EyeSwoon

“Everything I had dreamed of and more.”
This is how Ulla Johnson sums up her feelings about her first flagship boutique, located in N.YC. It’s nestled on one of the few tree-lined streets in NoHo that has remained insulated from development. The area still has a grit of yesteryear, something the Manhattan native and visionary found crucial to the shop’s location.

I first met Ulla on the beach in Montauk about five years ago. Our kids also happened to go to the same school, and we became more and more acquainted over the years. Ulla is beautiful, smart, articulate, driven, and passionate, but also, calm, cool, bohemian, and elegant. It’s certainly a cocktail for intrigue, and perhaps one that is rare. Funnily enough, as I became smitten with her, so did the rest of the fashion world. Ulla’s business has been around for well over 15 years, but in the past three years it seems as though she has grasped the attention of every girl I know who is also beautiful, smart, savvy, calm, cool, and bohemian. Ulla creates clothes you simply want to wear, clothes that make you feel at ease, feminine and self-possessed, sexy and slightly undone. Her business is without doubt booming and has evolved into a full-on lifestyle brand. Alas, a store is born — and the swooniest one I have ever seen!

For Ulla’s Bleecker Street store, (it’s sandwiched between Lafayette and Bowery), Ulla desired a residential feel. “My brand is not just about the clothes themselves but about the story, the process, the travel, the lifestyle, so communicating these things in our first boutique was preeminent,” she says. She worked with architect Elizabeth Roberts, who is celebrated for her stunning townhouse renovations. Having tackled landmarked buildings, homes in historic districts and indie boutiques, all with a mix of historical appreciation, warmth and minimalism, Elizabeth and her team proved to be the perfect fit for the project.

Ulla also worked with Alexis Brown, the interior designer who had helped outfit Ulla’s own Brooklyn home in all its textile-rich, serene and sophisticated glory. Together, Elizabeth and Alexis helped Ulla to create an urban oasis of calm and beauty. Ulla’s overarching goal for the boutique was for each person who steps foot inside to feel transported. Well, she achieved just that. An abundance of hand-wrought elements in the store create a juxtaposition between hard and soft, femininity and structure, a thread that also runs throughout the collection. Once inside I could not help but to touch every tactile surface from travertine to marble to plaster, brass, velvet, and woven silks. The mix of materials is brilliant – it weaves together seamlessly.

When I ask Ulla how she creates such a consistent feel between the collection and the store, she shares the importance of contemporary art. Inspired by painting and sculpture, art is the jumping off point for her design process. “Weaving, looming, playing with a range of color and texture and pattern, these things form a thread through all the work that we do, so touching on them in creating the language of the store felt very true.”

Beyond art, Ulla needs only turn to her impressive body of work as a blueprint for inspiration. Her campaigns, her presentations, her clothing, and her passion to make a change in the world all share the same underlying mission – her life’s work is to help women to feel beautiful, empowered, and self-possessed. “I think these past months have been very difficult for this country and after the November election, I felt very confused about how to take all my feelings and inner turmoil and continue to approach my work in the same way. After a time, I came to the realization that creating beauty and joy is more important now than ever, and that these things can bolster us along.” AMEN lady, let’s let beauty heal!

I call Ulla a friend now, and as we shot this story we talked in detail about not only her creative vision but also her awakening in the political space. She shared that feminism runs deep in her blood. She is a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood and various other social and political groups. She is using her platform to raise awareness and funds, and to advocate for women. “It was a conscious choice for me to engender my business with a political voice – the brand is so very personal for me and disconnecting my business from my political self seemed an impossibility,” she says. “In addition to the fundraising and awareness building we are engaged in, we have worked with artisans the world over for many years and have endeavored to contribute not just to the preservation of traditional handicraft but also to the empowerment of the communities within which we work.”

