Textile designer Virginia Johnson’s mission to brighten life
On a sanity-testing afternoon in Toronto, an Aspirin-white quilt of cloud hovering over soggy streets, I’d prefer to cozy up to a quilt of another kind: one by Virginia Johnson. When it’s grey in my soul, there is nothing — short of a one-way ticket Outta Dodge — more restorative than spending quality time with a Virginia Johnson textile. Like Vitamin D set to cotton voile, VJ’s designs have all the fresh, feel-good merriment of a Jean-Jacques Sempe illustration, or of a Raoul Dufy watercolour. If Dufy is known as the Painter of Light, Toronto textile and fashion designer Virginia Johnson could be known as the Designer of Delight. Happily free of all fashionable urban cynicism or irony, her illustrations have a childlike optimism.
Ms. Johnson’s breezy fashion and home collections — patterned with owls and flowers and leaves and camels and turtles (you get the picture) — evoke a fantasy life of salt-air and sunshine, in places that have never met a snowflake or a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. With Ms. Johnson’s recently launched home-decor collection, you can trade your light-therapy lamp and schemes for southern-hemisphere resettlement for a joyful assortment of Ms. Johnson bedding and chain-stitch pillows and rugs.
Given that her creations are so good at kindling escapist fantasies, it’s not surprising Ms. Johnson’s first inspiration came from those ultimate reality-bucking fantasy worlds: soap operas. “As a teenager, I was addicted to soap operas. Santa Barbara was my favourite,” Ms. Johnson says, “I wanted to design clothing for Kelly Capwell.” (Note to the uninitiated: SB’s Kelly Capwell was played by a young and splendid Robin Wright.) “I had this beautiful set of markers and would sit in front of the TV drawing clothes for the characters,” she says.
With a degree in art history from Queens University, Ms. Johnson headed to New York to study fashion at Parsons School of Design in 1995, later landing a gig as design assistant for accessories at Helmut Lang. But the career coup came once she moved back to Toronto in 2001, when Andy Spade (Kate Spade’s husband) commissioned Ms. Johnson to illustrate Kate Spade invitations, a calendar and a trilogy of KS Etiquette Books (Style, Manners and Occasions). It was also at that time that Ms. Johnson resolved to start her own collection. “I hadn’t really thought about textiles before, but took a Saturday silkscreening class and it was a huge eye-opening experience for me: That I could draw whatever I wanted on to fabric,” she says, “It merged my two loves.” Ms. Johnson shopped around a couple of samples to some of her favourite shops in Manhattan, and scored two orders at boutiques in the Lower East Side (TG 170 and Steven Alan). “That was the most exciting thing, ever!” She then participated in her first trade show in New York, which proved more challenging: “Everyone had very subdued stuff, and I looked like I was making circus clothes.” Her fashion collection, less Cirque du Soleil than just plain bound for the soleil, is now available at such retail temples Barney’s, Liberty’s, Selfridges and Net-a-Porter.
Her home collection is long on Ms. Johnson-style joy and whimsy. (In person, by the way, she is as friendly, soft and welcoming as her creations; there are no sharp edges.) “I feel that I make the stuff when I’m happy,” she says. “I had enough of the fashion world that was complicated and exclusive — I want my stuff to be inclusive and accessible. I love bright colours and I want my things to be pretty and uplifting.” Waging her war on the Age of Neutrals, Ms. Johnson says: “It’s been neutral forever. I feel that pattern hasn’t made its full resurgence yet.” Her bedding — bright, pretty, uplifting — is hand block-printed in Jaipur, India, with flowers and ducks and leaves, in shades of lemon yellow, grass green and pool-blue. In India, the blocks are hand-carved and pressed on to the cloth on padded tables — a system that produces variations in colour and naturally uneven prints. “I wanted something bohemian and irregular and soft for the home,” she says, “I didn’t want anything crisp and manufactured.” Also handmade, her chain-stitch pillows and rugs are crafted by women in Kashmir, India, using traditional techniques. One day, she says, she’d like to branch out into tableware.
For fantasy, cost is (surprisingly) reasonable: a queen duvet cover, for instance, is $195, a queen-sized quilt is $325 and (very cute) crib set are $295. And even if her home creations traffic in fantasy, Ms. Johnson keeps realism where it counts: in the price tags.