Ask the Designer: An interview with Jeremy Johnston

We caught up with Exhibition Designer, Jeremy Johnston, following the opening of two Ronald Lockett exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum. Jeremy, who is the co-founder and principle designer at specialist art exhibition design company Darling Green, has worked with curator Valérie Rousseau to create Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett; the first retrospective on the artist, which looks at how Lockett’s art speaks to the universality of the human condition through the lens of lived experience in the American South. The second exhibition, Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die; showcases the artworks by the self-taught artist and how these reflect on themes such as mortality, eschatology, and vulnerability. These artworks are paired with small and portable works created for protective purposes by both known and unidentified artists situated outside the art mainstream.

Photography by Olya Vysotskaya © American Folk Art Museum

Photography by Olya Vysotskaya © American Folk Art Museum

TC: Can you tell us a little more about the two new exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum?

JJ: I am very excited to be working with Valérie Rousseau and the American Folk Art Museum to design these two exhibitions. Both are centered on the work of Ronald Lockett (1965–1998) , who lived and worked in Bessemer, Alabama. Lockett was the youngest of a group of artists that worked in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer. His work is incredibly powerful. It really has to be seen in person; the range of textures and tiny details are astounding and, like so many artworks, can’t really be communicated in a photograph. Fever Within is completely focused on Lockett’s work, while Once Something combines it with other artists works. The resulting dialogue between artists and objects in Once Something is fascinating.


What role do interior design and colour play in the space?

We work with American Folk Art Museum staff to design a unique identity for each exhibition. We rarely repeat wall color and for good reason; artist’s works and groups of works, even large and varied groups, have a very specific character. The curatorial point of view also influences color decisions. Color is one of our primary tools to heighten the exhibition experience. However, we work carefully to make sure that labels, texts, furniture and other installation solutions don’t overwhelm the artworks. All of this detailed work is for one reason and that is to push the works toward the viewer and allow them to experience each object at its best. Interestingly, color is the one element that never leaves the viewing frame. We can place labels low and away from the works, but the wall color or case color is always present. This makes these choices very delicate and extremely important.

Ronald Lockett - Traps, 1992 (Photography by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio)

Ronald Lockett – Traps, 1992 (Photography by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio)

You chose to work with Farrow & Ball on both these exhibitions, how do you go about choosing the colours?

Instinct plays a big part. Experience is a close second. We have two large suitcases filled with color samples, many from past exhibitions, and a few that we have hand mixed or tinted. We spend time with the works in the lighting conditions of each gallery with the samples looking for a few good candidates. Then we test some options and paint new samples, refining the choice until it works well.

Do you have a favourite piece in the exhibitions?

I do have favorites, but they tend to change daily. One of the great privileges of working with exhibitions is the amount of time we are able to spend with each work. They change over time; your relationship and understanding deepens over time. I think this is something that we are in danger of losing as life moves at an increasingly fast pace. An artwork will reveal more of itself in exact proportion to how long you spend with it and the longer you look the more you will learn.

Ronald Lockett - Sarah Lockett’s Roses, 1997 (Photography by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio)

Ronald Lockett – Sarah Lockett’s Roses, 1997 (Photography by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio)

Do you have any top tips for readers living or travelling to New York?

New York is an amazing city and it’s really worth getting off the beaten track. Go to Brooklyn or Queens and find some great food or live music. Try something new. Take a ferry somewhere. In Manhattan, a personal favorite is the Whitney Museum of American Art. Lower East Side galleries are fun too.

What’s the most interesting artefact/artwork/piece of furniture/curios in your home?

Very hard to choose one! Two that come to mind immediately are a painting by Alex Lakin; it’s a deceivingly complex picture; very refined. Sometimes I find my self staring at it and I’m not sure how much time has gone by. I’m also very fond of a bananas sculpture by artist/designer Melitta Baumeister. It’s kind of a playful spontaneous object, yet radiates an odd power. Love the bananas.

And finally, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?


Photography by Olya Vysotskaya © American Folk Art Museum

Photography by Olya Vysotskaya © American Folk Art Museum

Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett and Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die are on at the American Folk Art Museum from 21 June to 18 September 2016.

Image used to in the headline by Olya Vysotskaya © American Folk Art Museum

Rebecca Maclean


Rebecca’s interest in interior design began as a teenager when she had the ‘bright’ idea of painting her bedroom a striking tangerine shade. Today that passion for colour permeates her working life, and at home she enjoys trying new ideas while decorating her first home. Rebecca loves to travel, seeing the world and discovering new landscapes, sights and flavours.

The Chromologist 2019 | Farrow & Ball

The Chromologist