From the architecture and interiors by Elizabeth Roberts and Alexis Brown to a light fixture by Lindsey Adelman to the Tanya Aguiñiga weaving on the artfully-plastered wall, many women helped Ulla create the exceptional beauty of her store. In creating the boutique, Ulla is celebrating women, celebrating beauty, and offering a reprieve from the confusing climate in which we live. Thank you, Ulla, for the escape.

Please read the interviews with all three of these talented women. I promise you will walk away informed and inspired. And yes, from designers to advocates to artists to business owners to whatever else calls to us, we can be it all.

– Architecture and Interiors by Elizabeth Roberts and Alexis Brown
– Glass Pendant Light (Totem) by Lindsey Adelman 
– Paper Molded Pendant Light by Stephen White
– Paintings by Josh Tonsfeldt and Lily Ludlow
– Sculptures by Adam Silverman and Shino Takeda 
– Fiber Art by Tanya Aguiñiga
– Custom Bronze Door Handle by Rogan Gregory
– Wicker Wrapping on Rails and Danish Cord Wrapped Point of Sale Desk by Peg Woodworking 
– Handloomed Roman Blinds by Hiroko Takeda
– Florals (Interior and Exterior) by Saipua 
– Custom Organic Wild Sourced Fragrance by Theia

Q&A

  • Ulla Johnson

    • What was your vision for the first Ulla Johnson boutique? 

      Above all it was important for me going into the design that the space have a residential feel. My brand is not just about the clothes themselves but about the story, the process, the travel, the lifestyle, so communicating these things in our first boutique was preeminent. In addition, handmade items form the core of our collection so having as many hand wrought or hand detailed elements in the store as possible was crucial. Beyond that we wanted to create this juxtaposition between hard and soft, between femininity and structure which is also a thread that runs through my design work.

      How do you want people to feel when they step foot into the space? 

      I really wanted the space to feel transportive, an oasis of calm and beauty within a city and world that feels very loud and fractured right now. 

      I know design, art, and fashion are one and the same language to you. How do you ensure all of these areas speak to the DNA of the brand? 

      My husband is a contemporary art dealer and painting and sculpture often form the jumping off point for my design process, so having fine art in the space was very important. Weaving, looming, playing with a range of color, and texture, and pattern, these things form a thread through all the work that we do, so touching on them in creating the language of the store felt very true.

      How did you organize your store design ideas before sharing them with your team? (Did you create a mood board?  Define a palette? Something else?) 

      Yes, we created a mood board of furnishings and finishings and architectural details and colors but we really had the whole arc of the collection to turn to for guidance. I think we have defined our voice consistently, not just with the clothes themselves but with our recent campaigns and presentations, so these things gave us a very clear blueprint to elaborate on in pulling together the elements of the store. 

      The fashion collection is ever-changing but the store design is more permanent – and there is significant expense involved. Even as a highly visual woman who has built a business on aesthetics, it is hard to imagine how all the pieces fit together. How did you pull the trigger on store design decisions given the stakes and uncertainty?

      I tend to be quite decisive and not belabor decisions too much. In having built so many collections I have learned to quickly identify things I like and those that are not working, so this experience really helped me to make timely decisions about the store. That said, there were so many elements that went into the finishings and interiors and we didn’t take a particularly safe or minimalist path, so I was a bit uncertain how it would all come together in the end! Thankfully my team was brilliant and the final outcome was everything I had dreamed of and more.

      Taking risks and trusting your intuition seems to be what you do. What scared you the most about the process of creating your boutique? And at what moments did you simply trust and follow your gut? 

      I had never embarked on a project of this scale. I am very good at understanding what a sketch will look like when realized into a garment and even then sometimes we are surprised! So in looking at renderings of the space I was worried that the true lived experience of the finished store wouldn’t live up to what the vision in my mind was. Thankfully this proved not to be the case and it actually outpaced my imaginings. 

      Let’s talk about your affinity for pink and yellow. What draws you to this color scheme? You seem to use them as a neutral. 

