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12 Questions with Designer Benjamin Johnston

Interior designer Johnston, in his first interview since the debut of his inaugural licensed collection, discusses his stunning new area rugs, his design ethos, and trends.

Lisa Vincenti
portrait of designer
Designer Benjamin Johnston

HOUSTON -- Architect and interior designer, Benjamin Johnston, who cut his teeth at Cesar Pelli & Associates in Tokyo, has become a sought after interior architect and designer, creating bespoke interiors for well-to-do-clients around the globe.

The Houston-area designer, who founded his eponymous studio in 2016, stepped into the world of licensing last month with the debut of his inaugural licensed collection -- a range of sumptuous handcrafted area rugs of high-mountain wool and Chinese silk created in collaboration with Houston-area rug atelier Madison Lily Rugs. And talks are already underway to expand his franchise to include luxury fabrics and fine furniture.

"My collection with Madison Lily Rugs is my first foray into formal licensing," Johnston explains. "We will continue to pursue these opportunities when they are a good fit, because we love being part of the millennia-old, artisanal process of creating furnishings for everyday lives."

luxury contemporary living room
Designer Benjamin Johnston's signature style, self-described as "classic, curated and cool," was on display in this sophisticated residential living room.
Johnston describes his signature style as "classic, curated and cool" yet he always puts functionality before style in the ultra-luxury properties he designs for clients. "My designs are as varied as the clients I serve. Each is driven by two major factors – the architecture of the home and each client's story. I explore what they find to be "classic, curated and cool," and then help them tell their story in the most beautiful way possible. I am currently working on a dozen new homes we are designing from the ground up as well as a Mid-century-inspired lake house in Maine and a historic penthouse renovation in a 150-year-old building in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.). Each project offers me the opportunity to create a new story in its special place in the world and in the lives of our clients."

RugNews.com sits down with Johnston to get the details behind his inaugural area rug collection -- and to discover what makes him tick, why his clients seek him out, and what he anticipates will be the major drivers of residential design.

How would you describe your design style?

B.J.: Classic. Curated. Cool. 'Classic' refers to designs that adhere to classic design principles stemming from my experience in architecture. 'Curated' indicates a thoughtful mix of materials, time periods, and design references specific to the architecture of the home and our clients' own personal histories. 'Cool' refers to the youthful spirit I infuse into every design. Many of my clients are attracted to my work because they feel sexier and more vibrant in the spaces we create for them.

Do you have a signature look with your designs?

B.J.: I am a minimalist at heart and every element within my designs speaks to a specific purpose. I am drawn to the mix of old and new with multi-cultural influences and use those elements to build a collected aesthetic with layers that lend comfort, luxury, and a sense of timelessness.

Where and how do area rugs fit into your designs?

 vibrant colors in a high end home office
Designer Benjamin Johnston isn't shy about using bold area rugs as a major decorative statement.

B.J.: For durability, I prefer hard flooring surfaces layered with area rugs for warmth and comfort. Rugs have the power to serve as not only a functional piece, but a major decorative element as well. They serve as a foundation that I layer complementing patterns and textures around in the form of pillows and draperies.

What were the most important criteria for you in the creation of your new area rug collection – and choice of licensing partner?

B.J.: We are so fortunate to have a resource like Madison Lily Rugs in Houston. Founder, Edgar Podzemny, is not only an expert in the field, but also an artist at heart. I loved partnering with him and his team to create a collection that is fresh, but also complementary to their existing collections of contemporary rug designs. His expertise helped me translate my concepts into colors and materials that achieved the vision, making it such a seamless and enjoyable collaboration. We had so much fun that we have already designed our second collection together which is set to debut in 2021! I am looking forward to what the future will bring for this partnership.

What are some highlights of your premiere rug collection?

green and blue feather like rug
Benjamin Johnston's debut rug collection features stunning plumage-inspired designs crafted of high-mountain wool and Chinese silk. Shown, Divine Plumage

B.J.: My collection was inspired by the increasingly rare art of the wall tapestry. My goal was to create rugs that are beautiful enough to hang on the wall as art. The luster and infinite colors and textures of bird feathers were my starting point and then we had fun imagining new combinations that would be magical to experience. The "Flight" collection is handcrafted of high-mountain wool and Chinese silk, woven to create the delicate lines and distinctions inherent to birds' feathers. We have seven colorways to start and endless possibilities for new combinations in the future.

