If you’ve gone out to eat or drink in Midtown at any point in the last six years, chances are, you’ve been in the same room with Whitney Johnson. After designing the interiors and helping oversee the launch of restaurants such as Shady Lady Saloon, Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co., Bacon and Butter, and, most recently, LowBrau, she’s been known to pick up a few serving shifts in order to help with the execution of each restaurant’s overall vision. One-half of the design team Johnson & Ross (her partner, Tina Ross, handles the branding and print aspects of a project), Rocklin-born Johnson graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco in 2006 and returned to Sacramento shortly thereafter. Since then, Johnson, 26, has proven herself to be an integral part of the burgeoning restaurant scene and hasn’t paused long enough to decorate her own apartment. She talked to SN&R about how Sacramento’s potential excites her, and why when she goes out, she focuses on a restaurant’s mashed potatoes rather than its wall color.
First things first. Tower Bridge: brilliant or terrible color selection?
Brilliant! It’s gold. It’s very pretty. Especially when the sun sets.
What made you decide to leave San Francisco and come back to Sacramento after graduating?
When I graduated, my mother handed me a piece of paper that said how much it cost to live there, and I immediately packed my bags and moved back (laughs). And I had friends that lived in Sacramento, and it kind of became the happy medium between the suburbs and the city.
You’ve been involved in quite a few of the hip spots that have opened in Midtown in the last few years. How’d these opportunities come about?
Jason Boggs [co-owner of the Shady Lady Saloon] was one of the first people I met when I moved back. We sat down at The Golden Bear and had this two-hour session about changing the world, and how we were going to take Sacramento by storm. And then, he had the opportunity to work with Garrett [Van Vleck] and Alex [Origoni] as partners, and they brought me on. They were still working at other establishments [at the time], so I’d walk in with a magazine, and they’d come over to serve me water, and I’d open up [the magazine] and there’d be floor plans, and we’d circle something or cross it out. We kinda did that for a while until it was established enough for us to hit the ground running and get it open.
What’s your aesthetic?
We really listen to the vision of the owners and kind of the vision of the building, if it’s pre-existing or new construction. And we make sure that the process is very well-executed but doesn’t lose that sense of being organic. If you can’t roll with the punches along the way, then you lose a lot of the great ideas. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s important to ask that each place we open has soul.
So, Chez Whitney. How hard is it to work on your own living space?
Everything I own is in a 10-foot-by-11-foot storage unit (laughs). It’s not that I don’t want to [spend time on my own surroundings], it’s just hard. You have this Rolodex of stuff you love going through your head on a daily basis, and to pick that out for myself and to have to wake up next to it for the next six months is a little bit daunting.
And I like to move a lot. I like exploring new parts of town and different types of apartments. I have a suitcase collection that is 22 pieces. What in the world are you supposed to do with that? (Laughs.)
I enjoy doing it so much for other people that it satisfies that need, and so when I get home, all I really want is a glass of white wine and my dog and my good friends there.
When you go out, is it hard not to pick apart every aspect of the design? Like, when you walk into an Applebee’s, does it make you nauseous? I’m not necessarily accusing you of going to Applebee’s.
You know what’s funny? Applebee’s has one of the best white-chocolate brownie desserts, so you know, how can you be mad at them?
When it comes to going out, there are two mind-sets: There’s exploring bars and restaurants for the sake of design, and exploring for food and libations. And, occasionally, I’ll be out, and somebody will say, “OK, what color should that be?” And then I go off. … I like to enjoy whatever I’m a part of. I can’t be cynical and sit in every restaurant and say, “What’s that?” Because then I miss out on how good the mashed potatoes are!