Even the briefest look at the work of Ruth Johnson signals an aesthetic of uncompromising excellence. Dramatic in the jaw-dropping sense, and underscored by a rigorous sense of sophistication, Johnson’s work on projects like the 800-square-foot glass and teak Lake Michigan Cliff House, with its Bond-meets-Buddha vibe, or the Lake Minnetonka Guest House, restored to its Frank Lloyd Wright and John Howe perfection, speaks volumes about her portfolio and approach.
To Johnson, however, founder of Ruth Johnson Interiors, the drama is simply a result of getting to work on beautiful architectural projects, she says. “It all starts with the architecture.”
The daughter of a Dutch commercial designer, fine artist, and master illustrator, and Japanese mother who crafted all of the family’s clothes and draperies, Johnson graduated with a degree in English literature and women’s studies. She really wanted to be a journalist. But she studied interior design instead, then worked for Room & Board and Ligne Roset. After Charles Stinson saw how she’d styled one of his tour homes, he hired her. Johnson worked with Stinson for 12 years before starting her own firm.
“I lean towards the organic, modern look,” she says, which “is the Stinson aesthetic; connecting the outdoors and indoors, modern but not harsh.” But she’s also flexible, Johnson adds. “Several years ago, I did a beautiful renovation on a traditional horse farm.” Johnson has also worked on lofts and condos. “Really, it’s about listening to the client, honoring the architecture, and editing spaces to make sure they’re full of warmth and light, and balanced.”
Johnson is currently working with a repeat client—a young family that’s growing and recently moved to the suburbs. “We’re doing a lot with color, freshening up, and adding a lower level,” she says. Johnson’s also working on a renovation in Medina, and a bathroom/bedroom/closet renovation in Edina. COVID-19 hasn’t slowed her down.
“Throughout my career,” she explains, “I’ve worked remotely on projects in Chicago, the Hamptons, and elsewhere out of state, so communicating and working with clients from afar is a work style I’m comfortable with. When my team and I have the opportunity to visit clients in person, we wear masks and social distance. So far it hasn’t been an issue.”
About her approach, she adds, “Everything I do is designed to honor the structure, scale, proportion, and feeling of a space. I love collaborating with clients and their architects and builders, and going through every step of new construction and renovation to keep the project running and realize the client’s vision… while having fun. There’s a sophistication and warmth brought to the modernist designs, but also, I work to make sure it reflects the client’s lifestyle—and that’s a bit of fun in there. Even when elegant, the interiors shouldn’t take themselves too seriously.”