I was introduced to Honey (a.k.a. James Johnson) and his work through Essi Zimm who was recently featured on this blog. He's an architect, furniture maker and fine artist originally from Kentucky, but now living in California. He was kind enough to participate in an interview where he tells us where he learned to make furniture, his thoughts on shopping locally, and how he came to be the 6' 5" bearded man called Honey.
You have a background in architecture and currently make furniture and art. Do you still work as an architect or do you focus solely on creating handmade and sustainable goods?
Though I still work as an architect, I believe the line between architecture, furniture, and art is very blurred. A furniture piece (or painting) is a microcosm of the issues faced in building design: scale, proportion, materials, structure, history, etcetera —all of which must be carefully considered. I believe good design is achieved when all of these considerations have been synthesized into one harmonious idea, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, it’s all architecture, I just prefer the act of physically making with my hands!
If you do focus solely on creating handmade and sustainable goods, what was the hardest part about transitioning from being an architect to a craftsman/maker, running your own business?
In practical terms, the biggest transitional challenge is maintaining a consistent income that allows me to explore all the ideas! This is still a work in progress…
You’re from Kentucky originally, what prompted you to move across the country to California?
The most interesting decisions usually involve a woman!
When/Where did you learn how to make furniture?
You assume I know what I’m doing! I’ve always had an affinity for trying to put things together and most especially for finding new ways to use old objects. I still fondly recall the bookshelf I patiently spliced together using only discarded plastic dairy crates and lag bolts. These experiments lead to an important realization: a fancy wood shop and complicated array of tools is NOT required in order to achieve function and beauty.
My first formal furniture experience however came in college, at the University of Kentucky, under the direction of Len Wujcik, himself a furniture designer, maker, and entrepreneur. His assertion was that all objects could be boiled down to one of three things: a line, a plane, or a mass. I learned a lot that semester.
It’s clear that you value craftsmanship and sustainability in your work. It seems that you’re creating pieces that are meant to be conversation pieces not only now, but years and years into the future. Other than your own creations, what piece of furniture do you own and hope to treasure for years to come? Why is this piece particularly special to you?
As much as I admire furniture and its form, I actually value the little knick-knacks picked up on travels or thoughtful gifts received from friends much more. They have a story to tell, a personal story, and are the kinds of things that make a home…a home. Sure, a Sam Avedon shell chair is sexy, but in a fire I’d grab the six dollar coffee mug purchased in a little hole in the wall burger joint in Kansas that claims the distinction of inventing the slider.
How did you get the nickname “Honey”?
One thing is certain—you don’t choose nicknames, they choose you. The “Honey” in Workshop Honey is actually a nod to the nickname I picked up in my college days, hanging around my favorite coffee shop in Lexington where my barista girlfriend worked at the time. Every day I stepped through the door I would be a greeted with an enthusiastic “Hey Honey!” and it wasn’t long before my name was permanently supplanted. There must be something memorable about being introduced to a 6’-5” bearded man simply as “Honey”. Ultimately, I settled on “Workshop” over other descriptions like “Studio” or “Atelier” because it carries a certain blue collar, common sense ethic that is closely aligned with my philosophies.
Where are your favorite places to shop local (California, Kentucky, online, etc.)?
Aside from yard sales and curb finds, I have to give a shout out to the Black Market in Lexington, KY and Tini (This Is Not Ikea) here in Los Angeles. In addition to great store names, their goods are always changing and have a real curated feel. Quirky, vintage, and with local flavor, they are the kind of places you could spend an hour rummaging through to find that perfect thing you didn’t know you needed.
Let’s talk about your paintings now. The work you have displayed on your website ranges from bold, acrylic paintings to textural, mixed media pieces. What ideas do you most like to explore in your paintings?
I spend a lot of time thinking about human scale, consumerism, politics, and the immense infrastructure (both virtual and real) that keep us quietly desperate. I use bits and pieces of discarded culture: advertising mailers, newspapers, and other pulp as a whitewashed background, or billboard if you will, where a new message can be emblazoned. Found objects are important because they are tangible evidence of a real time and place. Garbage is mankind’s true monument.
Where do you find inspiration for your work (both furniture and painting)? Are there any particular designers or artists that you admire?
I am endlessly fascinated by everyday objects. It’s a process of constantly reverse-engineering where the goal is to separate the arbitrary from the necessary and form from function. There is poetry in an object that has been whittled down its most essential essence. Few things are more elegant than a paperclip.
What’s next for you and your work?
To keep fighting the good fight! The support of folks like you and your readership is what makes the journey possible. So please keep an eye out for upcoming events here in Los Angeles like Unique LA and the Renegade Craft Fair! There are so many wonderfully talented and genuinely nice folks that are part of these events. The creative energy is almost palpable and it’s inspiring to see people following their passions.
I’d also like to add that I’m encouraged by the growing awareness of the importance of shopping locally and the recognition that it’s the little idiosyncrasies that make a place a place. Every dollar we spend is a vote. We all have the power to affect positive change simply with our buying choices!
Check out more of Honey's awesome work:
*All photos curtesy of James Johnson