Radio Maine Episode 73: Brett Johnson

 

7/24/22

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching,  Radio Maine.  Today. I have with me in the studio, Brett Johnson, who is a dear friend and also an interior designer and business owner. Thank you for coming today.

 

Brett Johnson:

Thanks for having me, Lisa.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

I'm so excited to hear about your business because I know this is the fruition of many, many years of thought and hard work and creating and coming forth with a dream.

 

Brett Johnson:

Yes, it is. It's really remarkable.  About two and a half years ago I fell in love with a building in Bath and really the madic building and it was, it was moderately available. And I got in touch with Sean Ireland, a developer who was doing the project and, and kind of sold him on the idea of Main Street Design company coming to Front Street, and really having Main Street come back to Main Street. The grand vision of the Portland Design Studio and design center being the mothership building and bath being the flagship for Main Street Design Company (MSD). So, and then opening the store in the middle of COVID was challenging <laugh> to say the least. Simultaneously, it became possible for me to buy Handle It! hardware in Portland. So I also, in addition to the other MSD co brands, branded MSD co. Hardware which is within the store in Bath, and that's doing really, really well, as well. So it's a lot of moving parts, but I've got a great team that helps me pull it all together.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

So, it's more than just the store. It's really the expansion of the “Brett Johnson empire.”

 

Brett Johnson:

Let's call it the empire, but I think it's the culmination of the MSD co brand. And really actually being able to have a brand that can live on beyond Brett Johnson. There's certainly a portion of the business still that's me. And certainly my design clients seek me out for my abilities to communicate their dreams and wishes in their homes. But really it is building a brand that can live on beyond my ability to keep working as hard as I am.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

Well, I, I joke about the empire, of course, <laugh>, I mean, I know that you've put so much time and effort into it yourself. So it's simultaneously both you, but also you are empowering your team to work together to co-create this business. 

 

Brett Johnson:

Yes.

 

Brett Johnson:

Absolutely. And that's been a, that's been a real learning lesson for me too in, in in my own personal maturity is is being able to let go enough to it's I'm not a parent, but I think that, I think there's some similarities there where, where people who work for me become people that work with me. And then some of those people at this point are working on their own within the structure of the Main Street Design company. But they're really able to realize some of their own abilities and strengths at the same time. So it's kind of fun.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

So when you say parent, you mean the evolution of their skills and kind of starting from a place of learning to moving to a place of maturity?

 

Brett Johnson:

I think a lot of the people on my team look to me to mentor them.  I know Darcy Foche, who's my number one.  She wanted to work with me forever and ever, and ever she was raising her boys and you know, being an amazing mom and amazing wife, but she really had a passion and a desire. And, she found a way to come to work for me. And she was, she was green as they come, but so energetic. And so hungry for the desire. And now at this point, she teaches me things because she still has that desire to learn and she's going doing research and listening to podcasts and, and really bringing a lot of new, fresh ideas to the firm. So it's really, really cool. And other people too, in the retail side, have a very similar, very similar situation.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

So you have several different elements to the work that you do in you, you have the retail side of things, but you are still actively engaged in design work. So you're out in the field quite a bit as well.

 

Brett Johnson:

Oh yes. Ninety percent of my existence is managing my design clients and in big projects and that, you know, that really is at the core of the business, the other stuff kind of supports it.  It certainly feeds it and reinforces the brand. The retail is very on brand which is challenging sometimes because retail is so customer driven in sort of small segments. So, the challenge there is keeping the shop on brand on a regular basis and not letting it stray too much into the kind of gift shop realm.  But we do a pretty good job with that.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

When you say on brand for people who aren't familiar with that, it's, it's a bit of a term of art. You mean things that fit within the vision that you would typically have for your design work?

 

Brett Johnson:

Right. I don't, I like to have things in the store that I would want my clients to have in their homes and things honestly that my clients want to have in their homes. It's those small final layers of a project that really make it more personal.  So that's really the goal. It's not so much personal like my personal taste.  But, sort of going back to the brand, the biggest part of the brand is the communication of design for other people's ideas. And that's just kind of me being a conduit and I do the same thing when I buy for the store.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

So that seems like it would present an interesting challenge because you want things to reflect what other people want. And also you are trying to help them further their own vision. And you're buying things in a little bit of an abstract, you're furthering this vision that other people have for themselves, but also that you have for them. It just seems like there's a lot of layers there,

 

Brett Johnson:

