’s Fall River, MA workshop. I love how the workshop takes on an almost musical essence with the rhythm and sound of the machines and looms.
How is your space organized/arranged?
In Paris, my office is almost like a collector’s pied-a-terre but with a minimal aesthetic. I have different libraries to store books, yarns, samples, and color charts. There is lots of artwork that I have collected over the years. In Merida’s Fall River, MA workshop it is much more of an open space that I share with the design team. We are also surrounded by yarns, samples, and books that support a very collaborative environment.
How long have you been in this space? Where did you work before that?
I have been on rue Jacob in Paris for 15 years and in Merida’s Fall River, MA workshop for 2 and a half years.
If you could change something about your workspace, what would it be?
Is there an office pet?
Do you require music in the background? If so, who are some favorites?
I don’t really require music in the background while I work. The music is often in my head while I’m brainstorming and creating. It’s a kind of accumulation of notes that emphasize my ideas. I’m very much a creative in that aspect.
How do you record ideas?
I often go through notebooks with lots of notes & sketches for ideas and new collections.
Do you have an inspiration board? What’s on it right now?
Sometimes! Aside from themed inspirations for Merida’s collections, each rug also has a specific reference point. It can be a small detail from a piece of art, a simple line of poetry, or even something I’ve seen during my travels.
What is your typical work style?
Creation is all the time. It is everything I love and it also happens to be my job. I’m always thinking about materials, volumes, art, and design – all in a certain natural way. Merida’s rugs are all natural, only using rapidly replenishable materials including plant fibers. I very much prefer a scheduled work style but I am always taking notes everywhere and anytime. I keep all of my senses open to fulfill both myself and my work.
What is your creative process and/or creative workflow like? Does it change every project or do you keep it the same?
I’m creating everyday, never for a specific project. Ideally I like to have a library of ideas that I can use at the right time.
What kind of art/design/objects might you have scattered about the space?
In Paris, I have several pieces of archeology including a middle eastern alabastron and a roman antique vase. I always have color charts and textiles strewn about. I love to surround myself with artifacts and books that have inspired me during my travels.
Are there tools and/or machinery in your space?
In my Paris office no but in the Merida Fall River, MA workshop lots! It is a mix of heirloom looms and machines that we combine with handwork to design the rugs.
What tool(s) do you most enjoy using in the design process?
Of course pen and paper – essential to sketching and designing. And then I would say my sampling loom. In Fall River, my essential tool is all of the help from our master weavers. I love the team environment that Merida has created and built in Fall River.
Let’s talk about how you’re wired. Tell us about your tech arsenal/devices.
In Paris, everything is handmade and so is my sampling loom. While in Fall River we have dobby looms for a kind of flat weave. We also have a tufter and jacquard machine.
What design software do you use, if any, and for what?
My team uses a computer punch card dobby to create the woven patterns in Merida’s collection of wool rugs. Multiple rows of holes are punched on each card with one complete card corresponding to one row of the rug design. We also use Pointcarre which is a textile CAD software for jacquard textiles and Hitex, an automatic system for tufting the rugs.
What’s on your desk right now?
A notebook and 2 books, I keep it minimal!
Is there a favorite project/piece you’ve worked on?
I put all of myself into all collections so I choosing a favorite would be like choosing a favorite child! I love them all.
Tell us about a current project you’re working on. What was the inspiration behind it?
For Merida’s 2020 collections, I’m pulling inspiration from the Italian Renaissance and Ottoman Empire as well as unstructured stripes. Portfolio will launch this Spring and Atelier in the fall.
Do you have anything in your home that you’ve designed/created?
In my office I of course have a Merida rug that I designed. At home I designed and created my own curtains as well as my own textiles for a pair of Jeanneret armchairs.