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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.