January 15, 2012
Made To Order: Why Architect Bill Johnson Is on Every A-List Restaurateur’s Speed-Dial
From New York to Vegas, this ATL-based master builder has proven his design mettle
By Nancy Staab
- All photos courtesy of The Johnson Studio
Bill Johnson of Atlanta’s The Johnson Studio offers up a menu of jaw-dropping visual effects for restaurant/hospitality clients from coast-to-coast––including Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Pasadena, Las Vegas, New York, Miami, Boston and beyond. Here’s the scoop on Johnson’s building finesse, the glam projects in his pipeline, the designers in his personal pantheon and what artists are loaded on this weekend-musician’s iPod.
Imagine Atlanta’s restaurant landscape minus Aria’s jewel-box red bar and sci-fi light fixture; the award-winning “green” construct of Ecco; ONE Midtown’s glowing purple façade; TWO Urban Lick’s raucous warehouse atmosphere and over-scale red lanterns; the robust, wood-centric palette of Kevin Rathbun Steak; the red-leather-and-brass-rail conviviality of Bistro Niko, the Mediterranean temple of Kyma, or the Georgia-chic decor of One Flew South and its fabulous pine forest murals. It would be a pretty grim landscape indeed. These are just a few of the iconic projects that bear the design stamp of Bill Johnson of The Johnson Studio. His small, custom and very modern architecture firm, perched in the charmingly historic (if anachronistic) Candler building downtown, is the go-to for destination spaces—from the minimal to maximal—that put the spotlight on hospitality.
Johnson’s Atlanta projects are iconic and he’s worked with many of the top toques in town: Kevin Rathbun, Gerry Klaskala, Pano Karatassos Jr., and soon Richard Blais with the upcoming The Spence eatery in Midtown, not to mention nationally renowned chefs like Dallas’ Dean Fearing or the Brennan family behind New Orleans’ legendary Commander’s Palace. Not surprisingly, countless glossy magazines have rhapsodized about Johnson’s most recent projects like the breathtakingly urban rooftop bar at The Wit hotel in Chicago (named one of the “World’s Hottest Rooftop Restaurants” by Travel & Leisuremagazine); the swanky Old Hollywood spaces at The Langham hotel in Pasadena (The Royce at the Langham was just named on of the ten best new restaurants by Los Angeles magazine with a special shout-out to the design); the sleek aesthetic of 360 Rooftop in St Louis, within view of the arch; or the waterfront Legal Harborside (named one of America’s Best New Restaurants 2011 in Esquire magazine). And up next for this sought-after firm: an upscale $2 million-dollar restaurant/bar RED in Atlanta’s Philips Arena in collaboration with Buckhead Life Restaurant Group; a boutique Charleston Hotel; and a fancy, yet-to-be-named Dallas project conceived as a glass box in a park! (Rumor has it he’s also signed on for another major project in Atlanta but the studio won’t go on record about it). He may even go international in 2012 with at least one Caribbean and Hong Kong project under consideration. Read on for more of Johnson’s artistic insights and his wonderfully eclectic style picks in the “Taste Test “ at the conclusion of the interview.
How did you enter into the architecture profession?
I wound up in Atlanta because I transferred into the School of Architecture at Georgia Tech. I was 21 years old and newly married. I did not begin my college career wanting to be an architect though! I began as a chemistry major, with the idea that I would someday go on to dental school. My father was an orthodontist, and I thought that I was destined to follow his footsteps. Two things happened: I began dating a girl (that I later married) whose father was a general contractor, and I immediately was more interested in what he did than what my father did at the office. Simultaneously, I rented an apartment from a young architect, who lived next door, and we became friends and he introduced me to the process of creating buildings on paper . . . I was hooked.
Do you remember your first experience with architecture that made an impression?
I remember my first trip to New York when I was 12. As a boy from a small Southern town [Charleston, S.C.], I was fascinated not only by the powerful scale of the buildings, but by the intricacies and detail of the interior spaces. I actually remember walking into the Chrysler Building, but the entiretrip made an impression.
You are a name architect here in Atlanta but your portfolio of projects actually extends from coast-to-coast. Tell me about some of your recent projects or whatever you are particularly excited about now
360 in St. Louis is fantastic . . . it got great exposure during the World Series. It is this amazing restaurant and bar that we built on the roof of an existing 26-story building overlooking the Cardinal’s stadium. You can sit at the bar and watch the game! It was really challenging, but extremely cool!