      I do really believe that pink is a true neutral. There is no other color that goes with everything — with black, with brown, with navy, with hot and cool colors in equal measure. Also it has so many shades and expressions I never tire of it. I feel similarly about yellow and then the two together — just kills me every time.  

      The store is simply beautiful, a jewel box and an escape from reality. It’s something we discussed as a necessity in the world today. Can you speak about the importance of creating beauty? And its escape.

      Well, I have always felt that helping women to feel beautiful, empowered, self-possessed — this was my life’s work. I think these past months have been very difficult for this country and after the November election, I felt very confused about how to take all my feelings and inner turmoil and continue to approach my work in the same way. After a time I came to the realization that creating beauty and joy is more important now than ever and that these things can bolster us along.

      Tell us about the ways in which you are using your platform to raise awareness for global and political issues in the world (your alignment with your Bleecker Street neighbor Planned Parenthood, the women weavers who are crocheting pieces in the collection). 

      I think, as is true for many people, the past months have reawakened my political voice. I have been a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood and various other social and political groups and feminism runs deep in my blood — I did my senior thesis on women self-identification as feminists and why at the time it was still sort of a dirty word. I am so grateful to have seen all that change in recent months and years and the silver lining to this time of political upheaval is that we have collectively become so much more engaged, have realized that the time is now to become engaged in ways large and small with every fiber of our beings. It was a conscious choice for me to engender my business with a political voice — the brand is so very personal for me and disconnecting my business from my political self seemed an impossibility. In addition to the fundraising and awareness building we are engaged in, we have worked with artisans the world over for many years and have endeavored to contribute not just to the preservation of traditional handicraft but also to the empowerment of the communities within which we work.

      From architecture and interiors by Elizabeth Roberts and Alexis Brown to a light fixture by Lindsey Adelman to the Tanya Aguiñiga weaving on the artfully-plastered wall, many women helped you create this store. Was it a conscious choice to celebrate women in designing the boutique? 

      Absolutely and in every way.  

      Flowers are a massive part of your brand, from the presentations to runway shows, and now the store. Tell us about about your relationship with flowers and specifically with Saipua. 

      I have been a longtime acolyte of Sarah’s work — I fell in love with her aesthetic when she opened her first tiny shop in Red Hook around the same time as I started my business. Flowers have become an integral part of my process — I work through color ideas for the collection with floral combinations and am always looking to nature for ideas around form, palette, and composition. When I first decided to open the store I immediately brought Sarah on board knowing that having a strong floral statement as well as rich plant life in the store was going to be internal to the vision for the space.

      Bleecker Street feels a bit like old New York. Somehow it is preserved. Why was that important to you?

      This particular tree-lined strip of Bleecker Street has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. As a teenager I would go out of my way to traverse this street of passing from the East Village to SoHo, and it always felt like a bit of an escape from the chaos of Lafayette and Bowery on either side. Also, there is still a true diversity of business on the street from residential to retail to restaurants, a boxing gym, un-renovated eccentric spaces, and Parisi Bakery around the corner. So much of downtown has turned essentially into an outside shopping mall and this block has somehow remained insulated against this. It still feels like a bit of a discovery despite its close proximity to SoHo and Nolita.  

      How do you balance running a business, remaining creative and staying grounded with your family? Do they unite in your world or do you create clear boundaries between each?

      Oh, it is impossible to really create a balance. This is an incredibly chaotic time for me between raising three small kids and building a business that I am so passionate about. I cannot say I am great at creating boundaries — my kids are always in my studio, and they were at the store through every phase of construction. I want them to know and see what it means to build something with your whole heart, to know that perfection is unattainable, that mistakes happen, that things don’t always come easily. They see all the parts of me and yet I know they are proud of me and what I have built. My eldest son came with me to D.C. for the Women’s March, and to local demonstrations as well, and watching his political awakening has been such a gift. In the end building a business respectfully, carefully, and with love — teaching my children to be aware of their world and the importance of their voice, all of these things are inextricably linked.

