Erik Johnson, co-founder and president, Argosy Designs

The painter-turned-craftsman is launching a bold new line of hand-crafted furnishings

Johnson said his company "wasn't started with a concrete business plan. I mean, I went to art school, you know?" (Photo courtesy of Argosy Designs)

Erik Johnson was always the handy friend who could fix your lamp or build your table. “I’ve always been making things: the odd piece of furniture, here and there, for my own apartment, my own loft.” Now his clients range from Bergdorf Goodman to the Ian Schrager Co., whose new Public hotel has dazzlingly illuminated escalators, thanks to Johnson.

Johnson is the co-founder of Argosy Designs, a metal-and-wood fabrication shop in Greenpoint known for custom lighting and architectural components. This week the company launches a new chapter, unveiling the Argosy Product Division, which will produce a hand-crafted line of lighting fixtures, tables, chairs and other furnishings. Argosy will have eight to ten of the new products on display at Brooklyn Designs, which happens May 11-13 at the Brooklyn Museum. “I’m really excited about the product line,” Johnson says in our podcast. “This has been a long time coming–a real personal goal and project for me.” 

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Johnson’s path to Brooklyn from his native Colorado was a circuitous one that literally involved climbing some mountains. He’s the son and grandson of educators who loved spending time in their workshops, his grandfather a tinkerer and his father a woodworker. “Building and fixing things were always an important part of our family.” After high school, however, the outdoors beckoned. He became a full-time rock climber, living frugally and picking up some sponsorship to pay the bills. “It wasn’t a job, per se. It was a lifestyle,” Johnson said.

Entering college, he studied painting at the University of Colorado Boulder, then emigrated to New York for graduate study at the NY Academy of Art. (He describes his style as “figurative, with a bit of surrealist bent,” citing Austrian painters Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt as influences.) When he began painting as a professional artist, however, he found it unsettling as a career.

“I was unhappy with the sort of exchange of the art world,” he says, explaining, “It didn’t seem to matter how much hard work you put in or didn’t put in” as a factor in “whether you made it or didn’t make it. And so this focus of doing something creative and still working with your hands became this honest exchange that made sense for me.”

A gig in the prop shop for Barneys, the luxury department store, led to a job working on a designer’s apartment renovation. Before long, in 2004, he and his wife, Jen Johnson-Kuhn, launched their own company. “I started Argosy Designs out of the basement of my Brooklyn apartment on the South Side of Williamsburg in the early 2000s,” Johnson recalls. “It wasn’t started with a concrete business plan. I mean, I went to art school, you know? It was really just about making things.” Johnson’s first jobs typically involved working with wood, but he started making hardware as a bridge to his true ambition: larger-scale metalwork.

Argosy’s lighting of the escalators at Manhattan’s Public hotel have been a popular Instagram subject (Photo courtesy of Argosy Designs)

Johnson chose Brooklyn primarily for the space. “It was a different time in Brooklyn then,” he says. “You had a bit more freedom. Things weren’t so expensive. I had a full basement and a backyard and I set up a full metal shop.” Like many builders and artists, Johnson finds that working in Brooklyn, with its proximity to high-end designers and developers in Manhattan, “allows you to work on projects you wouldn’t be able to work on anywhere else in the world. Even through the recession we grew and the projects kept going. New York is special. There is always good design here, great projects.”

Argosy’s staff grew slowly at first–for years, Johnson was the only welder–but now the company has 20 employees in its 10,000-sq.-ft. facility. If the new product line takes off, they’ll be busy. Besides what will be exhibited this week, Johnson says he has 50 more pieces in development. –By Kora Feder

Readers of The Bridge can buy discount tickets to Brooklyn Designs by entering the code BRIDGE at this website.