John Waters: I’m the doctor, you’re the patient. We have the usual 50-minute session. Are you ready, sir?
Henry Johnson: I’m ready.
You have designed yourself an amazingly relaxing and beautiful compound here that has taken you many years to finish. You’ve finally moved in
and it reflects your personality perfectly. Can you ever really be depressed in a house you designed for yourself?
I’m always depressed [both laugh]. Always. I don’t want it any other way.
But how does that reflect in your design here?
I hate ‘pretty.’
But people would say there’s really beautiful things in here.
They always do, and I just ignore it. I don’t know what to do with that.
If somebody came in here and called it ‘pretty,’ that would be bad?
I would feel like I had failed myself.
You designed this place for yourself, so really you are the client and the designer for the first time. It’s much more complicated. You can never make up your mind because you have millions of things to choose from. So you can be depressed in a house you designed for yourself?
Absolutely. And I love it.
Next question. You have a main house, a rebuilt 18th-century log cabin guest house, a small 19th-century structure that contains sleeping quarters, and a modern greenhouse. Does a compound like this suggest a split personality?
Absolutely. Sometimes I’m the plantation owner, sometimes I’m the cowboy and sometimes I’m the cotton picker. You just never know what it’s gonna be until you wake up.
OK. If an architect reflects the client’s psychological awareness, how do you deal with self-analysis when you design for yourself? Can the neurotic hysteria of your clients be avoided in the self? Can you not act like your worst clients?
It’s 10 times worse, because I get what I want.
Well, you still have to do it on a budget, though. Do you think up a budget for yourself, when you start?
No. You once told me— ’cuz you and I were talking about our personal success— you said to me, “I finally can go someplace and not have to look at the price of a book.”
Well to me, that’s what being rich is. That you can buy any book you want and not have to care how much it costs.
I bought a jacket recently when I did your condo in San Francisco. And I forget to ask the price because I was so busy. Now, I certainly can afford the jacket, but it was shocking when I got the bill. I had to hide it from my accountant!
Is there anything you feel guilty about in your design? What should architects feel guilty about in your design?
Oh, always, I’m, I’m… everything is guilt.
Do you mean the same way I’m thinking— whenever you think up a movie, once you make it, it can never be anywhere as good as it was when you thought it up. Because you have to make an idea real. Is it the same building this compound?
That’s what a schematic is— the first phase of design— you know, research, and then you develop the idea, and then you do the working drawings, and then you do the construction documents, and then you face the reality: “I’ve got to build the fucking thing.” Well, gee wiz it’s nowhere near what it was on Day One and that was two days before or two years before.
Because it can’t live up to the original splurge of creativity in the first idea?
We throw it all out on the plate, and then you’ve said ‘My God, I don’t need 12 courses, I just wanted a snack.’
Give me some examples of what architects do that they should feel guilty about.
Oh, they all think it’s the most original thing in the world. I didn’t invent furniture and rugs and roofs and windows and things like all this. You know Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser said ‘There are no new ideas, it’s only those that have been forgotten.’
So, what architects do wrong is what? Is put it in the wrong perspective, or not know where the idea came from in the first place?
It’s all egomaniac stuff.
You mean just to be noticed, and not for… reasons that have nothing to do with whether it’s good or not?
Just to be noticed is everything. Hell, look at the buildings when you ride around any place and you look up at them and you say ‘My God, how the hell is that building going to talk to that building?’ and you realize there is not intent to talk and to mix and to blend. It’s ‘look at me.’
Well that’s the good thing about a compound is you put all these together and each building has to speak to each other. And they do, but they’re very different.
I think they speak to each other. I mean, you know, this was 1743 and… [indicates the cabin] off of our plantation Down South. I drug it up here.
How’d you get it here?
On a truck. Piece by piece by piece. I remember as a child that was where my favorite sleeping room was when I visited my grandparents. But, you know, we had had the place for 230 years and that’s always been my favorite. I didn’t invent log cabins. It just was up here [taps his head], it was memory. It’s all memory speaking.
Well, this next question is perfect then. Does being from the South give you design superiority or an inferiority complex?
All I know is that us Southerners are crazy as loons. Every Southerner I know that I love is… they’re… we’re all nuts.
So maybe a little of both? Superiority and inferiority put together?
I don’t know the distinction there. You know some people say, ‘You’re so fucking arrogant, Henry.’ I don’t get that I am an arrogant person. I am a slow person. You know I am very naive about things.
There are lots of candles, so I am wondering: Is the extensive use of candles in decorating a suicidal fire hazard— a cry for help?
