The Scene Setter
If dining out is a theatrical experience, then Sacramento interior designer Whitney Johnson may be the city’s leading set designer, crafting visual feasts to complement the edible art on our plates. From the Shady Lady Saloon’s lush Gold Rush bordello look to Hook & Ladder’s hipster-historic vibe and Kru’s Tokyo-inspired elevated elegance, she’s curating the culinary environment for some of the city’s most accomplished chefs and bar masters. And she’s just getting started. With a bevy of savory new projects about to be launched, the 31-year-old Rocklin native is more poised than ever to design and conquer.
I“I am the Daniel Day-Lewis of design,” says Whitney Johnson with a laugh, from Booth 4 at the Shady Lady Saloon on R Street, the very first restaurant she took on back in 2008 when she was only 21. Maybe it’s her high-pitched voice, the messy topknot revealing the bicycle tattoo behind her right ear, or the way she is constantly, endearingly, pushing her oversize Prada tortoiseshell spectacles back onto the bridge of her nose that makes her seem more like a college student than Sacramento’s preeminent restaurant designer. Yet, after Johnson transformed a 1920s brick-and-timber building into a saucy pre-Prohibition-style bar the likes of which the city had never seen, she has followed suit by designing nearly 20 hot spots around town.
Unwittingly, you’ve probably sat among the fruits of her labor, especially if you’re a regular at such hipster havens as Hook & Ladder, the farm-to-table tavern with a regionalist flair, or Bottle & Barlow, the bar-slash-barbershop bedecked in punky Art Deco. Kru’s sophisticated new East Sacramento home rounds out Johnson’s exceptionally productive first decade as a design wunderkind. Now, for the next phase of her career, the longtime free agent is contributing to the city’s full-blown renaissance—arguably, a chapter she helped set in motion—with the backing of veteran Sacramento interior design firm Miles Treaster & Associates, where she is leading its newly formed hospitality division.
On some level, the Rocklin native sees each project as an imaginary central character in her wildly diverse filmography. Shady Lady, for example, is the woman with the naughty handprint on her fleshy backside, the one prominently depicted in the saloon’s collection of vintage boudoir photos, who carries out her wanton ways amid crimson flocked wallpaper, behind heavy velvet drapery and on Rococo-style furniture. “Mr. Grange” is a handsome politico who impresses his houseguests with a well-curated, floor-to-ceiling whiskey library and a private dining room decorated with commissioned art—both ideas manifested in the designer’s 2016 update of the Citizen Hotel’s signature restaurant. Perhaps closer to her own identity, Johnson thought of Bottle & Barlow as a young professional with a strong PMA (Positive Mental Attitude—a punk slogan that the bar’s owners live by), who values classic design, disrupted, as seen in the aforementioned Art Deco stylings of the unique hybrid venture—think channel-tufted leather banquettes, silver foil chevron wallpaper and framed vintage barber tools.
Yet for every fanciful musing, there are a thousand unromantic, roll-up-your-sleeves moments that Johnson approaches with equal gusto, another level of her total-immersion M.O. Hence the reference to Daniel Day-Lewis. When she’s in, she’s all in. She once spent three hours mopping up the ankle-deep water that flooded Bottle & Barlow due to a burst pipe, and fretted for days about how the newly laid laminate floorboards would fare. (Unscathed, for the record.) She can count unlawful entry among the ignominies of the job, having once burglarized an abandoned truck for Hook & Ladder trimmings, carting away a large metal sculpture for the back patio and wood for the wall behind the host stand. And there was that time in the not-so-distant past when she delved into the science of cringeworthy bodily functions for Kru’s sneeze-guard-free sushi bar and unisex bathrooms with river rock flooring to sway skeptical health inspectors.