There are a lot of layers there and sometimes it's, sometimes it gets a little murky.  And like right now the shop is busting at the seams with merchandise. And in a relatively small space, how to allow the merchandise and, and the salespeople to sort of make a statement and tell a story and to have that story be evident enough so that people want to make those items part of their story.  But I lean on my heritage.  I'm very happy to have some kitschy things <laugh>, which, you know, especially in the summertime lots of lobster things.  We also have like, if you need to shuck an oyster we have, and we have like 20 different oyster knives and things like that. So it's really good. We also have some really cool small Maine artists that we represent in the store that also help us tell the story.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

What is your story when you talk about your own heritage? I know that you went to Mount Ararat High School. And the University of Southern Maine and you have a Bailey island connection, so play that out, your family story.

 

Brett Johnson:

So my family's story is kind of interesting because on my mother's side, my grandfather's French Canadia  to Burge, my grandfather worked in a paper mill, but he was also an entrepreneur.  My grandparents had a popcorn stand on main street in Brunswick. But my grandfather also was a wallpaper hanger. And so there, there was that, in fact, he lost an arm in the paper mill and we have a newspaper article that was inside his wallpaper table, which I now have, my aunt gave it to me.  And there's a newspaper article about him. And he really was the one arm paper hanger,  which was very kind of maybe a little morbid, but he was an amazing guy. So, and then on the other side, I come from a lobster fishing family.  But my, my Bailey island family and my Bailey island connection in the, in those generations that preceded me, the town of Harpswell didn't have a high school like Mount Ararat.

 

Brett Johnson:

So they tuitioned all of their kids to go to school elsewhere. So my grandfather and my great aunt, his sister were very well educated and worldly. So even though they settled on Bailey island, they brought a tremendous amount of information back, which I was lucky enough to share growing up.  So I love books and literature and my great out was a poet and had lots of artist friends and Bailey Island really was kind of an artist community. My grandmother painted, I have some beautiful little paintings that she did that are really lovely and cherished. So that's that kind of, I think that was the spark that drew me back home to Maine and also helps me to this day tell other people's stories that love, love Maine and the coast.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

How did the two sides of your family get together? Because they seem, I have a French Canadian side and then I have an Irish Catholic side and both are Maine oriented, but back in the day, those two sides did not mesh. So I'm kind of wondering the same thing about your family,

 

Brett Johnson: 

My French Canadian family moved to Orrs Island. And my mom is one of five children. She's in the middle. And they bought a house on Orrs Island. They built a motel. And then when my mother and her friends needed a summer job, my grandfather built a coffee shop in an ice cream stand and they ran it. And my father, being a healthy young man, took a liking to my mother.  Actually, he was smitten with several of the young ladies that worked in the coffee shop, but  he ended up being with my mom. And that's how the two families come together. Kind of a Grover's corner’s small island community story. And our families are very enmeshed actually at this point.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

So if you had made a different choice with another one of the young ladies, then you might not be here today.

 

Brett Johnson: 

Well, that's interesting because both, both my parents were engaged apparently to other people from the island. And, in both cases, we are friends with their subsequent children and we're like, you could be my brother and then, or you could be my sister and oh, but none of us would be here if it was a different pairing. And that's just how that worked out. Everybody picked who they picked and, and here we are, but that's, that also is, that's also part of the, of the kind of fun and in the realization of just how tight knit a small community is. And you know, nowadays we have, I think people have a lot more options as far as who they end up with, but I'm glad that my parents got together and had three great kids. My siblings and I are very diverse from each other. My sister's a minister and my brother's a boat builder.  But we also end up with the same core values that were created on the islands.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

One might think looking at the piece around your neck, that perhaps this is somehow related to this, this family background in Maine, however, it is not, you actually went on a grand adventure fairly recently. Tell me about that.

 

Brett Johnson:

I did, a year out from a major transition in my life where I unpartnered. I had always had a desire to travel and even though I've done a little bit of it, I've  found a real need to, to travel. I ended up with an opportunity to go to Denmark, to Copenhagen, to see a, a friend who Anna who lives here in Maine and her family, she's from Denmark. And she's going to Denmark to be with her family because she hadn't seen them since the beginning of COVID. And I said, oh, I would like to go to Denmark while you're there. And she said, do it. So the next day, without even telling her, I made a flight reservation in Iceland there to go to Copenhagen and, really wanting to go to Scandinavia to kind of feel some of the energy of my Viking route, which I know exists.

