CULINTRO A Community for Restaurant Professionals

Hospitality Design (HD) ) magazine and Culintro, a culinary trade organization in New York that brings together restaurant professionals, have teamed up to bring a monthly online Q&A with some of the nation's top restaurant designers. Each month, we will feature a Q&A with an industry leader, talking about his/her newest project, the industry, what works, and what's next.


Bill Johnson Senior Principal - The Johnson Studio


Bill Johnson
Senior Principal,
The Johnson Studio Atlanta



Whether it's energetic airport restaurant One Flew South, beloved burger hangout the Varsity, or a swank Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta firm the Johnson Studio crafts inviting, vibrant spaces, particularly in its hometown and throughout the South. Here, Bill Johnson talks serendipitous moonlighting, hanging out with clients, and the importance of building codes.


HD: Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?

BJ: As soon as I realized that people actually made their living drawing their 'visions' I knew I wanted to do that. Of course, I had no idea about what was involved or that it could be really hard work!

HD: What are some of your first memories of design?

BJ: I remember designing a house for a friend of mine's parents and it was one of the first things I designed that was built. I would make site visits and not want to leave because I just loved seeing it become real. I was hooked.


Roof at the Wit Chicago

HD: How did you end up where you are today?

BJ: Pretty typical: architecture school (Georgia Tech) and entry-level jobs working for mid-sized firms doing boring work where I learned a lot of essentials. I did have a job that made a real impression on me which was working for an architect who specialized in interiors. I was introduced to great furniture and finishes and most of all, lighting. Lighting remains a passion of mine.

HD: Do you have a greatest lesson learned?

BJ: I learned to always know the code and be sure that my design complies. I narrowly avoided disaster early in my career by misinterpreting a building code that wasn't noticed in the plan review. It's always the architect or designer's responsibility.

HD: Why/when did you start the Johnson Studio?

BJ: I actually started freelancing, or moonlighting, while I was interning. They were small projects since people were always asking me to help them with design issues. I tried to bring some of these projects to my employer at the time, but he wasn't interested in the small projects that I found fascinating. So, not knowing enough to be worried about failure, I decided to start my own 'firm,' which at the time was myself and one part-timer. After five or so years we had grown to about six people and I adopted the current name. I liked the word 'studio' which wasn't used much then in our field. We're coming up on our twenty-fifth anniversary, but I still remember the 'early days' well. It was quite an education!

HD: Tell us about your corporate culture/design process?

BJ: We are like a family…a very close-knit group. We also are very collaborative as all of us are always getting involved in each other's projects. We have a completely open studio and it promotes that type of interaction. I think it's great because our projects get lots of scrutiny from lots of rather opinionated people!


Legal Harborside Boston

HD: Why hospitality? Why restaurants?

BJ: I love food and drink, of course, but hospitality spaces are places where we go to enjoy life…and I think that's important. There's also the added bonus that I get to enjoy experiencing the results of our hard work.

HD: What are some of the challenges of the industry today?

BJ: Schedules are always an issue. It seems that today, more than ever, people are waiting until the last minute to engage us, which really increases the pressure. Of course, budgets are tighter and that makes for more challenges. Also, while I totally support green building and working within energy codes, they add complexity to the design decisions.

HD: What is a recent project that was most challenging and why?

BJ: We are designing the interior of a restaurant building in a new park that is being built over a freeway in Dallas—so it's like being on a bridge. Everything is dramatically more complex technically.

HD: What are some projects you are currently working on?

BJ: The restaurant in the park in Dallas, a really exciting concept in the French Quarter in New Orleans [called R'evolution with chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto], and we are doing our first boutique hotel in Charleston, 7 Calhoun, where we are involved in all facets of the guest experiences—rooms, spa, lobby, lounge, and dining. That has been a very challenging but gratifying experience and I am hoping that we will be more involved with small hotels as we go forward.
Del Frisco's Grille, the new concept we developed with the Del Frisco's Restaurant Group, will continue with its expansion, bringing a new location to Atlanta, opening this fall.
Chef Kevin Rathbun will soon open his new concept KR SteakBar in the ADAC West area [in Atlanta], a unique, creative neighborhood near Lindberg. This restaurant will draw upon a few elements from [Rathbun'a] KR Steak and offer many small plates in a casual, comfortable, communal setting when it opens this summer. Also, we are working on Carmine's in Las Vegas, an 18,000-square-foot multi-level space, for the Alicart Restaurant Group, and the Spence, with notable chef Richard Blais, which is opening in Atlanta early this summer.



Postcard-Inn-Lobby-02.jpgRed at Philips Arena Atlanta

HD: What would be your dream project?

BJ: I've always wanted to do a restaurant on a barge.

HD: What has been one of your recent creative solutions for a cool design feature?

BJ: There's going to be a 22-foot diameter dome with art projected onto it in the lobby of our new hotel project in Charleston.


7 Calhoun arrival entry S.C.

HD: You have been fortunate to work with some great chefs and operators. What's the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?

BJ: Trust and mutual respect are essential…and it really helps if you like each other enough to enjoy their company because you spend a lot of time together.


7 Calhoun in Charleston S.C.

HD: What's the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant?

BJ: A restaurant should make you feel good just walking in. Together with great food and service, it's a complete and restorative experience. Intrigue and visual interest are important but there should be comfort for all of the senses.

HD: Motto to live by?

BJ: Don't wait to do anything…life is short!

HD: Greatest accomplishment so far?

BJ: Creating the Johnson Studio. I am often amazed by what this group can do.

HD: If you weren't a designer, what would you be?

BJ: A musician.

HD: When you are not in the office we can find you...

BJ: Ideally, on a sailboat.

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