Food & Drink

Whitney Johnson taps edgy creativity for restaurant design

Somewhere inside Hook & Ladder, among the rustic wood paneling and industrial aluminum trim, Whitney Johnson has hidden a small dinosaur. The prehistoric beast could be embedded in a custom painting or serve as a magnet behind the bar.

And somewhere inside Shady Lady Saloon, with its intricate crushed velvet wallpaper and red furniture that suggests risqué days of yore, Johnson has hidden another small dinosaur.

The same goes for the sleek, minimalist environs of Pizzeria Urbano.

Those dinosaurs double as Johnson’s signature on her design projects, in a cheeky “Where’s Waldo?” kind of way. But she’s left an even larger imprint on Sacramento’s restaurant scene. Johnson, 28, has emerged as the go-to interior designer for some of Sacramento’s most buzzed-about eateries and watering holes.

In addition to Hook & Ladder, Shady Lady and Pizzeria Urbano, her résumé includes the recently opened Goldfield Trading Post and the original midtown location of Bacon and Butter. She’s also working with downtown’s boutique Citizen Hotel and its Grange restaurant, and will provide the interior design for Bottle & Barlow, a much anticipated R Street bar and barbershop.

“She’s the ‘it girl’ now for design,” said Kipp Blewett, co-owner of Grange and the Citizen Hotel. “She represents what’s going on downtown right now. It’s young, it’s edgy, but still has a lot of class.”

Johnson has forged an aesthetic for area restaurants by riffing on the region’s history and agricultural abundance, with a modernistic approach to design that includes salvaged materials. Through her signature chunky glasses, she’s developed a look for 21st-century Sacramento that embraces its cowtown-isms but with cutting-edge flair. And her sensibilities are helping to define the city for the wider world, as Johnson’s clients have been featured in national publications such as Esquire and Sunset magazines.

“It’s about the energy and the vibe,” Johnson said. “People come to restaurants to have a good time, to eat, to laugh. They come to experience socialness they don’t get at home or in their office space. To help create that environment is a cool thing.”

Whimsy, and animals

Here’s another spot Johnson hides dinosaurs: her forearm. It’s decorated with several small reptile tattoos, which on this recent morning are covered by the sleeve of a camouflage jacket. Those inked dinosaurs speak to her sense of quirk and whimsy, a bit of playfulness no matter the surroundings.

“I love dinosaurs,” said Johnson, in between sips of coffee at Hook & Ladder. “It was a joke, and now it’s a kind of thing. I hide a dinosaur in every project. Each project also gets an animal. Pizzeria Urbano has this bronze Italian stallion horse on the shelf.”

Johnson says this while overlooking a patio table that’s flush with flowers and other greenery: cattails, Queen Anne’s lace, dahlias, even a few artichokes. Her first item on this day’s work agenda is to switch out the flower displays and tweak the Hook & Ladder’s décor from a summer to fall theme. Then she’ll head to Goldfield Trading Post to stain a set of wooden bar stools.

But Johnson plays a role that goes deeper than flower arranging and cosmetics. She’s hired to set a restaurant’s signature look and feel, including elements of architecture and project management. She also trains staffers on dress code and proper decorum. The cost of designing a restaurant interior can vary widely, but one rule of thumb is 10 percent of a restaurant’s construction budget.

“I work typically six days a week and take Sundays off – just for the sanity of people around me more than myself,” said Johnson. “Having such great clients, you don’t just open the doors and stop. You continue this process of growth and design. It’s important to stay relevant and not get stagnant. Just like with your food, if you change your food seasonally, it gets people back in the door.”

Just five years after debuting her first restaurant design project – Shady Lady – Johnson’s becoming as recognized around Sacramento food circles as many chefs. Part of that is because she’s a social butterfly who frequents restaurants for fun, and also because she’s not much of a cook.

“I think I made spaghetti once in my last apartment,” said Johnson.

She first delved into design during a Regional Occupation Program at Rocklin High School. After graduating in 2004, Johnson headed to San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, trading the comforts of Placer County for an apartment in the gritty Tenderloin district. She learned how to use AutoCAD, a key software program for design and drafting, and took other courses with hopes of working in the hospitality industry.

Her taste was always on the eclectic side. Nineties country and rap were her music of choice. Describing her fashion sense, one professor said it looked like she shopped out of a Neiman Marcus dumpster.

But the high cost of Bay Area living drove Johnson back to the Sacramento suburbs after she graduated in 2006 to pursue her design dreams.

