Always taking into account an element of surprise and wonderment, former runway model and fashion designer Ariel Johnson has built a magical, fully female design team at her namesake firm, Ariel Fox Design. With her first project in the genre being the legendary Hollywood Towers, boasting a chameleon-like aesthetic Ariel Fox Design has become the darling of the multi-family world. Inspired by her travels and the artisans she meets, Johnson believes fabrication knowledge is power, and innovation and community, key.
She’s mastered balancing being a wife, mom and business owner thanks to setting (and following) boundaries. She never forgets to laugh and doesn’t take anything too seriously. But her number one? Self-love. “Love yourself as hard as you can, so then you have the ability to love everyone else around you. When you look through the world in that lens, it’s really lovely. It changes your interaction with people,” she says. Read on to learn more about the enchanting designer.
As a former runway model, how did fashion lead you to pursue a career in design?
Fashion was such a huge part of my life. As a runway designer, I traveled the world. I got to wear insane, crazy fashion, and it was really the segue into interior design. I went to school for fashion and met Tim Gunn at Parsons. He sat me down one day and was like, “Have you ever thought about interior design? I know you’re burnt out in the fashion world, you’ve seen the industry side of it.” I’d never considered it before. So, it was really a good turning point for me. I thought, “Wow, I can actually make money doing interior design? Yeah, sure, let’s give it a go.”
What else was alluring about entering the design world?
It’s not like fashion, where every season you have to create new collection. It’s a different pace, which was really appealing to me. As a runway model, I traveled and had a great experience in fashion. That was absolutely was my foundation for coming into interior design.
Your motto is: “Relentless in the pursuit of wonderment.” What is it about including elements of surprise in a space that delights you?
It’s really about the magic of interior design. I am a huge believer that you can create a space and have this element like a magic trick. As a viewer, you can’t understand how it’s executed or how it’s put together. It’s the state of wonderment. That magic is really what drives me.
Any new materials you are working with?
Yesterday we were looking at dichromatic glass. This glass has a chroma depending on how you’re turning it. We’re using it on the exterior of a building, but we started talking about creating art pieces with it. We are playing with film and projection light. That stuff just gets me so lit up. It’s creating color and light with kind of a new material. It’s almost like a test kitchen.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
Our design aesthetic has always been a bit chameleon-like. I get bored, so every project is very different from the last. But, I always kind of abide by an overall classic look. I describe that as paying homage to your past and your history by pulling from things that have a story, and then honoring what is current, relevant and accessible. Then we think of the future, looking at what’s coming up and marrying those three elements together. It’s looking in the past, being in the present and aspiring to the future.
You are the darling of the multi-family world, tell us about your first project in the legendary Hollywood Towers. How did you land it, and how did it help shape what Ariel Fox Design has become today?
Oh, The Hollywood Towers. I owe so much to that beautiful building. In 2008 I got laid off of my job in interior design, no one was hiring, and I couldn’t afford my loft in Hollywood, so a girlfriend of mine said, “Why don’t you go check out The Hollywood Towers. It’s this beautiful, old, historic building. I hear that the apartments are affordable because they’re in a state of construction.” I went and found a space that was very affordable. The property manager noticed that I was an interior designer and she said, “Oh, do you have a website? We’re actually looking for an interior designer.” Soon after, I landed in a big boardroom with developers and architects and talked about my vision for the building. I didn’t know what I was doing, really. I had never pitched a multi-family before. The developer was like, “We’ve never received a presentation like this before. This is very unusual. You’re hired.” I was a little bit in denial. Like, oh S-H-I-T, now I really gotta do this. I pulled on favors from friends and muscled through it, and it’s still installed today. We have a legendary stuffed peacock that presides over the lobby. It’s a beautiful art deco project that really launched my career. The message of the story is, when you think you’re at your lowest point, when you think it couldn’t get worse, sometimes life surprises you.
Describe Ariel Fox Design in five words or less…
Innovative, focused on community, hospitality and multi-family.
What are the Ariel Fox Design brand pillars?
We’re all women, and we’ve always been all women, and I feel very passionately about bringing our gender up, empowering them and connecting people. The industry now is really about connectivity and doing things differently. I’ve always challenged the way that we’ve run our office; just because it’s done this way doesn’t mean we have to do it this way. I love bucking the system a little bit.
What does your creative process entail?
