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Extremely ’70s Artifacts from Johnson Publishing’s Heyday

A new exhibit at the Stony Island Arts Bank toasts the Ebony and Jet founder’s pizzazz.

Above: John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, used to have his hair cut in this custom-designed chair in his office, which took up the entire top floor of the high-rise he built at 820 South Michigan. Photo: Colin Beckett

Johnson Publishing Company’s headquarters were the first in downtown Chicago to be built, designed, and owned by a black man. Each of the 11 floors showcased African American art and artifacts and framed covers of the company’s Ebony and Jet magazines. The opulent offices were distinctly ’70s: ostrich-skin wallpaper, leather-lined wastebaskets, color-coded file cabinets.

Linda Johnson Rice gifted Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation items from the building after the company moved out in 2012. Some of those will be on display in an exhibit that opens June 28 at the Stony Island Arts Bank. “We give credit to Zappos and Google for their campuses, but nobody does this anymore,” says Devin Mays, an artist who worked on the project. “Everything in the building was so obsessively considered.”

Sofa and chair

Sofa and chair

Photos: (JPC offices) Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company

“A lot of what they did with vinyl and faux leather was really popular at the time, and you could go very crazy with it,” says Thomas Leinberger, who’s overseeing the reupholstering process. “We’re trying to take cues from the original and not stray too far.”

 

Electric shoe polisher

Electric shoe polisher

“It speaks to the era that John Johnson was associated with,” says Pete Skvara, a Rebuild project manager. “It’s made by Dremel, the company that makes power tools. You have a piece of technology like that to help you get ready for your meeting—it’s a sign of success in business.”

 

Bespoke typewriter

Bespoke typewriter

Each floor had a dominant color that was repeated on the walls and floor and even the office equipment, like this typewriter, covered in textured red leather.

 

Frederick Douglass bust

Johnson filled the building with pieces by black artists or, in this case, about black figures. Johnson received the Douglass scuplture as part of a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists.

 

Psychedelic art

Psychedelic art

This seven-by-seven-foot painting, which hung in Johnson’s office (inset), is an example of the kind of brightly colored, custom-framed graphic work that decorated every room and hallway. Rebuild is still searching for the artist. “It seems like they bought that piece specifically for that space,” Leinberger speculates.

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