Text: Lydia Somerville
Photos: Stephen Karlisch
Houston designer Benjamin Johnston has worked all over the world, most notably in Tokyo for César Pelli. But working on 35,000-square-foot commercial spaces caused him to realize that his passion lay in smaller spaces, and specifically, interior design. Upon his return to Houston, he opened a design firm and has since made a name for himself for luxurious houses with a global perspective.
For a recent project in the Tanglewood neighborhood, the structure of the house by architect George Tracy was complete and offered an obvious design cue. “Tracy envisioned grand spaces like the cathedrals of Europe,” says Johnston. “We decided to play with the question of what time period the house is in, with slick, glamorous surfaces against the ancient architecture.” Taking inspiration from the round clerestory windows of the living room, which cast orbs of sunlight that travel the room throughout the day, Johnston repeated circular motifs throughout the house, from a starburst fire screen in the family room to a circle worked into the study’s woodwork.
A less obvious theme was the client’s love of jewelry. Johnston wove details like beveled edges, chain link motifs, and jewel tones to infuse the house with the client’s favorite elements. The two themes weave together to form a symphony of design spanning centuries.
“The challenge was so take such a large space and make it feel intimate and comfortable,” Johnston says. In the living room, a pair of sconces flank the fireplace like statement earrings and draw the eye down from the lofty ceiling. A custom mirror over the mantel makes its own jewelry reference. “It was hard to find an artwork to take advantage of that very tall space,” he says. “I was inspired by old pier glass mirrors for the beveled joints, like facets on a diamond.”
Because the couple frequently entertains, Johnston installed a custom, sprawling bar. “We were able to create a fully functional bar, complete with custom brass and glass shelving that hangs from above. There is plenty of room for servers working behind the bar during large events,” he says.
An antique Baccarat chandelier the client inherited from her grandmother crowns the dining room. “It’s a more cloistered room, with an arched ceiling,” says Johnston. “We wanted a juxtaposition of old and new, with the modern dining table and chairs placed beneath the antique chandelier.” A photograph by Christy Lee Rogers hanging over the sideboard marries past and present as well.
A primary bedroom wing with its own foyer and sitting room gives the couple a cocooned retreat within the house. Jewel motifs abound in the bedroom, with cuff-like details on the bed, a fabric of interlocking rings on the headboard, and another mirror given the beveled treatment.
But the bathroom holds the house’s climactic moment. “I was inspired by Turkish baths to create a shower room,” says Johnston. Fully clad in marble, the light-filled space features a pair of shower areas and a tub built into its own ledge. “To let the steam out, we designed the open grillwork over the doors in a chain link pattern.” It’s a delicious bit of irony that the man who chose interior design over vast architectural projects has found a knack for making pretty big statements himself.