Our process is pretty streamlined. We always start with a story. I like to look at place geographically and culturally, ask what the neighborhood is like. I think the most exciting projects are ones that we are kind of creating a neighborhood. We’re going into urban sprawl spaces and creating a new vibe for it. We walk through the experience of a resident. Because we don’t have a client, necessarily, we’ll create our own. And then we’ll go into space planning and then design development construction documentation. But really, the start of it is that the story will always lead us through, like bread crumbs, throughout the whole process.
Which showrooms do you shop the most, and why?
It’s kind of hard to get us out to a showroom, so I applaud Quintus because they have the 3-D view of their showroom so we can see what’s going on in the moment, without actually going. Innovations like that are really cool. Also, the fact that you can buy off of their floor, that’s exceptional and rare. I also love Rug Company, Una Milan, I love what David’s doing at Future Perfect. It’s more about the experience of the product than your more traditional, cram in a bunch of lines and maybe there’s one person manning the desk.
What criteria is most important to you when considering a furnishings brand to purchase from?
We’re crafting a list right now in our FF&E department of female-run and owned furniture companies, furniture makers, artisans and craftsmen. Again, going back to our mission statement, which is empowering women. We have really significant buying power right now and we put our money to encouraging the women’s trade because it’s not as strong as it could be.
What fashion trends are you seeing crossing over into design?
There’s a lot of crossover with fashion in the pattern world, the rug world. The idea of minimalism has been going for a while. This natural minimalism that’s happening in fashion is getting picked up in interiors. Kind of opposite of that, you’re also getting maximalization, overlaying and mixing lots of patterns. I think you’re getting a riot of pattern and color and then a kind of quiet, serene, clean minimalism. I like both.
How do you balance it all—being a mom, wife and business owner?
It’s hard to juggle it all but I found a good balance in it. I think the secret is boundaries. One of the reasons I’ve gone into the commercial world is that I can turn my phone off at 5:30 p.m., and I not pick it up on the weekends. I can have rich, engaged time with my son when I’m with him. I pass this along to my whole team, “Go have a life. Go have dinner with your friends. Go travel. I don’t want you working ’til midnight. Maybe on a deadline, that’s gonna happen. When you are fulfilled and excited to get out of bed in the morning, then as a designer, your work is gonna be so much better.” I have a very opposite work ethic in a way. More European, maybe. It’s like, take breaks, enjoy your life.
What’s next for Ariel Fox Design?
On the development side, looking at ownership on some properties would be awesome. Hotels is also the next step. I’ve also been working on a concept for a woman’s only workplace, called WOW. I’ve partnered with a group called WeVillage. They’re a flexible daycare, so you’d have daycare and your coworking space all-in-one, to help the moms out there, our mompreneurs.
What are some products you’re currently crushing on?
Sitting here in The Rug Company, there are so many rugs I’m crushing on. But product wise, lighting gets me super excited. It’s a bit of that magic, not understanding where the lighting’s coming from or how it’s being lit. Lighting is like the jewelry in a space. I just like shiny things.
How does travel inspire your design?
My travel influences 100% of my design. I think the groundwork for my taste level was traveling and seeing what was out there, meeting artisans. I did a trip to India and met amazing metal workers and weavers. In Mexico, I met copper makers and wood artisans. Picking the artisans and learning from them is the best part because it gets my whole mind going in a new direction. Fabrication knowledge is power.
Hotels you love?
I’m so all over the map. I love the 1 Hotel South Beach, The Baccarat Hotel New York, and the smaller boutique hotel, La Peer in West Hollywood.
Three things you’ll never forget …
I’ll never forget to laugh all the time. Nothing is too serious in life. To remember to fail really well. One of the best lessons for me is not to be afraid of failure, to embrace it and learn from it. And to love. I have to remind myself of that every day. Number one is self-love. To love yourself as hard as you can, so then you have the ability to love everyone else around you. When you look through the world in that lens, it’s really lovely. It changes your interaction with people.
What excites you most about StyleRow?
To be able to shop 24/7, anywhere in the world, it’s the ultimate access. I love the idea of having one place where we can source furniture and custom items, have communication with our reps, and have all of the back end stuff that takes a lot of time streamlined and accessible. Access is the key word. The product library is a huge resource. The rabbit holes of Pinterest and Instagram usually lead us to some European designer who made a prototype or a product that’s not listed, and it’s just a lot of wasted time.