When Dayna Isom Johnson studied Simon Doonan’s legendary window displays for Barneys New York in class at FIT, she was bowled over by their wit, imagination, and humor.
Now she’s the one schooling him.
Johnson and Doonan are judges on the NBC crafting series Making It—hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, actors from the show Parks and Recreation. And the 33-year-old isn’t afraid to disagree with her 65-year-old costar, like the time Doonan was kvelling over a contestant’s unicorn mantelpiece.
“Simon was like, ‘That thing was incredible!’” Johnson says. “I said, ‘Simon, I’ve seen that 8,000 times on Etsy—it was not original.’”
She should know. Johnson has spent the past seven years at Etsy, an online marketplace comprising some 2 million sellers from all over the globe peddling handmade (and some vintage) clothing, accessories, home goods, artworks, and more. But since 2016, she’s been the company’s leading trend expert, hunting for new, fresh, and undiscovered gems that she can turn into bestselling sensations and spreading the gospel of DIY crafting.
“I believe we’re all born with a maker inside of us,” says Johnson, whose colorful jumpsuit and tassel earrings (from Etsy, of course) underscore her gregarious personality. “But sometime along the path to adulthood we lose it because we’re concerned with becoming a grownup or being cool. But we can all reignite that creativity, and I’ve seen that story come alive in so many people over the years.”
Johnson was born in “a speck of a town” in Louisa County, Va. Her father was in the Navy and her mother a social worker, but they had artistic souls, and encouraged their daughter to use her imagination.
“I grew up a true playing-in-the-dirt Southern girl, but I always had a creative niche,” Johnson recalls. She had a Barbie Fashion Plates activity kit that made it easy to create fashion sketches with lots of different outfits. “It was the first time I felt, ‘I want to do something like this.’”
Thanks to an aunt who lived in New York, Johnson learned about FIT and got in as a fashion merchandising student—thinking she would become a buyer.
“I thought being a buyer was picking out fabulous clothes for a store,” Johnson says. “And then I entered the real world, and I was like, ‘Excuse me, Excel sheets and math? This is not for me.’” Instead, through Assistant Professor Bob Shultz’s Strategies of Selling, she found that she had a natural talent for hawking goods and ideas, and Associate Professor Shawn Grain Carter’s international business lecture awakened more expansive ambitions.
“Between those two, I realized that no matter what I do in life, I needed to have some type of global impact … and be able to use my voice to sell and tell stories,” she says.
After working in various showrooms, Johnson landed a PR job at Chico’s before nabbing a similar position at Etsy seven years ago. But she felt that she wasn’t using her imagination. At the time, Etsy was still small—with 120 employees versus today’s 750—so Johnson approached her supervisors asking if she could use her expert eye and communication skills to help identify, nurture, and promote new talent and trends on the site.
“I thought, ‘I can find these things—I’m a maker at heart.’”
Johnson stumbled into TV two years ago, when an Etsy spokesperson backed out of an appearance on the Today show. Since Johnson had written all the talking points and messaging for the segment, the company put her on camera at the last minute. “From that moment I knew this was my dream job.’”
She started regularly appearing on Today as Etsy’s trend expert, and last year an NBC producer queried her about judging a new crafting reality show. She sent an audition tape, met Poehler, and got the gig, which she had to keep a secret.
“I told my husband, but I couldn’t tell anyone else,” she recalls. When she informed her parents that she would be in L.A. for a month for an “exciting project,” her mother warned her it sounded “fishy.”
Making It, which premiered July 31, is like Project Runway, but with crafts instead of clothes. Eight “makers”—who specialize in different mediums, from wood to paper to felt—complete two challenges a week, and Johnson and Doonan have to send one home at the end of every episode. But it’s also gentler and sweeter than typical competition shows.
“Amy and Nick were very clear from the jump that this not about drama, this is not about negativity,” says Johnson. “The goal is to inspire people to make and be creative.”
That goal guides Johnson in everything she does.
“Being a maker doesn’t always have to mean you’re knitting a scarf or making some incredible piece of woodwork or ceramic,” she says. “I’m an avid baker. I cook. I have this new hobby of making candles. You have to think about what brings you joy. Helping people discover that is something I’m passionate about.” —Raquel Laneri