Peter Johnson’s stylish lots for sale
Furniture from the home of the late interior designer will be auctioned by de Vere’s
The late Peter Johnson: The Belfast-born designer created interiors that were relaxing as well as elegant and stylish. Photograph: Eric Luke
Interior designer Peter Johnson, who died last year, was one of Ireland’s best, noted for his brilliant eye, exceptional taste and ability to create interiors that were relaxing as well as elegant and stylish. The Johnson stamp can be seen on some of Ireland finest spots, among them the K-Club, Castletown House, Farmleigh and Kelly’s Hotel in Rosslare.
Then there were the people lucky enough to have him work on their own homes, including former taoiseach Albert Reynolds and his wife, Kathleen. Johnson had many exceptionally happy clients, many of whom became lifelong friends.
A selection of furniture and lighting pieces from Johnson’s collection is now being auctioned as a key part of the de Vere’s Design Auction on May 21st. When I caught up with Johnson’s wife, Natasha (Tash) Souter, she was looking through items and objects destined for the sale. “No, not that, it’s already sold. No, I’m keeping that one. Look at these, aren’t they lovely?”
You’d never get matching bedspreads and curtains with him. Instead, he’d mismatch to give a real sense of style, and a sense of comfort and atmosphere.”
Pieces were sourced on trips to the Scandinavian cities of Copenhagen and Helsinki, and latterly France, where the couple converted a garage in the Dordogne into a furniture store and home. “That was a great experience,” remembers Tash. “Peter had no French and the builder had no English, so they communicated through drawings. It worked really, well.”
Johnson was one of the first designers in Ireland to popularise the Scandinavian design aesthetic, mixed with mid-century modern. “It wasn’t quite a hobby,” says Tash of his search for furniture throughout Europe.
“Peter loved mooching around brocantes. He was amazing, you’d go to a flea market and see nothing, and he’d spot the wonderful piece. He loved searching.”
Repainted, restored and reupholstered, the pieces were then destined for the couple’s shop on Cow’s Lane, which closed in 2009, and also the showroom on Lombard Street West. “Yes, they were to sell,” says Tash, “but he only bought what he liked. Some were so nice, I hung on to a few.”
Johnson grew up in Belfast and moved to Dublin at the age of 19. His mother had an antiques shop in Hillsborough, while the family business on his father’s side, Johnson Brothers, was undertaking and furniture removal. Furniture was a lasting love, and one of his first jobs in Dublin was at the Dandelion Market. An interior design course followed, as he put it “when I realised I wouldn’t hack it as an antiques dealer”.
He returned from the Cleveland College of Art and Design, making tables and painting friends’ houses, before going to work with Bob Hudson of Hudson, Son & Jenkins, where moving the Beits into their residential apartment at Russborough House was an early task.
He’d make houses that were very comfortable. That’s hard to do, to have a house that looks really good, but where you wouldn’t feel wrong about putting your feet up.”
Another client was Kelly’s Hotel. “My mother came across his work,” recalls Bill Kelly. “He’d finished a show apartment in Dublin, and Mum thought it was fantastic. So when I came back to work at Kelly’s 30 years ago, Peter was already installed, and worked with us ever since.” So what makes his work so special?
“He had a real artist’s eye,” says Kelly. “Not only for decorating, but hanging paintings too, and he loved mixing colours in a room. You’d never get matching bedspreads and curtains with him. Instead, he’d mismatch to give a real sense of style, and a sense of comfort and atmosphere.” Kelly’s has just opened a revamped Peter Johnson Suite in his honour.
Artist Bernadette Madden was one of Johnson’s friends from the early Dublin days. She was caretaking a number of flats on Herbert Place, and one of her jobs was to collect shillings from the electricity meters. Walking into Tash Souter’s flat one lunchtime, she discovered a shape in the bed – “and that was how I first met Peter!” she recalls.
Madden takes up a pair of themes common to everyone who has worked with Johnson: his generosity and his brilliant eye. “He gave me all kinds of things, he was great at finding things, and he gave me ideas too, things to do, things not to do.
“I remember I was having a problem with the big drawingroom in the old house, I needed something to pull it together. Peter said ‘you need something that’s a pinky red’.” The room was painted bright yellow, but Johnson had a chair upholstered for Madden in his chosen colour. “He was absolutely right, and I would never have thought of that.
“He had great style,” continues Madden. “But it wasn’t style of the moment. It wasn’t fashion. He had an eclectic taste, and just seemed to know what made a room come alive. He’d make houses that were very comfortable. That’s hard to do, to have a house that looks really good, but where you wouldn’t feel wrong about putting your feet up.”
Auctioneer John de Vere is another friend of long-standing. “He was a magnetic fellow, with an amazing enthusiasm for everything. I can’t think of anyone I’m more upset to have lost than him,” he says. He also lights on the designer’s eye for detail. “He loved hanging pictures,” de Vere recalls, echoing Bill Kelly. “And one of the nicest things about him was that if he ever said to you: ‘You should paint that room pink, it would look wonderful,’ and then you’d painted it blue: he’d never say you were an eejit. He came up with ideas – but he’d never claim to be always right.”
He was also brilliant at adapting his work to clients’ tastes. “You’d never go into a house and say, that’s a Peter Johnson job. It was never contrived,” says de Vere. Describing Johnson’s wonderful sense of fun and love of the game of golf, he pauses. “The last thing anyone in the world would have guessed was that he was an interior designer.”
Nevertheless, Johnson was one of the best, with a touch both understated and unforced.
The de Vere’s Design Auction has more than 70 lots from Johnson’s collection, with estimates ranging from €200 to €1,500. This core collection is part of the wider auction of some 300 lots, which includes contemporary design and art.
Back in Lombard Street West, Tash Souter is still working through pieces for the sale, including a Drugeot Tulip Console Table (€400-€600) and a “Sculpture Jeux” night table (€200-€300).
Still, the piece she loves best is an elegantly undulating Pernilla lounge chair by Bruno Matheson (€1,000-€1,500). Upholstered in tundra green, it is gorgeous. “It was Peter’s favourite colour,” she says.