A few years into his career, Benjamin Johnston landed a “whale”—a project in Mexico so large in scope that it required expanding his firm’s team from single to double digits. It was the turning point that put the young designer on course for bigger and better projects. “Every bit of profit we got from that project, we invested right back into the company,” he tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “The reward for good work is more work, so it was about reinvesting in our company and taking advantage of that.”
That investment paid off: Now, Johnston runs a design firm of 18 employees, his work graces magazine covers, he’s landed licensing deals with Chaddock and S. Harris, and projects take him around the world, from Tel Aviv to Monaco. Though he bills himself as a designer today, he entered the industry on the architecture side, working for renowned architect César Pelli in Japan right after graduate school. While there, he realized he was longing for the intimacy of small-scale, detail-oriented projects. Upon returning to the States in 2004, he worked at two different firms he co-founded before setting up shop and putting his name on the door in 2016. Though the firm started with a mixture different kinds of design work, he has found strength in specificity. “When I was able to finally say, ‘This is the work that I do, and I don’t do all of this other work that I used to do,’ it allowed my business to grow much more fruitfully and isolate myself and identify what it is that I wanted to bring to the world.”
On this episode, Johnston discusses why designers should reach out to companies for partnerships instead of waiting for an opportunity, learning to talk money with clients, and why taking risks is the only way to grow a firm.
Crucial insight: As Johnston started climbing the luxury ladder and working with different vendors, he realized that luxury product doesn’t equate to luxury service. “If I ask [about] the options for a product line, about the customizability of a piece or for a quote, it is like pulling teeth,” he says. “Not only may it not be accurate, but often you have to beg these people to provide that information and you will be waiting for weeks to get quotes. But we do that every day. It’s crazy that that’s the level of service that we get from a lot of these luxury product vendors.” Despite these issues with high-end vendors, he explains that some of his other middle-market vendors provide the best service and make his life as a designer a lot easier.
Key quote: “Many of my colleagues who have licensed their designs [with brands] have been the one who initiated the conversation; it wasn’t the other way around. That opportunity rarely knocks on your door—only if you’re one of the most well-known global superstars and the Kelly Wearstlers of the world are they going to knock on your door. If opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to build a door, so I built a door for myself.”
The Thursday Show
Meanwhile, on the latest episode of The Thursday Show, Scully and BOH executive editor Fred Nicolaus dissect the most recent news in the design industry, including the sudden closure of a North Carolina manufacturer, a new award for up-and-coming designers and a look at how microtrends are changing the industry. Later, designer Jake Arnold returns to the show to discuss the inspiration behind his new book, Redefining Comfort.
Listen below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Homepage image: Benjamin Johnston | Courtesy of Julie Soefer