 

Brett Johnson:

So Iceland air is, and I'm, this is gonna be like an advertisement for Iceland air, which if all American airlines were as good as Iceland air, we would all have a much better experience flying. So Iceland air allows you to add four days layover in Iceland to either end of your trip. So I decided because I'd always wanted to go to Iceland that I would do a small layover of two days in Iceland, and that was like nothing I'd ever experienced. The greatest thing was the time when the days were getting longer, quite long. So my body clock didn't know what time it was. So of course I stayed up, I definitely found my Viking drinking roots but just also this amazing culture and spirit of the Icelandic people is so remarkable. They are so proud and they're essentially on a big giant island.

 

Brett Johnson: 

They're pretty much gathered in small communities. And I found some amazing similarities to a way of life that we, some that we experience here in Maine. I have an amazing connection so much that I will definitely go back to Iceland. I'd like to ski in Iceland. I think that would be just sort of a fun, fun thing to do. It's a very barren place.  but at the same time, it's extremely cultured and they have an opera house, a concert hall that rivals Sydney, Australia. It's amazing that the city of Reykjavík is smaller than Portland.  So that was amazing. Then the Denmark time, the 10 days I stayed in Denmark I rented a lovely VRBO flat in a historic part of Copenhagen on a canal.

 

Brett Johnson: 

And it was like just, it was romantic and I saw things in Denmark that were just, just amazing. It's so European, their connection to the Royal family is so amazing. And then, and then to think about Denmark too, is like a little island and you look at the map and you see Sweden and Finland, and Norway, and they're ginormous compared to little Denmark, but Denmark is just so small and mighty and proud. And, there's also this amazing connection between Denmark and Iceland, because until the late 1800s, Iceland was part of Denmark. And so in Iceland, they speak Icelandic, Danish, and they speak in English and, and they still do that to this day. I put that trip together and I did call it my freedom tour, but it also proved to me that travel is very possible.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

And tell me about this piece you're wearing around your neck?
 

Brett Johnson:

So I bought this from a street vendor in Iceland and I saw it six times before I bought it.  This was an old fisherman and very stoic and kind and gentle, but big and furry and  just a lovely man. And I listened to his stories and of fishing and collecting whale bones, and whale ivory, and other things on the coast of Iceland. And that connection with whaling which really still exists to some extent in Iceland.  What I know of my family, I just, I resonated with this piece. And so I finally, before I left, found him again and bit the bullet, he changed the leather around it, because it had black and I wanted brown and I watched him tie the knots and this has not actually left my neck since I put it on there.  So it's pretty powerful.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

You told me that he believes that this was from a whale's tooth. It was about 200 years old.

 

Brett Johnson: 

Yep. Which, if you think, I mean, 200 years old, sounds like a long time, but in Iceland with people who were harvesting whales and things like that, probably not. So not so old. To think about it in the context of its age and to really bring your brain back to a time when, when whales were being hunted and for all kinds of reasons and to, have that sort of connection to the ocean is just it's fun to actually like bring your, to fantasize about what that might have been like.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

When you are doing design work. Do people often bring a connection to the ocean into the work that you do with them?

 

Brett Johnson:

I think if they live on the ocean, there's no question that that's the case. In the work that I do, it's really, really important to people, that the things the possessions that people cherish in their lives, whether it's antiques or memorabilia or whatever connection that they have to their history is like super important for me to help them incorporate into their design.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

So if somebody is living in the middle of the woods, for example, they might choose different design elements to go along with that. 

 

Brett Johnson:

I think they would. And I would challenge people to make sure that was the case, that their interior is in harmony with their exterior.  It's always kind of driven me crazy. Like I've worked on projects where people buy houses on the coast of Maine. This happened in the eighties a lot. And people had all of this sort of Tuscan colorization and foe painting. And I'm like, this is not Tuscany, this is Maine. And, the minute you walk in you, you feel uncomfortable. Like, I mean, for me, maybe because I'm in tune with that, but I can't imagine that people don't feel uncomfortable. And when you bring the harmony and you bring the connection in, then people are like, ah, they can relax.