  • Elizabeth Roberts

    • You have shared with me that this project was really an opportunity to exercise your creativity. Can you speak about how this artistic retail project pushed you to think outside the box? 

      Since this was Ulla’s first-ever store it was a real challenge and treat to create her first environment for her beautiful collections — this was uniquely hers and hers alone. So it was extremely important to be sensitive to her aesthetic and yet to simultaneously be the authority in terms of the architecture and the interiors of the space.

      Ulla shared that you really re-thought and reconfigured the spacial layout of the store. Can you share your process in doing so?

      It was pretty obvious to me that the space should be broken into smaller rooms — it was far too long to be one continuous retail space.  The high ceilings reminded me of a parlor level of a townhouse so we created at front a rear parlor and shaved out functional spaces in a way that was subtle and natural.

      The store layout feels like it has two well-defined spaces with a dreamy portal connecting them. It’s almost like the parlor floor of a townhouse. How did your residential and townhouse pedigree help you define the retail space? 

      The connection between the two rooms was our opportunity to create a surprise, a little more commercial in that it functions to showcase product, but we made sure to include art and objects to reinforce the residential feel. 

      Can you speak in detail about the change in material cladding the walls and floor for the portal?   

      I was thrilled when Ulla agreed to using the indigo marble as a base. I had recently been traveling in England and was inspired by details that I saw in some amazing houses and museums while traveling.  I also had been dying to use that marble for awhile and when I suggested it as a base she loved the idea! It was pretty natural for the base to become the flooring at the pass-through — and the travertine on the walls in the pass-through is soft and a nice contrast to the wild marble floor and bases.  

      In designing the store there were so many creatives working on a single space. Can you speak to what this process looked like? Did you clearly delineate roles? 

      I love collaborating with other talented creatives so when Ulla suggested the many friends that she wanted to be involved in the project I was happy to do so.  Roles were naturally formed — however I tend to be a leader and was happy to do so at times.

      How was the beautiful desk conceived? The woven cording seems to evoke classic Danish furnishings. 

      We spent a huge amount of time creating the sales desk — the shape felt natural in the long and rectilinear space — and the details were influenced by vintage pieces and ultimately beautifully realized by a local maker who pulled off the wrapping brilliantly and beautifully.   

      The desk not only provides jewelry display but there was also a ton of coordination in the design to house all of the technical necessities for sales. 

      Rattan counter — custom, sales desk in brass, oak and Danish cord, designed by Elizabeth Roberts Architecture & Design, fabricated by Rather Well Design, weaving by Peg Woodworking.

      Favorite design choice in the space?  Something you are most proud of? 

      My favorite details are without a doubt these — I love the imperfect, custom and totally unique chevron floor that we created for the store. I also love the recessed, marble base that wraps the store. Finally, the sales desk turned out so beautifully and is truly a unique, functional creation.  

      Tell me how the pattern for the wood flooring came about. It is just genius — classic yet unexpected and modern! 

      The floor pattern idea came from our team –again, we loved the idea and we were so thrilled when Ulla loved it too! It seemed to us like a perfect example of the classic, beautiful townhouse details gone a little casual, creating a perfect backdrop for Ulla’s bohemian and worldly taste.

  • Alexis Brown

    • You and Ulla have a deep-rooted trust and friendship, and a design mind-meld, so to speak. You know her brand inside and out. How did you evoke the brand DNA in designing the interior? 

      Ulla and I have known each other for several years. I worked with her and her husband Zach on their home first and it was an amazing experience. This gave me real insight into what she would like for the store. Ulla is obviously very creative and connected to the arts.  She also very much wants her store to be a reflection of her brand.  She and I have similar passions of working with weavers directly and artisans which is something we brought to the store.  She is willing to take risks and trusts me so I can push her a bit into trying something new. 

