His look? Totally rad

Times Staff Writer

FASHION designer Johnson Hartig’s dresser is a tableau fit for an FBI profiler. The top of his antique highboy sports an incense holder rimmed with tiny skulls, a padlock and a Victorian glass case containing a taxidermy chipmunk. Nearby, on a Taschen book catalog, lie a black twill bow tie, a packet of Listerine breath strips and a pair of steel handcuffs. Hmmm.

Suave and provocative, this casual collision of objects is pure Hartig. As the Los Angeles-based half of the red-hot clothing line Libertine, he brings 19th century English eccentricity and 21st century California skater style to the label’s apparel.

In just six years, Hartig and design partner Cindy Greene have enchanted Vogue grande dame Anna Wintour, “It” girl Scarlett Johansson and British artist Damien Hirst with deconstructed tailoring, Old World silk-screen prints and Swarovski spider webs and skulls. Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld bought much of Libertine’s crystal-embellished spring 2006 collection for himself.


On Sunday, Libertine launches its first mass-market women’s collection at Target stores. With clothes that cost under $40, about one-tenth of Libertine’s one-of-a-kind creations, the new mass-market line dials down Goth glamour in favor of Edwardian dandyism and preppy punk.

In much the same way, Hartig’s recently renovated 1920s home in the Hancock Park area has become an exuberant collage of places, periods, preoccupations and prices. There are family hand-me-downs, such as an English Regency chest flanked by a pair of silvery Italian grotto chairs with seashell legs and dolphin arms. Other acquisitions include a midcentury chair by Mies van der Rohe, antique wood-spindle lollipop seats, and side tables scored for chump change at an L.A. estate sale.

“I don’t care where things come from or how much they cost,” Hartig says, “as long as they are chic and fit in.”

The designer, who favors T-shirts and the word “rad,” feels perfectly at home flopping onto a pricey whiteslip-covered sofa by Ralph Lauren and propping his bare feet up on an inexpensive white Parsons table from West Elm.

Hartig thrives on juxtaposition, be it of cost, style, material or era. He tosses a Union Jack pillow on a French Louis-style sofa, places a crystal candelabra on an oversized Lucite table and perches cute vinyl Japanese toys near a Hirst sculpture of a dagger piercing a sheep’s heart.


BALANCING luxury with comfort and class with brass, Hartig’s interiors are a colorful and cannily edited mix of antiques, catalog furnishings, flea market finds, 20th century designer pieces and contemporary art.


“His house is not some hyper-designed unreal set,” says New York menswear designer Thom Browne, who has known Hartig since the 1990s. “It is who he really is -- a unique and sophisticated individual whose taste is always evolving.”

That accounts for some of Hartig’s odd personal flourishes: a pristine Schwinn bicycle -- all black, down to its spokes -- parked in the kitchen (“I use it for errands in Larchmont Village”), an array of antique scale-model schooners under glass and a vast collection of valuable (and some might say kitschy) Staffordshire porcelain figurines, including a kennel’s worth of the English firm’s signature spaniels.

Hartig has two live canine companions too: Pocket the Chihuahua and Terrance the miniature pinscher, both rescues.

The row of Staffordshire dogs on the wall-length bookcases in the den is joined by a 19th century Venetian marionette that Hartig recalls purchasing at an antique shop in Pasadena “because it looked like he was dressed in Libertine.”

Libertine’s pieces “reflect the history of fashion and fuse art and design,” says Vogue’s West Coast editor, Lisa Love, an early champion of the label. A frequent guest at Hartig’s home, she is not surprised that it is so “interesting and wacky.”

“You walk through an English country garden and into a Long Island living room and a Hamptons kitchen and dining room,” she says. “The master bedroom is a New York City gentleman’s apartment, and the pool area is quintessential California.”



FROM the street, Hartig’s 2,000-square-foot home is nearly hidden by tall mounds of lavender and purple Mexican heather. Two years ago, when he first saw the house, “it appeared to be a Mediterranean bungalow, if there is such a style,” he says.

“The yard was overgrown, and the house was dark and gloomy. My real estate agent could not understand what I was thinking, but I knew it could be something.”

Though his design studio is in Koreatown, Hartig chose the Hancock Park area over more bohemian neighborhoods because it has always been one of his favorite parts of the city.

“I suffer from road rage,” he adds, “and it’s centrally located for where I need to go.”

After buying the house, nine months of renovation followed. Demolition widened narrow doorways and revealed sloped beamed ceilings, giving the space better flow. Frosted louvered windows from the 1950s were replaced with wood-framed casement windows, and the footprint of the master suite was extended into the backyard.

Hartig gutted the bathrooms and fitted them with simple white cabinets and marble countertops. A polished concrete floor was poured in the kitchen, creating a neutral gray to complement white beadboard walls, glass-front cabinetry and a dark, honed-granite counter. He painted the remaining floors in other rooms a chalky white and laid wall-to-wall sisal in the den.

“I wanted to turn it into a simple loft-like space -- white, clean and open -- then decorate it with art as the focus,” Hartig says.


He proudly displays Hirst’s recent spin-art works. A huge circular painting sprayed with color is the centerpiece of a living room wall, hung salon-style with photographs and canvases by Eric Ernest Johnson, Chris Johanson, Don Bachardy and other artist friends.