 

Brett Johnson:

Their brains don't have to get all scrambled with mixed messages and things like that. Now, I suppose if people had traveled a lot and they had little items that, or little collections that were from their travels, that there would be a way to weave those into the, the story of their house, but not, not that. I'm working on a project in Harpswell right now and the family, his family is settled in new Sweden and his great grandfather built a log cabin, which his father was born in and the family property was sold and he had the log cabin, dismantled and reassembled as part of a house in a house in Harpswell. And now Scott Simons is doing the addition. And, so the interior of the core of the house is a log cabin, but it's a Cedar shingled house on the water in Harpswell and Emma and I are working on some new art.  She brought in a Barter piece, a great big fabulous fishermen and in curating their collection so that the log cabin has a connection to the water.  He's a retired Navy Admiral. So of course there's a lot of that kind of thing. And she has a connection to the lakes and it's been really fun to sort of like deal with the subtleties of that, and also really fun to add to their collection of things that they're doing, being able to do together.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

New Sweden is up more in the Northern part of Maine. 

 

Brett Johnson: 

I would say that's like, I would say it's just sort of Northwest of here, like Sweden, Norway, and that's a lot of the, the other cool thing is that he's a Johnson, so he's a real Swedish Johnson. I have no idea how if that's the case with my family, but yes, so this log cabin made a big giant trip from, from the woods or actually a farm in Maine. And Greg, the client tells a story of how the log cabin got sided with Clavers or shingles, because at a certain point they didn't want to be, have the appearance of being so poor that they had to live in a log cabin. So they shingled the log cabin , but the inside and the inside I think was covered with newspaper or something. But it's beautiful, it's beautiful, beautiful space. And from the outside, you would never know that this treasure was inside.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

When you're working with Emma Wilson and the Portland art gallery and other artists. What types of things are you looking for in art to compliment the design work that you do?

 

Brett Johnson:

So I think for myself a lot of what I look for is palette driven.  Maybe more than the composition of the painting or the subject of the painting. So, in that the palette really is the driver of really the whole, the whole project. So, the art for the art needs to sort of follow suit in that. And sometimes, that is actually a disparate thing where, the art needs to create a little bit of tension in the, in the overall concept or, and the overall feeling of things and allow a place for the eye to, to rest and to sort of be transported and where the painting or the art becomes kind of a portal to something else. Sometimes art becomes like another window that people can look into and experience. So it's like the art and the art that people collect and resonate with is a huge part of what I do.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

We have a piece behind us that is Bill Cosby, and you and I were talking before we came on air about the palette in this particular piece. But as you are describing this tension, there's actually, I would say some tension in this piece as well. But I hadn't thought about that before you brought this up.

 

Brett Johnson: 

yes. His work has found its way into many of my client's homes. It’s  landscape, but it's just  they always have this kind of mood to them, which is, it's like that. It's like what you see if you squint your eyes and you kind of blur things a little bit. So then, it invokes this kind of mystery in it, it allows you, it allows you to sort of fill in the blanks a little bit. Um but his palette is, even though it's, even though from painting to painting, it varies. There's always this kind of similarity. It's just slightly muted, gem tones, which are just so lovely, and natural.  Not like, you know, they're, they never hit you over the head and say, look at me, look at me, I'm colorful.  So his work definitely speaks to me, and fortunately it speaks to a lot of my clients as well.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

Brett, I know in listening to our conversation, there will be people who want to learn more about the work that you do, and also of the various elements of your brand, your retail space, the design work, how do people find you?

 

Brett Johnson:

So we have our design studios at five 11 Congress street in Portland. And we welcome people to come experience that our store, our shop and a lovely branded apartment that I live in in the summer is at one 60 front street and bath. Or you can go to our website@mainstreetdesign.com and and that website is ever growing and ever changing and offering, um more and more.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

Well, congratulations on continuing to evolve your dream and your dream team, I guess. As you move forward with your vision, it's really been a pleasure to catch up with you today.

 

Brett Johnson: 

yes. Thank you. I do want to close in that, that I learned something from one of my art teachers in high school.  Chris Chapman and she always said, “remember, Brett, life is a journey, not a destination.” 

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

Wise words.


 

Brett Johnson: 

I live my life that way.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

Well, I hope to continue along this journey with you in some way, shape or form, but today I've enjoyed touching base with you since, you know, a COVID induced few months since we've actually seen each other.

 

Brett Johnson: 

Exactly. It's good to, it's good to be in, in close proximity.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle:

Yes. Well, thank you very much for coming in today, Brett. You're

Brett Johnson:

You're welcome. Thank you.

 

Dr. LIsa Belisle: 

I've been speaking with Brett Johnson, who is an interior designer and lovely, warm person that I hope that you reach out to and learn more about.  If you are considering your own interior design, if you are interested in hearing about Bill Crosby and other Portland art gallery artists, please come join us in Portland or visit the Portland art gallery website. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you have been listening to, or watching radio Maine.