“My brain really hurt on that project,” says Johnson, now 31, who befriended chef-owner Billy Ngo—“My Buu,” she calls him, turning his Chinese name into a term of endearment—in 2008 when she’d dash into the old Kru in midtown to buy sake “juice boxes” to go. To spark ideas about the new space (formerly Andiamo restaurant and a boutique grocery), the chef supplied her with photos of Japanese eateries he admired, namely Kyubey, a sushi bar in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza district, and Kyoto’s three-Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant, Hyotei. “I don’t really have a good sense of design, but I trusted Whitney to make the new space look as elegant as those places,” says Ngo. Indeed, Kru 2.0 is a vision of contemporary Japanese style with low-slung maple furnishings, a showpiece sushi bar and Pacific Northwest-inspired driftwood accents. “I still think the sushi bar is a little too wide,” adds Ngo of the 36 echoey inches from chef to diner, the distance required for an unmannerly sneeze to suitably dissipate, “but that’s just what it took to have an unobstructed stage for the food. I know she fought hard for that.”
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Often the only female and the youngest person on a job site (“The joke is that [when I turn up], it must be Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” she says), Johnson quickly learned that the best way to gain respect from the construction workers was to speak their language. “If I want to talk to the electrician, he’s probably going to explain things differently to me than he would to the contractor,” says Johnson. “Yeah, I’m not the architect. I’m not the builder. I’m the interior designer, but that doesn’t mean I start with pillows and paint. I had to debunk that pretty quickly, so I learned constructability. I learned code compliance. Working with a bunch of dudes has strengthened my integrity as a designer.”
She credits one of her first mentors, architect Bruce Monighan, with instilling the importance of her industry’s unglamorous side. He gave Johnson her first break in 2007 when she kept popping into his downtown firm at 12th and G streets looking for work. “I said, ‘I can be productive or disruptive, but I’m not going to leave until you give me a job,’ ” recalls Johnson, whose first apartment in Sacramento, which she moved into that year shortly after completing an interior design degree at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco, was just a few doors down from Monighan & Associates. Before the architect entrusted Johnson with his firm’s new project, Shady Lady—a client that she helped land—she stapled a lot of papers and spent a lot of time compiling an encyclopedic resource on sustainable shipping container architecture, of which Monighan was an early advocate. The compendium resides on his office bookshelf to this day. “Whitney has a lot of passion for her work, and on top of that, she’s absolutely fearless,” says Monighan, now the city’s urban design manager. “She just won’t take no for an answer.”
“I always think it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” says Johnson, who believes such gumption was inherited from her mother, Jacqueline Kjome, who worked as a cashier at Albertsons. One of Johnson’s fondest memories is of eating whole, raw potatoes, sprinkled with salt and speared with a fork, alongside her mother—they were a dynamic duo for the first nine years of Johnson’s life, until her stepfather came into the picture—while they watched Days of Our Lives. “God, I wonder how many meals my mother didn’t eat,” she says. “I never knew we wanted for anything, and she never complained. She got things done because nobody else was going to do them for her.”
During college, Johnson was a carefree bohemian living in SF’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood, drinking Malibu rum at Swig cocktail lounge and hanging out at the swanky Clift hotel, its daring tableau—lavender-and-white rooms with neon orange details and Klimt lithographs in the sumptuous ground-floor bar, the Redwood Room—inadvertently enriching her design education. “I felt like nothing was off-limits,” she says of a belief that has been propelling her forward momentum since.
Kjome had been bankrolling this fancy-free coming-of-age until that first tattoo—“LOVE.”—showed up on her daughter’s left foot, a typical example of Johnson forgoing permission in the hopes of forgiveness. For six months after Kjome silently took note of the ink, she sent rent checks to Johnson emblazoned with another impactful four-letter word: “VOID.” Drawing upon that spunky initiative she picked up from her mother, Johnson took matters into her own hands, funding her own youthful liberation by working as a hostess at a touristy Mexican restaurant and as a shopgirl at the luxury bath boutique Waterworks, with its $425 pewter trash bins.
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In a 900-square-foot neo-Tudor in East Sacramento, Johnson and her boyfriend of four years, Nickolas Duren, whom she met while on the job at Grange where he was the general manager, watch football or Jeopardy. On a typical evening, Duren, who now manages the front of the house at Canon, keeps an eye on the stove, where a scratch-made gumbo is likely simmering away. If Ngo is visiting, he’s helping himself to Hot Pockets, stocked in the freezer just for him.