The dining room is dominated by two Hirsts, a collage of nine 15-inch-diameter spin-art pieces and a diamond-shaped butterfly assemblage that looks like a Tiffany stained-glass window. One of the house’s three bedrooms is set aside as a painting studio for Hartig and his friends, with recently finished sketches taped to the wall.

The riot of colorful art takes the stage against a calm backdrop of white walls, ivory upholstery, reflective metal lamps and open-frame steel and leather chairs. By contrast, Hartig’s bedroom is painted a rich brown, the better to show off a steel-framed four-poster bed he designed and a screen made from 19th century wallpaper purchased at an auction from the collection of couture designer Geoffrey Beene.


THE master bedroom is an update of Hartig’s first attempts at interior design. Hartig, who admits he lied to Time magazine about being 35 but declines to disclose his real age, grew up in Whittier. He and his four siblings were raised in a 1950s ranch by his mom and dad, a master gardener “who only wanted to grow things you could eat.”

At 15, Hartig painted his room chocolate. “I got mini-blinds the same color, a corner bed unit with a built-in stereo and a big ficus in a basket with an up-light,” he says. “I think I was really influenced by the ‘70s bachelor pad; that was the first time I paid attention to style.”

In his teens, he studied drawing and painting, and he got sewing lessons from his grandmother. In college, Hartig assisted an interior decorator who took him to flea markets and educated him about design.


After a stint at Cal State Long Beach in the late ‘90s, Hartig pursued acting and appeared in commercials for Nokia, Coca-Cola and Mercedes-Benz.

“I didn’t have real aspirations,” he admits. “I was just trying to figure out what to do.”

The answer came in the wardrobe department. Using his sewing skills, Hartig would tear apart vintage clothes, exposing seams and leaving edges ragged. He would add fanciful details, such as grosgrain ribbon or crystal trim, and wear his creations out on the town. Soon he was selling them to Maxfield in West Hollywood and other boutiques.

In 2000, Hartig met Cindy Greene, then a member of the performance art rock group Fischerspooner and a graphic designer for DKNY. She sent him a shirt with a raccoon printed on the collar and a gorilla on the back. He cut and reconstructed it in his unconventional fashion, and a new design duo was born. At that time, he was living in an apartment in Koreatown.

“That was all Oriental rugs and red rooms and blue rooms and a yellow kitchen covered with 19th century blue and white transferware,” he says.

Designer Kate Mulleavy of the acclaimed L.A. dressmaking duo Rodarte remembers that residence vividly.

“He was like a little prince living in a castle,” she says. “It was breathtaking -- like walking into a bizarre Dutch collector’s curio cabinet or a Gothic novel. It’s not easy to pull together all the different elements he incorporates, but Johnson knows exactly where everything should be.”


Hartig nicknamed his new residence Citrus House, after returning from a tour of British country homes. It is a little bit of Anglophile pretension -- like his old-fashioned calling card, which only bears his name in antique script -- that serves his new decor vision well.

“My old apartment was more reflective of Libertine,” he says. “This house is less decorated and more about the bones.”

He looked at Architectural Digest from the ‘80s and pored over a decades-old coffee-table book of interiors called “The Best in European Decoration.” There were less literal inspirations.

“I imagined how people in the Hamptons lived during the 1970s,” Hartig says. “I love Americana, folk art and English country style more than anything, and there were certain things I couldn’t give up. I knew that people I admired are able to mix antiques and modern really well, so I tried it.”

The effect, Vogue’s Love says, is a sense of comfort and liberation: “You feel like you’re in an artist’s summer house somewhere where they could have a little bit more fun than the city house.”


Indeed, on a recent afternoon, Hartig postponed his usual noon-to-2 p.m. catnap to entertain friends. Interior designer Ames Ingham, who created the super-sized lantern hanging over Hartig’s dining room table, and actress Margaret Yen Johnson dropped by to try on samples from Libertine’s collection for Target. Margaret’s husband, Eric, and Hartig’s real estate agent, Barry Fox, joined the designer in the heated pool.


Champagne flowed freely. Hartig passed around his latest score -- a Union Jack purse by Chanel sent from Lagerfeld -- and the cozy group snuggled on the Ralph Lauren sectional, thumbing through a copy of the British design magazine World of Interiors. On an old English chest with bun feet and inlaid stars, a TV flickered to life as Hartig showed home movies he had recently made with these friends.

“I wanted a home where I could entertain, where people can have a swim and come in and paint,” he pronounced, bouncing a black-and-white football emblazoned with the Chanel logo on his knee. “A grown-up place.”




Do it yourself

NOT everything in Johnson Hartig’s home costs a pretty penny. Or has to. The fashion designer insists you can cop his interior design style without going broke. A prime example: his dining room, shown here.

A set of four white chairs cost $349 from West Elm. The retailer (, with stores in Santa Monica and Rancho Cucamonga, also was the source for inexpensive side tables and a striped rug for the master bedroom.

Hartig’s antique farm table can be replicated with paint, stain and elbow grease on a simple shape bought at an unpainted furniture store. Similar pieces start at $549 at and


Mirrored globes that mimic the look of mercury glass can be found in garden and gift shops. Armstrong Garden Centers have 12-inch reflective, colored glass globes for about $45; 6-inch polished stainless steel spheres start at about $14 at (search for “garden globes”).

Rather than try to duplicate the custom lantern, borrow its look by finding a simple fixture and outfitting it with an unusual bulb.

-- David A. Keeps


More photos on the Web

For an expanded gallery of images from the Johnson Hartig photo shoot, go to