Ulla Johnson and Kelly Wearstler Capture California Magic

For Johnson’s newly opened Los Angeles boutique, the two collaborators spoke with ‘Surface’ about creating a distinctly West Coast sense of place for a globally-influenced brand rooted in New York.

Credit (all images): Adrian Gaut.

When Ulla Johnson celebrated the opening of her L.A. flagship in October, Hollywood’s A-list showed up in full force. Cynthia Erivo, Gabrielle Union, Dakota Fanning, and Melanie Lynskey were among those who turned out for a first look and a dinner party hosted in the boutique’s Miranda Brooks–designed native garden. Perrier-Jouët champagne graced the table, Johnson’s guests donned her latest collection, and Courtney Storer, culinary director of FX’s sizzling restaurant drama The Bear, prepared the food.

This is typical of the kind of crowd that turns out to celebrate the likes of Johnson and her collaborators, interior designer Kelly Wearstler and Brooks, a landscape designer, who are all regarded as doyennes in their respective fields. Brooks and Johnson go way back—she dreamed up the gardens for Johnson’s boutique in Amagansett, as well as her home in Montauk. So two years ago, when Johnson announced a Los Angeles store where their talents would coalesce, it sparked the sort of anticipation typically reserved for the likes of a new Sofia Coppola film. Johnson’s namesake label is steeped in influences, textiles, and handicraft sourced from her global travels, but until now has been firmly anchored in New York by its two stores, showroom, and headquarters.

Over the course of two years, they remade the “scary Hobbit house,” as Johnson described it, into a verdant, sun-drenched vision of their own. Walls came down, a solarium went up, and so too did a towering 16-foot-tall Brachychiton tree indoors. They relocated the building’s primary entrance from the bustling Beverly Boulevard to a path snaking through Brooks’ secret garden while adding 1,200 square feet to the footprint. Across its two floors, a mix of contemporary furniture from local talents, like an otherworldly hand-carved table by Vincent Pocsik, mesh with collectible Italian design from the ‘70s by the likes of Urano Palma and Carlo Scarpa, as well as pieces from Wearstler’s eponymous gallery.

“We came away with something I feel very excited about, and that truly celebrates L.A., light, life, texture, and beauty—everything I hoped it would be,” Johnson told Surface. “It’s very important to work with somebody who’s steeped in the location. I don’t believe in creating a uniform brand experience that’s translated across myriad cities. That’s why I was excited to learn from and collaborate with Kelly.”

Surface sat down with Johnson and Wearstler together to talk about the city’s artisan scene, where in the world they source one-of-a-kind vintage pieces, and how a stay at the Santa Monica Proper kicked everything off. 

Ulla, was there a particular project of Kelly’s that inspired you to collaborate with her? 

UJ: I looked for this space in L.A. for a very long time. I stayed at the Santa Monica Proper and was enamored with the hotel’s aesthetic. In the hospitality space, it’s unusual to come across so many bespoke objects. I’m a collector, and there were a lot of objects I recognized. I was in awe of their sourcing to put it together. It was warm, inviting, layered, organic—all these things I’m very drawn to. There were trees inside, and this idea of bringing light and life into the space. What Kelly did there was very impressive to me. She instantly seemed to be the right fit.

KW: It’s really nice working with someone who has a distinctive point of view. We love a lot of the same things. Ulla wanted something that felt very local and was excited to collaborate with local artists—Ross Hansen, Brittany Mojo—to create unique designs for the boutique. Her voice and vision of her brand really feel in sync with the Proper DNA.

UJ: When I walked in and saw those two Ingo Maurer lights, I’m a huge fan of those and have them in basically all of my spaces. So that was also a big—

KW: Serendipitous—

UJ: Signifier, yeah.   

Could you speak to the defining pieces you sourced that create that L.A. sensibility?

KW: We love the old and the new. We commissioned a nice balance of contemporary artists, like Jeff Martin, an incredibly talented artist who works in many different mediums. He did the jewelry vitrines and beautiful hand-sculpted tile and ceramic. There are some great gold details on that. It’s really special. 

We also worked with Ross Hansen, a local artist, on this  marbleized resin entry table that has this organic form. He also crafted the cast glass table upstairs. Brittany Mojo is another ceramic artist who has a piece upstairs. 

UJ: From the beginning, part of our shared brief was to engage with local artisans. It’s something I care very much about in ready-to-wear. Working in L.A., where there’s so much excitement coming out of the interior space, ceramics, and furniture, Kelly brought a lot of really exciting people to the table. We also worked with people we both knew, like Olivia Cognet, who did this custom ceramic fixture in the VIP fitting room. 

I also love fine art. My husband has worked in contemporary art for a long time. Thinking about art in the space was very important from the beginning. There was this Minjae Kim fiberglass canopy light that I purchased at Frieze L.A. well before the store was in any kind of working order. I believe you said, Kelly, that you saw it and thought of me. We also brought in this Alma Allen bronze piece that hangs upstairs. It carries so much of the store’s emotional weight—it’s made of something incredibly luxe but also has an unexpected irregular texture. It has this moving color on the surface that will change over time. It’s a living thing. That’s also how I wanted the store to feel: something custom for the space and would continue to evolve over time.

Aside from Frieze L.A., can you share any favorite local spots for sourcing furniture and art? 

KW: We got a few pieces from Morenz Gallery—they’re from just outside Amsterdam. I have a lot of global relationships with a lot of global dealers. The Window, in L.A., Volume Gallery in Chicago. We wanted to source pieces that were more under-the-radar and harder to find, like the solarium’s Scarpa loveseats. All our vintage shopping is knowing the world’s anomalies and honing in on those.

UJ: I’m a big vintage and antique shopper: Clignancourt in Paris, where you can find incredible antique lace at the Marché Vernisson, or at Paul Bert Serpette, where so much discovery can happen. I’m always unearthing things from various parts of the world.

There’s nothing obvious about the choices we made. Everything feels so tactile. Bringing in the sense of light pays homage to California and the light and life you can only have in sun-drenched, open places like L.A. We really honored the sense of place. 

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