How are your new area rugs differentiated from other choices in marketplace?

B.J.: There are countless rug designs on the market that are safe that can serve as beautiful foundational pieces, however I have always found it difficult to source art rugs with a fresh sensibility that are also exquisitely crafted. Having the opportunity to conceive my own designs and see them executed to perfection by Madison Lily's master weavers is a dream come true!

Who is your target market for your area rugs?

Designed for collectors seeking exotic and inspirational pieces, the Benjamin Johnston Collection by Madison Lily Rugs ticks the boxes with its striking designs.

B.J.: This collection is for homeowners who are ready for the exotic and inspirational over subtle and quiet. They appreciate the art form of exquisitely made, hand-knotted rugs and are excited to live in spaces that are bold and distinctive. Whether these rugs adorn their walls or floors, they are created for individuals who crave nature’s wondrous beauty and admire luxury craftsmanship. 

How do you start a new design project?

B.J.: I tell my clients that I am here to serve as their master editor. I listen to their goals while also reading between the lines. I evaluate the architecture of the home and search for opportunities to make it shine. I detail their functional goals and create designs that solve their needs. In short, I take in and synthesize information that influences the ultimate design while leaving room for creativity and collaboration.

What colors, textures and furniture/decor pieces do you love the most?

bedroom with geometric rug
Natural materials, rounded lines are paired with geometric counterpoints in this bedroom design by Benjamin Johnston.

B.J.: This varies dramatically from client to client and from project to project. In general, I am continually inspired by nature and the tension that exists in our human attempts to replicate and control it. I'm drawn to textiles that are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the hand. Texturally, I adore using natural fibers like wool, velvet, and mohair on upholstery. When it comes to rugs, I prefer natural silk and wool or a combination of both for their beauty and feel underfoot. I am also constantly inspired by great art and admire its ability to transform an average space into something exceptional. It's easy to see how these passions play a powerful role within my “Flight" collection for Madison Lily Rugs.

What would you consider as one of your most career-defining projects?

B.J.: There are always substantial projects early on in a career that help fuel the growth of the business as well as ones that invite you to flex your creativity, and I have found both so valuable. One of my very first large projects was the complete renovation of a historic family estate in Mexico where I was tasked with lending the property a contemporary edge while embracing its history and its classic architecture. I spent nearly two years working on this project and it stretched my skillset in so many ways. The benefits and experience that came from this job helped me to expand my team, open a new office, and establish the infrastructure necessary for the growth of the business. I will forever be grateful for that opportunity.

a colorful contemporary living room
Benjamin Johnston employs unexpected elements to create one-of-a-kind settings.
What's the strangest request you've gotten for a job?

B.J.: The list of strange requests I have received over the course of my career is lengthy! I have been asked to design everything from an architectural carport to a theme-park-inspired kid's entertainment wing. I also declined the opportunity to design a home that would house a massive collection of big game taxidermy, with endangered species in the mix. Talk about working outside of your comfort zone…I couldn't bring myself to do it!

In your opinion, which will be the top trends in interior design for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021?

contemporary home office
An at-home office by Benjamin Johnston marries artful elements for the perfect backdrop to Zoom sessions.

B.J.: We are spending more time at home than ever before and every architect and designer I know is busy fielding requests from clients who are motivated to improve their homes. We are all eating, exercising, working, and consuming technology and entertainment at home. We want our homes to be pinnacles of comfort and renovations that once felt optional are starting to feel more urgent. My predictions for top trends in the coming year include:
-- Creating functional and beautiful home offices replete with a handsome background for online meetings;
-- The return of the home fitness studio;
-- Increased sales of second / vacation homes within driving distance;
-- Using design solutions to create multifunctional spaces;
-- A return to less open floorplans that allow for more privacy for working and schooling at home.

sophisticated home office
Zoom ready home offices and a return to less open floorpans are trends Benjamin Johnston expects to influence design looking ahead.
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