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Hunter Johnson


Being an architect is sexy. So is being a writer. Architects build structures that make us feel. They lead us through spaces that make us stop. Think about it. The reality is that we are constantly exposed to places, buildings, colors, noises, energies. Encompassed, we seek order in complexity, ease in unfamiliarity, and a balance of masculine and feminine. Writers do the same thing. They use structure to build whole conceptual worlds—make the intangible tangible—and hope for evocation of the elusive truth. Emptiness, too, is a tool to carefully deflect the sadness of vulnerability, to leave out what is most important so its absence may be felt—the juxtaposition to the thick, fullness of experience that happily and skillfully satisfies the desire to truly know a place. To call it ours. To know ourselves.

Hunter Johnson is both an architect and a writer. He grew up in the Washington, DC area, the oldest of three brothers. His father served as a Special Agent for the FBI, honorably balancing duty to country while raising confidently ambitious sons. His mother is a creative, examine-all-the-possibilities, volunteer-driven woman. His parents have been married for fifty years. Growing up, Johnson was the quintessential successful kid: captain of the football team and on the homecoming court. But many didn’t know his anxieties; they didn’t know he was dyslexic and fearful of public speaking. (It should be noted that recent studies have found those with dyslexia are, in certain situations, superior learners. Studies using cognitive testing and functional MRIs have demonstrated their exceptional three-dimensional and spatial reasoning.) He was popular because he always did his own thing, followed a system of internal values that was, and continues to be, uncommonly cool. “Always fight against the crowd,” he echoes in a measuredly defiant way.

Exploring the profession of architecture became a previously undiscovered career option during a seventh grade job-shadowing project. Johnson chose the builder who was working on a small addition to his parents' house. He was fascinated to watch the process unfold. “My mind was opened as I went through the educational process—the nuances, the complexity, all the people who had to be involved in putting it together, orchestrating it,” he waxes. Some years after graduating from the University of Virginia, Johnson started the TONO Group, in 2000, insightfully named from the word autonomy, meaning “free from outside forces.” “Ultimately, I think architecture is the balanced blend of art and science; there’s the creative and the technical,” he says.

Johnson’s a self-professed worrier. “I’m one of those people that I take on the burden. I live a kind of anxious existence and I just can’t let it go. I take too much to heart, I guess,” he says. Growing up, his father would tell him to “stop feeling sorry for himself”—meaning right now you might be suffering, but take another look, see it from another perspective and do something about it. His mother would encourage him to turn it over to God, through prayer and gratitude. He channeled his anxieties into motivation, which led to his entrepreneurial spirit, personal drive, and a desire to remake the world.

“The idea of making meaningful places, to me, is fundamental. It’s almost everything I do at this point,” he says. He argues that the only way to truly, effectively do that is to keep control and be responsible for all of it—the land, the design, the construction, and the furnishing. The TONO Group includes TONO Architects, PROTO Construction, Interiors by DECO and INFO Expertise. “We are literally buying property in town and self-developing it—exhibiting not only what we do, but giving that experience to others.”

It’s easy to hear the conviction in his voice, his desire to make a difference, to build a legacy based on architecture he believes in. “It’s about the idea of doing what’s right, doing good work,” he says. “You hope you’re respected and appreciated for it, but that’s not even important. You do the right thing and do it in humility and do it with integrity and do it courageously and you hope that others are the benefactors of that process. What better way to do it than to literally, physically change the landscape—the way people live, interact, relate, eat, drink, sleep. I think with architecture and construction, you can make such a big difference in that respect,” he says. “But it’s no small challenge.”

Creating places that elevate the soul is a high calling. Creating meaningful spaces is more than thinking in just two or three dimensions. Good design asks us to go beyond the visual perceptions or tactile senses into a realm that allows us to think higher thoughts. Beauty is the desired outcome. As we build, we write what matters upon layers of brick and mortar, steel and stone.

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