Oh, I am sure, but I don’t even think of that. There are 83 goddamn recessed light fixtures in this house. Luke Tigue, my lighting designer, he was an angel. Just a genius. And I can tell you, that the modern lighting works in here. It really works. But in general, everybody’s house today looks like a goddamn hotel. It all looks like ‘Dallas,’ so bright. What happened to a silk lampshade? What happened to a fireplace? A candle?
So, inside/outside living, which you certainly have here and is a great part of it— does it reflect exhibitionism or adventure?
It all depends on who’s looking. Cause I get up in the morning like I came into this world, jump out of bed and I go right to the porch and…
So, being nude sets you free in your house?
Absolutely, it seems the right thing to do. And, I’ve been caught early in the morning, at 4:30, out watering plants in the summer and just had no idea…
Well, you’re more liberal than I am. But if you’re nude, too bad then. If they come over without calling then be prepared, right?
It’s not like, ‘Oh I am free— I don’t have to put my robe on.’ It just never occurred to me. I remember living for 35 years in a condo on the top floor at Saint Paul and Chase [downtown], and so it never occurred to me.
So people who live in partial glass houses, like you do, should throw stones?
Absolutely. You know that my inspiration here was John Paulson, the greatest minimalist architect alive today.
Well, tell us a little about him, for people who don’t know. He inspired you in what way?
In concept. The hardest thing to do to live in this house is to edit. Reduce to the bare minimal. Hence minimalism.
But this house doesn’t look like the kind of minimalism where you’re afraid to pull up a chair and read a book in, like some of them do.
Well I gave up the idea. I though it was ridiculous. With all the beautiful things in the world, why would you want nothing? You know, I didn’t grow up in a Zen family. I grew up in a family that had been in the same house for over 200 years, that threw nothing away. ‘Minimal’ didn’t mean a thing.
But you took some of it.
I was just fascinated with it after having had stuff that you grow up with, everything in the world was saved, you didn’t throw anything away. It was the reverse, so I was of course attracted to the opposite.
Exactly. But you didn’t become a full-tilt radical minimalist.
I just gave in to the— what do they say— the flow?
But your art collection is anything but minimalist because it’s so amazing. What does it say about your mental health? Is collecting a compulsion? Addiction?
If I am out on the farm and I am picking berries and I need two cups of berries, I’ll pick a hundred gallons of berries. I am obsessed with ‘get everything you can.’ And then pick the best.
So where do you buy art? Where did this collection come from?
Most of it is a project that I am working on. If I need an 18th-century or 19th-century color palette with hybrid roses, I’ll buy. It’s impulse and things I am working on. This is mostly Maryland artists. You know, there’s Jimmy Rouse, there’s David Brewster, there’s Bud Leake, there are 18th-century paintings here, there’re two Picassos here, there’s all of Amanda’s stuff.
Amanda’s your daughter, Amanda Johnson.
Right, Amanda’s paintings from the Museum School, and the School for the Arts. And Henry Cowe and Danny Dudrow, and Lautrec and Susan Rouse. All the people that I know and surround myself with. It’s part of that thing of not throwing things away. I don’t think there are any accidents in the world, and when I look at something I don’t care if it’s representational, whether it’s modern. It could be something on the side of the road. I am drawn to it.
Now books. We both have houses filled with them. How significant are they to your psychological design and growth?
Well, let’s say this: There are 3,000 books I haven’t even unpacked yet. I have to build another house to put the books in.
Books are in every home that you’ve done. It’s a very important part of how a home looks— books and art. Don’t you think?
It’s the most beautiful wallpaper in the world.
Yeah. But if you haven’t read them it doesn’t work. You can’t buy books by color. That, to me, is what decorators should feel guilty about.
Your sofa does not have to match your painting.
Does white space in your home reflect inner peace or a fear of commitment?
Both. You know, inner peace, I don’t know shit about it. Nor care. I don’t get inner peace.
Well, could you be a decorator with inner peace? Maybe not. Cause the creative urge doesn’t really depend on inner peace, no matter what field you’re in.
I don’t care how I feel, you get up and go do the job, because that’s what you’re paid to do, and that’s what you said you would do. And your lawyer likes for you to do that and your banker likes for you to do it. So it’s like, yeah you gotta eat. I don’t care how you feel about it, just shut up and do it.
But for this place that you built for yourself— how many years did it actually take?
The two-room house took two years. Everything went wrong, down to the contractor dying before he finished.
You’ve worked with me on decorating several of my places and I’ve always loved the lamps and mirrors that you find. Are mirrors narcissistic? Do they deserve the same competing spaces as art on the wall?
They are art.
