profile / alumni / environmental-design
March 22, 2018
By Jamie Wetherbe
Photography by Manolo Langis
and courtesy of Ariel Fox Design

Environmental Design alumna Ariel Johnson never tells the same story twice

The staff at Ariel Fox Design are as diverse as the environments they create. “My office has been called the United Nations of designers,” says owner Ariel Johnson (BS 08 Environmental Design), who launched the Sherman Oaks-based firm in 2008. 

Her team of 11 designers, which includes fellow alumna Daisy Jiang (MS 17 Environmental), comes from all corners of the world, including Iran, Spain, China, Mexico and Sweden. “My intention was to assemble a team that could bring a fresh vision—I personally just crave that,” says Johnson of the studio, which specializes in multifamily residential projects and retail spaces. “It creates a global perspective, which is so much of our ethos already. That is the future of design, so why not start constructing that vision now?”

While geographically distinct, the staff have one thing in common: they are all women. “I’m often the only woman in the boardroom,” says Johnson of the male-dominated design industry. “It became a duty as a business owner to support women. I recently set a goal to be the largest A&D firm in Los Angeles to be owned and run by women — I might be already.”

Another backbone of Johnson’s business is telling stories through design. “ArtCenter taught me to harness that as a tool,” she says. “Through storytelling, our design process is more inspired, emotional and has a clearer direction. To me, it’s the difference between a beautiful space and a space that can actually touch you.”

The firm strives to incorporate the latest in tech, as well as creations from local craftspeople to fit the environments. Recent projects range from the historic renovation of the legendary Hollywood Towers to the Broadstone Little Italy in San Diego, posh apartment complexes inspired by the Amalfi Coast. 

Johnson, who currently has 20 projects in the works, never does the same design twice. “I don’t want to get too comfortable with one language,” she explains. “Often clients will say, ‘I really loved what you did there, can you do that for us?’ I always laugh and say, ‘No, I’m sorry, I will give you something better.’”

A constantly shifting aesthetic seems appropriate for a woman whose resume includes time as a litigation paralegal, followed by a two-year stint as a runway model in New York. “It’s the most honest portrayal of someone who’s very confused in life,” says Johnson with a laugh. “It was a series of ill-fitting hats—the porridge was too cold, and then it was too hot.”

Following her experience in fashion, Johnson enrolled in Parsons School of Design to study fashion design. During her first year, instructor Tim Gunn, the soon-to-be host of TV’s Project Runway, changed her mind. “He knew me from the (runway) shows,” says Johnson. “He said, ‘You’re so burnt out on the industry. Why don’t you do interior design?’ And something clicked.” 

After looking at several schools, Johnson felt ArtCenter’s Environmental Design program was the right fit. “I wasn’t satisfied with the standard interior design programs other colleges were offering,” explains Johnson. “If you’re really serious about design, you go to ArtCenter—it’s like the medical school of design.”

Johnson’s classes ranged from furniture design and architecture to branding and 3D rendering. “It’s a really unique program in that you get to touch upon a little bit of everything,” she says, “All of these things on a high level are extremely important to the industry of interior design.”

During her three years at ArtCenter, Environmental Design Department Chair David Mocarski had a profound impact on her education. Johnson recalls a story Mocarski shared about the rigor that went into crafting a chair, involving hundreds of design iterations. “I absolutely hated this story at the time,” she says. “I was mad at him, I thought, ‘There’s got to be an easier way.’”

She says she now finds freedom in not getting attached to a single idea or outcome. “I keep working and allow other people to impact (the design), and it almost turns into a living organism,” she adds. “It’s almost this spiritual outlook on design.”

One of her current projects is closely tied to how people and design interact. Millennium Santa Monica, set to be completed in 2019, will be the city’s last multifamily project. “It weighs on me heavily because this is the last of these types of buildings there,” she says. “I really want it to hit all these different social points.”

The design focuses on a communal way of living, where residents are encouraged to share spaces and ideas. “Technology can be alienating and maybe a remedy is living in more of an informational sharing, co-op space,” she says. “It’s going to be so beautiful and very community-oriented, not only for the residents who live there, but the city at large.”

Jamie Wetherbe has covered arts, theater and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times. Her work has also appeared in The Huffington Post, Eater LA and The Advocate, among other publications.