In Boston, our Legal Harborside just won one of Esquire magazine’s “best new restaurant” awards, which is awesome.
And in Dallas we’re just starting a restaurant that will be a beautiful glass box in a park. That has unique challenges, but it’s going to be really stunning.
It seem like the rooftop of the Wit hotel in Chicago particularly put you on the national design map: it is so cosmopolitan, breathtaking and glamorously modern. What are some of the main design elements of this space?
The challenge at The Wit was creating a comfortable restaurant in Chicago, on a roof, that was more than 50% exterior. We used a lot of glass enclosures and warmed things up with lots of fireplaces and fire pits with drink rails around them. We made a real effort to make the space comfortable with the elements, but also visually warm so that folks would stay and enjoy themselves. I think it’s working because it’s a year and a half old and it’s still hard to get in!
I also love The Langham hotel in Pasadena: it has a bit of an Old Hollywood glamour feel. You did the sophisticated, white restaurant The Royce with separate red and white wine rooms, and the 1930’s inspired Tap Room.What were the inspirations here?
The Langham is an historic building so we wanted to respect the tradition while making a contemporary statement at the same time. Our space is a bit eclectic with the style of some of the furniture pieces, which give it that retro look, but the lighting, glass, and polished stainless really say “today.” I think that it feels modern but looks like it belongs there.
Who are some of your favorite architects, interior or industrial designers, past or present, who have inspired you?
My list of inspirational figures goes on and on. Like so many, I am in awe of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe and other great historical practitioners . . . how can you not be? Early on in my career, I really admired Pat Kuletto and Adam Tihany as they really focused on restaurants and how much the right environment could add to a dining experience.
I really became inspired when I first became aware of Philippe Starck’s work. He led a creative charge in hospitality design that’s still rolling. He did very familiar things in very new and different ways that were fun and functional at the same time.
Why did you end up specializing in restaurant design? Are you a rabid foodie or were you drawn to the theatricality and fantasy of dining spaces or something else?
All of the above! I do love food and wine, and restaurants are wonderful opportunities for design creativity, but what I really enjoy is creating places for people to enjoy Life. To me it’s the total experience. In our culture, restaurants are places where people go to relax, to recharge, and to connect with our fellow humans. A great environment with people bringing you great stuff is a welcome break from the “daily grind.” I like to think that what we do, in a small way, has a positive impact on people.
I love food but I am guilty of choosing my dining options based on atmosphere to a large degree. How does design and architecture and the experiential play into a restaurant’s success?
That’s a difficult question because I must admit, I will go anywhere for food that I love, but usually it’s the overall experience I think about when contemplating going out. I think of the three-legged stool analogy: food/service/environment. All three are important.
Speaking of atmosphere, I am a huge fan of your Mon Ami Gabi restaurant in Las Vegas. Was it fun to really let loose with a Vegas project? And I suppose it was good training grounds for Atlanta’s Bistro Niko?
Working in Vegas is amazing because the expectations are set very high! There is very little that a designer will suggest that will be considered “over the top”!
In that environment, our projects are rather tame, but it was great working with the level of professionals that develop and run restaurants there. We did make a trip to France for inspiration . . . and that always helps!
Let’s talk about some of your iconic Atlanta projects. I loved your re-imagining of the Lumen lobby bar and public spaces of The Ritz Carlton Atlanta downtown, including the salon-like gallery room. Tell me a bit about that.
It was our way of re-presenting all of the hotel’s collection of classic portraits in a contemporary way. I think people actually stop and look at them!
ONE. Midtown is one of my personal favorites: Can you discuss that design in brief: the purple lit entrance, the pendulum candlestick lights, etc.?
ONE. Midtown is one of my favorites, as well, because we did it on an extremely low budget. I used to call it the “naked restaurant”… it was stripped down to nothing! The “candlestick lights” are an example because they’re just bare but interestingly shaped bulbs in utility sockets. The glowing entrance was designed to distract attention from how totally unattractive the building is!
How about two other Atlanta restaurants Ecco and Two. Urban Licks?
Ecco is that warm and welcoming neighborhood place that just feels good to walk into. TWO. Urban Licks is larger than life . . . drama, drama everywhere, and it’s fun! We wanted to make a space that was warm and friendly but stimulating to multiple senses at the same time.
