Margaret Johnson likes to find secondhand furniture and have it reupholstered in luxurious fabrics.
Photographs by Thibault Jeanson
When Ray Ottenberg and Margaret Johnson married in 1990, it wasn't difficult to decide where they would live. Johnson had her own apartment in Adams-Morgan, but they didn't want to uproot Ottenberg's two school-age children from the Cleveland Park house where they'd been living with him. It just felt like home. Besides, "I grew up in the same Zip code," says Ottenberg, now chairman of Ottenberg's Bakery, founded by his great-grandfather. "My childhood home is only four blocks away from here."
The couple's stately house was built by developer Harry Wardman in 1928, and the changes since then have been modest. The kitchen and sun room have been renovated. All the rooms have been painted a soft white. The only addition is a room built onto the house by a previous owner several decades ago, which Johnson and Ottenberg still refer to as "the new room." It has a distinctly modern feel, and Johnsonwho takes the lead on decorating mattershas furnished it accordingly, with mid-20th-century furniture, a Japanese tatami mat and paintings in dazzling colors.
Those and other paintings presented something of a challenge after their marriage. For them, the question was not how they would furnish the house, or where she would squeeze in a lot of stuff from her apartment (neither one had much stuff), but how they would combine their art.
"My art is mostly from friends or what I've bought from them," she says. Most of her paintings, including a whimsical portrait of Johnson herself, are by Georganne Deen, a Los Angeles artist whom she has known since their childhood in Fort Worth. Ottenberg owned a mix of tribal art and contemporary American prints, some of it given to him by family members, some of it bought at a Washington gallery. Today, her brightly hued paintings hang next to his bark painting from the South Pacific. They've bought a few things together. And since Ottenberg's son, now 24, took drawing classes in college, Johnson says, "we include the children and their sensibilities in our decisions."
As a freelance picture researcher, Johnson also owns a number of photographs, many of them given to her by artist friends from Texas. Among her own finds are a few extraordinary views of an unidentified village; at first glance, they resemble the work of Italian photographer Tina Modotti. Pointing to one of them, Johnson says, "I bought this photograph unframed for 25 cents at a Quaker church sale." While she believes that the images could have been taken by an acclaimed photographer, she isn't perturbed that the artist's identity remains a mystery.
The same unpretentious informality extends to her collection of mid-century furniture. Although there are a few pieces she can readily identify—including a lamp designed by George Nelson and a Taraxacum lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni—many others are anonymous items she discovered in thrift shops, in flea markets, at house sales and even on the streets. (Occasionally dealers offer to buy her best finds, but she says she always refuses.) While explaining how she found two Italian chairs, she hesitates with mock sheepishness before saying, "I paid a lot for these two chairs—around $90."
The shape of a piece, how it works with her other furnishings and whether it's comfortable matter more to her than who designed it. "The living room couch is from around 1949," she says. "I don't have any specific information about it. It had a wild print with fringe on it. I loved the shape of it." She had it recovered in a more subdued taupe mohair fabric from Donghia, a high-end manufacturer whose luxurious fabrics can cost as much as $300 a yard. (Johnson covers many of her furnishings, roadside finds and all, in Donghia fabric. "The colors, textures and styles are beautiful," she says. "And it's not overwhelming.") As she speaks, one of her cats begins sharpening its claws on one of the living room chairs. "Of course, as you can see, my cats are tearing it up," she notes. "But I just recover it again."
Sometimes, when she hasn't been able to find the right piece, she has asked furniture maker John Wendt to create it for her. Wendt, for example, built the couple's sleek dining room table and matching credenza, because Johnson couldn't find a table large enough to fit comfortably in their expansive dining room.
She gestures toward a faint burn on the table's blond maple top. "It was Thanksgiving," she says. "A candle was knocked over and no one really noticed." But she refuses to get excited about it. "The thing is, if you've got beautiful things, you have to use them," she adds. "And sometimes they break. You have to be relaxed about it."