Johnson’s penchant for history and regionalism informs her distinctive style—vintage meets modern hipster—and comes from a strong desire to set Sacramento apart from San Francisco and shape an identity for the River City separate from its Norcal cousin. “I need Sacramento to be Sacramento,” she says.
The normalcy of it all extends to the surroundings in a very human way. The couple, who moved in last March, went three months without a sofa, too busy to pick one out, and the bright orange front door, which Johnson selected for its big, welcoming window, could have been better strategized. “It looks right into the bathroom,” she says. “I’m not good at designing my own home.” Their art, which ranges from oil paintings of old men to a black-and-white photograph of the California State Capitol in 1896, leans against the walls because hanging them properly would require, again, the gift of time.
Johnson’s penchant for history and regionalism informs her distinctive style—vintage meets modern hipster—and comes from a strong desire to set Sacramento apart from San Francisco and shape an identity for the River City separate from its NorCal cousin. “I need Sacramento to be Sacramento,” she says. “California already has a San Francisco.” In 2014, Esquire described Shady Lady as a “Gold Rush bordello” and named it one of America’s best bars. At Hook & Ladder, Johnson commissioned light fixtures made of vintage fire-hose nozzles and chose wallpaper with images of fire hydrants to pay homage to Sacramento’s first fire company for which the eatery was named. Former Grange head bartender Ryan Seng, now owner of Can Can Cocktails, created a mural of the Sacramento area’s greatest hits—from Passmore Ranch caviar to Bledsoe pork—in one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms. And Bottle & Barlow’s mascot is the pompadoured quail, the state bird, a nod to Sacramento’s position as the capital of California. Such singularities contribute to what Johnson calls a “trickle-up theory,” in which an establishment’s strong food and beverage program, along with the design’s sharp point of view, create an optimal situation for hometown pride to rise to the top.
Though quiet coupledom in East Sacramento is a well-timed return to a level of domesticity that’s more reminiscent of Johnson’s early life in Rocklin than of her years living in the Tenderloin or as one of the first residents of Warehouse Artist Lofts (a mixed-use building for creatives in the historic R Street Corridor), it’s hard to dismiss the recent decade’s sybaritism as an ordinary phase. After all, rare is the instance when the wild abandon that commonly typifies the twentysomething experience becomes creative grist for the career mill.
As part of the paint-the-town lifestyle that she had grown accustomed to during her Tenderloin tenure, the then recent college grad would frequent, among other Sacramento hot spots, The Golden Bear, Kru and Monkey Bar. The friendships she sowed during that time unexpectedly yielded important projects that would eventually up the ante on Sacramento’s hospitality scene. The auspicious ripple effect started in 2007 at The Golden Bear, where she met Jason Boggs and Garrett Van Vleck, who were working at Randy Paragary’s downtown bar R15 at the time. Along with Centro’s then-manager Alex Origoni, the Paragary expats would open Shady Lady, a project that Johnson brought to Monighan. Years later, Shady’s barback, Jayson Wilde, launched Bottle & Barlow with help from Kimio Bazett and Jon Modrow, owners of Hook & Ladder and The Golden Bear.
Boggs admits that when Johnson started designing Shady Lady (sometimes using covert ops—Johnson remembers hiding paint chips and textile swatches in menus so that she could get Origoni’s approval while he was on the clock at Centro), the biggest strike against her was her age. “Everyone was like, ‘Who is this 21-year-old trying to tell us what to do?’ ” says Boggs. “But she had this confidence. She has this confidence. You just trust her.” So far she’s making good on an early pact that she made with her longtime friend one night over Miller High Lifes at The Golden Bear: “We promised we’d spend the rest of our lives making Sacramento a place we wanted to be,” Johnson says.