      How did the plaster wall pattern come about? It is so subtle and just beautiful. 

      I knew we wanted the clothing to be the focal point of the space, which is why we went white.  The texture and softness of the walls mirror the quality in Ulla’s clothes, beautiful, dreamy and at the same time a little boyish.  It was important that it also be modern. I really wanted to steer clear of a heavy texture or a Venetian plaster that are a bit dated and lackluster. 

      The back of the space just seems to illuminate, from the paper lantern to the way the custom pink roman shades filter light. Was it a conscious choice to create this effect? 

      The paper shade was something that the interiors team from ERA brought to the table.  The minute Ulla and I saw, we both thought yes.  The softness and craft-like quality are a true embodiment of her brand.  It’s handmade by an artist in Oregon. And yes, I knew I wanted the softness that the Roman shades create in the space. There is a bit of shimmer in the fabric, which the light picks up. Also having the residential feel in the back room like a real dressing room/boudoir or dressing closet, a special, soft space was something I always wanted in the back area. I think we achieved that feeling. 

      Ulla shared that the brass ceiling was a choice that you made. Tell us how that came to be.

      I’m very inspired by the 1970s. It was a time of great innovation and creativity in interior design and architecture. I wanted that feeling somewhere in the space. Not everything needed to be so soft, yet you have the upholstered walls and the soft curtain, again that juxtaposition of materials. Also we wanted a separation from the sitting area into the dressing rooms, something that was a little tougher but soft at the same time. I really liked the idea of adding something to the ceiling that would make the light sparkle too, and Ulla loved the idea as well.

      Tell us about the varied use of materials. Everything in the store is so tactile, from the porous limestone to the mohair upholstery.

      Ulla cares deeply about her artisans and giving her clients a handmade, authentic product. We wanted that to be a major thread in the space from day one. Having natural materials in the space, custom fabrics, vintage textiles, vintage furniture and lighting and especially colors that are a part of Ulla’s vocabulary. She has always loved pink, even before it was in vogue, and golden yellow tones also found in nature needed to be major players in the interior design.  The travertine, once we saw it I knew that this needed to be integrated in the pass through and loved the way the green marble and the travertine connect at the floor and create a special moment between the two spaces. We were always going back to a juxtaposition of materials and making sure that this was a narrative in the space.

      The mohair on the daybed was really about the color and the texture.

      Can you share a bit about sourcing vintage pieces for the store?

      It goes back to Ulla and her love of textiles and weavers and it’s something we very much connect on.  Bringing that to the store again was a direct connection to Ulla and her personal love of fashion, art and hand work.

      We also worked closely selecting art for the store. Tanya Aguiñiga’s fiber are on the wall is something we wanted to integrate into Ulla’s life for some time and we did it!

      Working with someone as visual as Ulla, she knows what she wants and likes. How did you know when to push her outside her comfort zone and when to let go? 

      Fashion and interior design are very similar in many ways. Ulla trusts me and knows from our previous work together that I would never push her to do something that I wasn’t totally convinced of myself. The plaster walls are one of those situations where I knew I could push her to trust me, and she is thrilled with the outcome. But I didn’t push too much. I can tell when she doesn’t want to go further and honestly we have really a great respect for one another and a great friendship and this also helps us work together so closely.

      Biggest risk in the project? Greatest reward?

      The biggest risk I think was the Lindsay Adelman pendant light in the front of the store. I had always loved that light and suggested it to Ulla and she was on board. I wanted it placed against the wall to highlight the fact that it was an art piece.  I just didn’t know if people would respond to it. In the end I think it’s one of the most successful pieces in the shop. Lindsay is an artist and this highlights that. She is also a good friend of Ulla’s, so that was a great addition to the store and story.

      The biggest reward is seeing Ulla so happy with the outcome. It was such fun and inspiring process.  She is the best and I truly love working with her.

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