And One Flew South has garnered tons of design raves…
The restaurant One Flew South is all about Georgia. We wanted the heart pine flooring, the Georgia marble bars, and the pine forest mural to give visitors a taste of our state.
What are some of The Johnson Studio design trademarks despite your vast and varied portfolio?
I would hope that it’s our attention to detail and our intelligent use of materials, but I also like to think that our designs are appropriate for our clients and their guests. I think that our designs are varied and diverse because that goal leads us in many different directions.
What would your dream restaurant project be like?
I love the ocean so something really connected to the sea would be amazing as a dream project . . . maybe a floating restaurant.
How closely do you collaborate with chefs and how much does menu etc. play into your design concepts?
We collaborate really closely with most of the chefs that we work with and I think that it’s extremely valuable. The menu and style of cooking really should dictate the design.
Given your specialty, have you actually drawn any designs on restaurant cocktail napkins?
OMG . . . many, many, many times. I’m a bar guy.
What is your design process like and what tools do you use?
Our design process is very collaborative and involves the entire team that we put together for a project--typically 3 or 4 folks. We start by sitting around and talking, which inevitably involves sketching since architects and designers usually can’t talk without drawing! So, we’ll banter and opine until a favored direction starts to emerge, then we’ll disperse. After some individual work, we’ll re-assemble and begin to distill ideas and try to illustrate our thoughts. We often have several viable options, and we share them all with our client. We like to involve the client as much as possible. We usually do everything by hand--plans, concept sketches, photos, colors, materials, and furniture--until the design direction is established. We move to CAD [a computer design program] when we start to make it real.
How detailed do your design contributions get: do you and your team help with the look of the menu or selection of dishes, flatware, napkins or that kind of thing?
We will design anything that our clients will allow us! I love working with the look of the tableware. We have even designed a few server uniforms along the way.
You are a master at lighting. What is your approach to lighting and are there any light fixtures you are fixated on right now.
Lighting can make or break even a good design so it is critical. I believe in dramatic lighting . . . which really means playing up certain features and playing down others.
Contrast is good. I’m really into new lighting technology, which evolves daily. Some new things that are now achievable are fantastic.
Do you ever get inspired by movie sets given your rather theatrical design bent and if so which ones?
I love theatrical design and I’m always eager to see the latest set for the Oscars or the Grammys. They are usually great!!
How do you answer the humorless critics that say your architecture is too theatrical and that the focus should be on the food instead?
I don’t think I want to have dinner with them . . . they don’t sound like they’d be any fun. I’m all about food and I would argue that our designs don’t compete but rather enhance the food experience.
Tell me a bit about your company headquarters in the ornate and historic Candler Building? I love the caryatids at the entrance, the curving staircase with winged lions, the fancy elevator and decorative door-plates. How and why did your modern practice end up in this building and how does it inform your work?
All of us here love the Candler Building. While we’re all pretty much modernists, we still appreciate the uniqueness, the detail and the art that went into this beautiful old building. I know that it’s inspirational to me because I can feel the design. It’s a source of motivation.
If you weren’t an architect, what would you be doing instead?
If I were following my heart, I’d be a working musician somewhere . . . I know that I don’t have the chops to be great, but it’s still my first love. Other than that, I would have to be doing something creative to be happy. I’m wired like that.
Tell me more about your interest in music and that yellow guitar:
My father was a great piano player and “played his way” through college, so I grew up around a piano, which I enjoyed tinkering with at an early age. I got a guitar for my 13th birthday and immediately started playing with a kid next door. By fifteen, I was in a pretty good band and we eventually were playing dances and clubs all around the state. It’s been in my blood ever since. I love most varieties of music but I’d have to say that I’m a rock/blues guy.
What do you do in your spare time or on a typical weekend when not working?
I like spending time cooking, eating, and drinking with my friends . . . usually at home since I go out a lot during the week.
What kinds of things do you cook?
I really enjoy working in the kitchen and making a meal come together. For me, it’s almost instant gratification since most of my work projects take months or years to happen vs. hours to start from scratch and create a really cool dish or two! It also makes me appreciate what chefs do . . . I stand in awe of professional cooks! I like long slow roasting and braising on the weekends . . . something that I can do while I’m doing other things.
What do you think will be the next restaurant design wave?
I think that we’ll continue to see more high quality casual restaurants and more “home grown” celebrity chefs vs. absentee star chefs. Restaurants will be more approachable and comfortable by design, but that doesn’t mean boring.
