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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Special to The Globe and Mail

Toronto's Patty Johnson took road trips through the African interior and kept in touch by shortwave with master weavers in the South American rain forest in order to create her new award-winning furniture line.

She joined forces with an extensive list of artisans, manufacturers and development agencies in Guyana, Botswana and North America to create the North South Project collection (http://www.northsouthproject.com) of "ecologically, economically, culturally and aesthetically sustainable" furniture and accessories.

"This is a very collaborative process," says Johnson, who has designed products for Keilhauer, Nienkämper and other leading Canadian manufacturers and is now completing a master's design degree in London. "It's not me designing a bunch of things and sending the plans to the people who will make them. We decide what we're going to present together."

Under the North South banner at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York last month, Guyana's Liana Cane introduced Johnson's open-weave Plaisance lounge chair and ottoman, along with the Gunns Rocker, which features a frame of teak-like jatoba wood. In partnership with Timehri Studios, a New York company that has Guyanese roots, Cane is also producing Johnson-designed jatoba garden furniture that will suit compact, urban settings.

In the meantime, Johnson began designing for Mabeo Furniture, a company based in Botswana. Working with African oak, Mabeo has a decade of experience creating custom pieces, primarily for clients in urban South Africa. Johnson's designs, which include cabinets, a dining table and an elegantly spare update of the Windsor chair, are the company's first production pieces. The Maun Windsor chair will retail for about $600; other pieces in this collection will sell for $300 to $2,000.

Johnson has also been working with traditional weavers to create basket and lighting collections. Pendant light fixtures made by Wai Wai tribe members in remote southern Guyana have tightly woven shades that terminate in a frizzy nimbus of loose ends.

Although much good may flow from the North South Project, Johnson could be indirectly responsible for a slight increase in the mortality rates of fauna living near the headwaters of Guyana's Essequibo River. Knowing that the Wai Wai survive in part by hunting small game at night, she brought them useful gifts from Canada: headlamps from Mountain Equipment Co-op. In return, she received woven ankle bracelets that conferred honorary Wai Wai status upon her.


The Globe and Mail

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