“I packed everything up and moved back to Rocklin – and that lasted two months,” said Johnson. “At 9 o’clock I’d want to have dinner and maybe the only thing open was Starbucks. That’s when I moved downtown.”

A fresh take

Johnson happened to live downtown near Monighan Design, a firm that included Tower Records, Good Guys and The Gap as clients.

She would pop into the office and pester Bruce Monighan, the company president, for a job or internship. Monighan, impressed by her gumption, brought Johnson on board for some retail design work.

“I was kind of blown away by that sense of confidence,” said Monighan. “But at the same time I thought, ‘Is there anything behind it?’ There was. She had these wild, crazy ideas and it was like I had this tiger by the tail. But the work was good.”

At night, Johnson would hit the town for dinner and drinks. As a regular at the Golden Bear, she met co-owner Kimio Bazett, who would later open Hook & Ladder at 17th and S streets.

“Back then, she was just a young girl from the ’burbs trying to make it in midtown,” Bazett said. “She’s always been kind of a fashion-forward dresser. She was young and on the scene, and had a fresh take on things. She speaks the language of midtown.”

At R15/Cafe Bernardo, Johnson befriended then-bar manager Jason Boggs, who talked about his upcoming project called Shady Lady Saloon. Boggs shared his vision for the bar, a speakeasy-style establishment that would honor cocktail classics and harken to Sacramento’s bawdy days gone by. Johnson pitched Monighan about having his firm work with Shady Lady on the technical and legal side of its architecture. Johnson’s role would entail the interior design, marking her first major gig.

Monighan Design and Shady Lady signed on as partners and Johnson got to work. She developed the bar’s dimly lit, bordello-esque decor. The walls house vintage photos of prostitutes, which Johnson sourced from a local art collector.

“We wanted a classic bar that could stand the test of time, and that’s what she brought,” said Boggs. “Now she’s such a hot commodity in this town. It’s not just about interior design. She can open a restaurant for you and tell you everything you need.”

She’s also earned a rep as someone not to be messed with on a job site.

“I’ve never seen construction workers as afraid of someone as they are of Whitney,” Boggs said. “She’s all, ‘Hi, my name is Whitney and I’m your worst nightmare.’ One guy will stop putting tile down to smoke a cigarette and she’ll say, ‘Where the (expletive) is everyone else? We’re supposed to be open in a week!’ ”

These days, Johnson works as a freelance designer as her client list grows. She keeps an office at Hook & Ladder’s building that doubles as a storage unit. Most days she’s on the go, shopping for design materials, meeting with restaurant owners – or, maybe just dropping by a hardware store.

“I’m obsessed with hardware stores,” said Johnson. “I could spend hours in them. I really like taking things and re-purposing them. You have to be open all the time to things. You could be walking though a Home Depot and something clicks. You start designing around parameters, but not be afraid to do something that’s a little out of bounds or over the edge.”

She operates under the business name Johnson & Ross, though her former partner, Tina Ross, parted with their 2-year-old company in late 2013 and moved to Los Angeles. Before their break, which Johnson describes as “amicable,” Ross specialized in graphics and branding while Johnson focused on the interior design side.

Johnson doesn’t credit any particular design influences or an overarching aesthetic. But much of her work is imbued with a sense of history and localism, such as the vintage Sacramento saloon ads hanging at Goldfield and the “California Republic” motifs at Hook & Ladder. The American flags hanging at Hook & Ladder also show 31 stars, signifying California as the 31st state in the union.

“I really love California, and I love Sacramento,” said Johnson. “I also love Portland and would be there in a heartbeat if it didn’t rain all the time. But I don’t think Sacramento is the new Portland. Sacramento is the next Sacramento.”

Johnson’s work with the Citizen Hotel and its Grange restaurant marks her first ventures with a hotel chain. She’s overseeing a refurbishing of lobby furniture, but the biggest splash will be coming in the holiday season. Right after Grange closes for Thanksgiving service, Johnson and a crew of helpers will work all night to install some showstopping holiday décor.

Johnson envisions a Sacramento version of Gramercy Tavern, the New York City restaurant that transforms into a classy winter wonderland during the holidays. But this version will take a local spin, including playing off “farm-to-fork” and other Sacramento themes. She was recommended for the job by Grange bartender Ryan Seng and chef Oliver Ridgeway.

“I love hotels, and how you can get away, and it’s this sense of luxury,” Johnson said. “There’s going to be a lot of homemade garland. We’re turning the central lighting fixtures into huge floating wreaths, and we’re going to incorporate some cheeky food additives to the holiday décor.”

And if you look closely, there’s bound to be a dinosaur.

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