Cocktails will continue to grow in importance and bars and dining areas will continue to morph together. I think we’ll see more beer being paired with food.
What character traits must an architect have to be really successful?
Humility, humor, determination, perseverance, and resilience come to mind.
Can you reveal anything about the design of the new Richard Blais restaurant The Spence, coming this spring to Midtown Atlanta?
It’s going to be simple, fun, and brand new, while being familiar and comfortable.
What else exciting do you have in the pipeline in Atlanta or elsewhere?
We’re doing our first boutique hotel (the interiors for the entire project) in my hometown of Charleston and I am super jacked about that!
We also just got an amazing commission for a restaurant in a park that is being built over a freeway in Dallas. It’s an unbelievable opportunity and something very different for us. I can’t divulge any more information on these projects now, but stay tuned…
The Johnson Studio, 127 Peachtree St. NE, Suite 1717 ( in The Candler Building), Atlanta, GA, 30303. 404.525.5400 or www.johnsonstudio.com
Bill Johnson will speak about his design projects in Atlanta and beyond Wed. March 28 at 6PM at Switch Modern showroom in Westside on Howell Mill Rd.
CLICK ON SLIDESHOW AT BOTTOM OF STORY FOR MORE PROJECTS BY THE JOHNSON STUDIO
TASTE TEST WITH BILL JOHNSON
What’s on your iPod?
Wow . . . there’s very little music that I don’t enjoy at various times so my iPod is very varied. Classic music, classic rock, roots blues and country, reggae, Cake, Linkin Park, Kanye . . . something new I heard last week, and more! I like to put it on shuffle and let it go.
Books on your nightstand?
I just finished Keith Richards’ Life and I’m finally getting around to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I don’t read a lot of books . . . I seem to read more periodicals.
Favorite design blogs, sites or magazines?
I read The New York Times every day to stay in touch with the “big picture”, but I read trade mags (Food Arts, Nation’s Restaurant News, Hospitality Design, etc.) and restaurant blogs to stay in tune.
Pop and high culture icons?
Icons: Frank Lloyd Wright, Howard Hughes, The Beatles, Giorgio Armani, Eileen Gray, Morris Lapidus, Lucinda Williams, Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Tadao Ando, BB King, David Lynch, Danny Meyer . . . there are many more!
Fave food shows?
I do like Top Chef [Bravo] because I love to watch the skill, creativity, and passion that those people exude. I also like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations [The Travel Channel] because it really integrates the food, the place, and the experience, which I feel are intrinsically connected
Most mind-blowing restaurants you have experienced in the world (other than one of your own)?
I’ve seen so many amazing restaurants that it’s hard to say, but Sketch in London made a real impression when I first saw it several years ago. The list would go on and on!!
Food or restaurant design trends that you are over?
I’m over “crazy design” that is just for the sake of being unusual. I’m over uncomfortable seating and I’m really over TV’s everywhere!!
A black Porsche 911.
Ansley Park . . . in a miniscule 1960’s vintage townhouse!
Family, children, pets?
No children and two ex-wives in the past. I now share my life with a wonderful woman and Lucy, a 10 lb. terrier.
Favorite cities in the world?
Barcelona is a close second, but Paris is still my fave. I’ve been a number of times, and it’s always a thrill. Art is in the air . . . and art seems to touch everything. I have always dreamed of living there at some point in my life.
The Plaza Athenée in Paris is spectacular and I love the juxtaposition of the old and new. The Four Seasons in New York is fabulous . . . really substantial feeling! I love the way they integrated Joel Robuchon’s l’Atelier into the hotel.
Favorite Atlanta haunts?
Northside Tavern, Krog Bar, the West Side, Star Provisions, Eddie’s Attic, Dekalb Farmer’s Market, Piedmont Park.
Favorite piece of architecture in Atlanta that is not your own?
The Candler Building [which houses The Johnson Studio] would definitely be on the list along with the Healey and Grant Buildings for old buildings. I love the John Piccard Building at 14th and Peachtree and I think that what has been done with the High Museum campus [by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano] is fantastic.
The Johnson Studio, 127 Peachtree St. NE, Suite 1717 (in The Candler Building), Atlanta, GA, 30303. 404.525.5400 or www.johnsonstudio.com
Bill Johnson will speak about his design projects in Atlanta and beyond Wed. March 28 at 6PM at Switch Modern showroom in Westside on Howell Mill Rd.