How to Layer a Modern Interior with Favorite Collections

A sitting room in Scott Hill and Arthur Johnson's
Dallas apartment includes a vintage Ward Bennett
for Brickell sofa, a vintage Knoll Platner low table.
The gold-leaf screen is by Square One.

Photography by Justin Clemons

Meticulous and modern . . . Furniture designers Arthur Johnson and Scott Hill of Dallas-based Square One Furniture, who moved into their two-bedroom apartment in the Terrace House last January, left behind a rambling modern ranch that they had painstakingly renovated, and before that a 70s era house in north Dallas, “the size of a football field.”

The new residence is much smaller, but the views of the surrounding Turtle Creek area are inspiring, and the mid-century era building imparts a sense of history. The challenge was how to integrate their large collection of contemporary furniture and art, including original prototypes of their own furniture designs. Some of it was put into storage, but they kept their favorite pieces, layering inherited art with modern "antiques" much in the way traditionalists have done for centuries.

For Johnson and Hill, modern doesn't mean stark and cold. It's warm, inviting, and full of their favorite collections.

24-karat gold Midas's Lunch by sculptor Paul Suttman

A Square One Riviera chair and Champagne end table;
lamp by Philippe Starck; sculpture by David Brothers;
Johnson and Hill have hundreds of art and architecture books
which they use constantly for reference.

Downsizing in this economy just makes sense. The upkeep of their earlier homes required constant diligence, Johnson, 55, says. “Our taxes had gone up at our previous house 125 percent in three years. It was getting ridiculous for the two of us to live in such a big house with humongous taxes. It made sense to pare down.” Johnson and Hill launched their furniture design business, Square One, in 2000. Hill's post-graduate work at UT Austin in architecture had kindled a passion for furniture design years earlier. “I started sketching prototypes of furniture in 1985,” he says.

In the living roomforeground, a T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings end table
from Nancy Hamon's estate; terra cotta bowl by Elsa Peretti;
chairs, sofa, and side tables from Square One.

Johnson, a graduate of The Art Institute of Chicago, parlayed his creative talents into staging and merchandising for companies such as Macy’s and Neiman Marcus, where he designed display fixtures. Designing furniture was a natural next step. Clients for Square One’s spare and elegantly conceived chairs, tables, benches and case goods include Duke University, the Nasher Sculpture Center, Rockwell Group, W Hotels and residential designers Mil Bodron, David Cadwallader and Emily Summers. In part, the large houses that Johnson and Hill purchased in the past served as places to keep their furniture prototypes in situ, as it were, they say.

Their rooms are very architectural, from the clean lines and scale of the furniture, to the way everything is placed in the room.

Johnson and Hill created interior architecture with a custom fireplace
in faux shagreen. Large scale floor lamps by Leavitt Weaver
help balance the room; the painting is by London artist Luke Elwes.

Living room detail: Johnson and Hill's collections
include a silver bowl by Richard Meier and Robert A.M. Stern candlestick.
In the background, a view of Dallas artist Shane Pennington's tree sculpture

It took a while for the couple to consider the idea of renting; they’ve bought, renovated and sold seven houses in the past 20 years. After unloading their latest abode, they pounded the pavement looking for a smaller one to buy, quickly. The market had changed considerably, and finding a new one that fit their exacting tastes and budget was almost impossible. “Any Realtor in town will tell you we’re the most high-maintenance customers when it comes to looking for a house,” says Hill, 52. Real estate agent David Nichols, who specializes in modern homes, urged them to rent instead. “He sat us down and said, ‘You boys need a break, take the pressure off.’ We looked at each other and said, ‘You are so right. We won’t have to worry about the pool man, the lawn man, the tree man or whether the gutters need replacing.’”

The Giving Tree wall sculpture by Dallas artist Shane Pennington

In the living room: Square One's Zen walnut console and U2 bench;
Richard Meier bowl, Karim Rashid votives;
photo at left by Michael Booth; at right, Flip Art.

Their new apartment is located in the Terrace House, a high-rise on Maple Avenue built in 1961, where Johnson and Hill landed a 2,500-square-foot, ground-floor apartment with spacious rooms that overlook a heavily treed ravine. “It has a European sensibility, a sort of pied-à-terre, with all the windows to the front. And that view is like our own Central Park,” Johnson says. Rather than occupying their new rental as if it were a stand-in for a real home, Johnson and Hill set out to give it the permanence of time and attention, even if everything could be packed up at a moment’s notice.

In the dining room, a triptych by Tom Freund;
walnut table by Square One; vintage leather Laverne chairs.

A silver tray becomes an opportunity to display
monochromatic natural elements like berries, moss, and an artichoke.
At right, tiny chairs -- all found 0bjects -- are grouped together to make sculpture.

“Europeans have always leased rather grand and wonderful apartments whether in Paris, Florence or the south of France. People don’t seem to have a problem with that there, but the American culture is so driven by the purchase of a home,” he says, noting that renting is considered less desirable. “But I think it’s the future of American society.”

Downsizing into an apartment does have its challenges. There was no interior architecture to speak of, so the couple created interest in strategic places. In the entry, they designed a large quarter-sawn white oak panel and ledge and layered it over a mirrored wall to give the area dimension. An overscale console, placed in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror, anchors the living room. The building isn’t piped for gas, but a custom wood and faux shagreen fireplace, illuminated by a tray filled with candles, provides a satisfying glow.

A custom display tower by Square One; Christian Liagre's
Paris-made India chair, deaccessioned years ago
from the lobby of the Rosewood Crescent Hotel.
The massive towers help create architecture in a modern room.

Master Bedroom: Square One custom made, quater-sawn
white oak headboard also doubles as interior architecture;
the benches and side tables are by Square One; Linda Ridgway painting.

For a couple who has spent more than 20 years together collecting, deciding what to keep wasn’t as hard as you’d imagine. “We kept the things we really love,” says Hill. Much of what they prefer has a pedigree: A Robsjohn-Gibbings end table from the late Nancy Hamon’s estate; a vintage Ward Bennett for Brickell sofa; a candlestick by architect Robert A.M. Stern; an Ellsworth Kelly lithograph inherited from Johnson’s parents; Jack Lenor Larsen’s rare Delphi chair. They kept a handful of their favorite Square One prototypes, much of their collections of bowls and boxes and all of their art and architecture books.

From left to right: Scott Hill and Arthur Johnson,
seated in a pair of Frank Gehry's Cross Check armchairs;
Connor, a white Westie, and Gunther, a black Scotty.

While their aesthetic is decidedly clean-lined and modern, Johnson and Hill took their interior design cues from the way Europeans have lived for centuries. “They went from generation to generation, layering their interiors with pieces that have been passed down from different eras,” says Johnson. “What we do is a nouveau version of that. It’s a comfortable, contemporary interior with a lot of different complexities.” Sterile environments without character or collections don’t appeal. “When you read through [interiors] magazines, the modern rooms are devoid of joy and a sense of history. They’re missing the things that come about serendipitously in lives, those wonderful moments that remind us of good times.”

Mies van der Rohe, the great architect and furniture designer famous for saying "less is more" may not have gotten it completely right -- sometimes more is so much more.