That’s what I mean. Because I would probably never give up wall space for a mirror, except with you because you’re always right. Every mirror you’ve ever picked looks so great in that house.
Well, a mirror is one thing, the frame is another. Cause I once did a house with nothing but mirror frames— I took the mirror and just had the frame.
Now are lamps about control, you know? Can they retouch your face without surgery?
Untouched is like virginity. Now that would be inner peace!
OK. ‘Untouched’ is inner peace to you?
OK, I understand that.
And I never thought of that before.
That’s why we’re here. But are lamps about control? What are lamps about when you think about a room, besides lighting obviously?
It’s about reading a book. You’ve gotta have light. Even in the middle of the day I’ll sit right here by this table and read a book and all of a sudden it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and I sat down at 6 in the afternoon. So, is it about control? It’s about controlling me from getting up, going out and digging in the yard! I love playing in my house.
Is storage true happiness? Does it come first in your relationship with the house?
You know, it’s like a library here behind all these panels [he gestures to the sliding panels].
Explain it though, because it’s a huge part of the design of this house.
Yes. You don’t have to look at everything you own. Like your great-great-great-grandmother’s Baccarat. You just don’t have to look at it. I go in people’s houses, they have china cabinets full of everything— I want to put a sheet over it. It’s just too much [gestures to his walls]. But then you look at all this art and I say, ‘Well, that’s not too much.’
You’ve got storage here that’s so hidden. But it’s all built-in and behind things. And that was—
Of course it was. But does that come first when you think of a house? The design of it?
For me, it does. But, I’ve never gotten anybody else to do this. So, this house primarily was for the ability to have everything and not get rid of it.
And not show it?
And not to show it— ‘Thou shall not show thy wealth.’
But you know where it is.
I know exactly how many forks I have of my 18th-century Fiddlethread.
So you can go in the closet and feel healthy?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve never felt any other way about it.
So how many closets are in this house, Henry?
More closets than there are rooms. There’re only two rooms here. There are no doors.
Well, there’s more than two rooms, I mean there’s, well, it’s broken up, but…
It’s a bedroom and a breakfast-room kitchen, and that’s it.
But it feels like many rooms, though, certainly.
There are eight outdoor rooms.
Yeah. Now, family antiques, you mix them with the new. Are they a psychological burden? Or proof of a healthy entitlement?
I think it’s both. This settee was made and has been with the family, and I’m the second person to upholster it since 1828.
And where was it? Was any of this stuff in your old apartment?
This came up from Charleston. Had it in storage, but it had never been touched. I think mice probably lived in it, I don’t know how many dogs had puppies on it, cats clawed it, and so the answer to the question is, ‘Is it a burden, or is it entitlement?’
What’s the burden? Having to keep it?
Having to keep it because, you know, when it was bought— that was a lot of money. I mean a lot, lot, lot of money, to be carved in Charleston. You know, we didn’t have master carvers in our family. That, you know… [points to a wingchair] is a 1792 Charleston wingchair and originally it was painted. And some brilliant, butch, basement-member of my family decided that the paint had to be taken off. Well, you might as well have burned it. No value now. If the paint had been left on it, it would have been a $50,000 chair. So, it’s both. But I wouldn’t get rid of it or sell it for any amount of money.
But you also have new things in here, too, that you mix with, right? Are there any new things? Besides, like, kitchen utensils and stuff.
But the lamps don’t look new, really. But that’s what I mean, you can’t really tell if they’re new, so it just… fits in.
Well, I like things that are old and new, and I look at something brand-new, and it will fit because it’s bold. When something is clear, and something is bold, then it fits old and new.
And do you ever put something in here, and then realize it’s wrong and take it out? Or are you pretty much secure in your taste?
Well, sometimes I know it’s not what I want, but I don’t have things around that I dislike immensely. I’m waiting on the right coffee table.
So, in other words, you have a coffee table now, but you’re gonna get a better one?
It was my grandmother’s coffee table, you know, and it makes perfect sense because…
But it’s a burden cause you want a better one.
I want a different one, not a better one.
Well, if ‘different’ would be better— I don’t mean money-wise better, I mean aesthetically better, for you.
That’s an interesting point, because, that certainly holds the books, the teacups, the stuff that I have in front of that sofa. There’s nothing wrong with it. I just feel like I want stainless steel.
Which would be almost the opposite of what it’s sitting in front of.
I certainly have contemporary artwork that’s almost obscene with an antique in front of it [laughs]. I think it’s a great mix. We’re wrapping it up here, because, as you know, your insurance only goes so far, with this doctor.
My insurance quit covering this a long time ago.