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Among Sacramento’s new wave of craft beer brewers, artisanal coffee roasters, forward-thinking chefs and bold young developers, Johnson is arguably one of the critical components in the city’s awakening, helping package these other extraordinary talents for mass consumption. Yet, she’s still not quite sure of her own success. Johnson’s work is freshly unveiled each time a new customer walks into a space she created, and conceivably her accomplishments hinge on that person making a return trip because being there was somehow transportive and made him or her feel like part of Sacramento’s exciting new vibrancy. “My craft is the closest thing to me that I can give to anyone,” she says. “I know that you don’t get to this level of design unless you’re vulnerable, but that’s especially difficult if you also happen to be fiercely independent.” Monighan empathizes, calling design “emotionally risky”—like many arts, it requires your talent and toil to be on display, for all the world to take note of its perceived strengths and weaknesses, subjective as they are.
As an independent contractor, shouldering the burden of public scrutiny, working primarily with men and being overtaken by her Daniel Day-Lewis tendencies were beginning to take a toll—a mini existential crisis was brewing. “At the end of the day, I don’t own Shady, I don’t own Hook, and I don’t own Kru,” she says. “I was so consumed with everyone’s business except my own. I knew when someone was getting fired. I knew when a partner screwed up. I’d worry about a restaurant’s blown-out light bulbs. If I can’t trust you to replace a light bulb if I’m not around, how can I trust anything else about your service?”
So Johnson signed on with Miles Treaster & Associates (MTA) in the summer of 2016, after a brief encounter outside Bottle & Barlow with the firm’s marketing director Leslie Hoffeditz—“She gave me her [business] card, I gave her a Parliament Light,” says the designer—and a subsequent revelatory meeting with its CEO Therese Kingsbury. “I knew immediately that MTA was everything I’d been missing,” says Johnson. “It’s a compassionate, empowering place because of the women who run it. I can send emails that are unapologetic, that are fact-based and forward, without feeling like I’m going to step on some guy’s toes or that he’s going to be like, ‘What’s wrong with her today?’ There’s an understanding that not everything goes right, bad days can happen, and that’s OK.” For her part, Kingsbury says she is impressed by Johnson’s deep passion for design: “She lives and breathes it. It’s just part of her DNA.”
Johnson’s first MTA commissions are now in full swing. Projects on the horizon in Downtown Commons include the local streetwear shop Getta Clue, which will feature a larger-than-life mural of a yet-to-be-revealed West Coast rapper; and Fizz, a cozy 998-square-foot bubbly bar with towering champagne coolers, blue velvet stools and Art Deco lighting.
And some hotly anticipated 700 K Street projects are targeted for a summer 2018 opening. Buudai, Ngo’s Chinese restaurant—set in a 1930s-style Shanghai “opium den” behind the inconspicuous original storefront (a trademark of the 700 K Street redevelopment project)—will be a basement-level bar with low ceilings, exposed brick, neon lights and a conveyor belt that will bring out dumplings and other small-plates food from the kitchen. At the neighboring Tiger, a New American cart concept from the Red Rabbit folks (who were influenced by the Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions in San Francisco), a graffiti expert is reviewing the ground floor’s original tags. Preserving the modern-day hieroglyphics is part of the design’s art-museum-inspired edginess, culminating in a 25-foot-tall light installation made of monochromatic acrylic panels.
In midtown, Johnson is working with the team behind the local music venue Ace of Spades to create The Cabin, a bar that is slated to open this summer and blends a mid-century modern aesthetic with woodsy accents like fireplaces, lanterns, picnic tables and “lots of plaid.” And April will see the debut of a new massive Out of Bounds Brewing Company restaurant and taproom in Folsom, which will boast 16-foot-high ceilings with hand-hewn pine trusses and a 6,000-square-foot beer garden with a bocce ball court.
At press time, MTA was in contract negotiations to design a boutique hotel in one of Sacramento’s oldest buildings. A year ago, Johnson had mentioned to a newspaper reporter that putting her stamp on a hotel was an unconquered ambition, and the breezy remark landed in a story seen by the hotel owner. “I just put it out there and it happened. This small act of saying something out loud opened the next chapter of my career,” she says. “Dreams seem to have a way of finding you.”