A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and Columbia Business School with a BA in Behavioral Sciences and an MBA in Management and Marketing, Charrisse Johnston was a Wall Street strategic planning executive before going back to school for interior design. She attended UCLA Extension’s ARC-ID Program from Spring 2002- June 2006, graduating valedictorian of her class. While in school, she resuscitated UCLA Extension’s dormant ASID Student Chapter in 2004, along with Joanne MacCallum, her Studio I teacher. By 2007, the chapter had become the largest in the West and was subsequently awarded Outstanding Student Chapter of the Year multiple times. Charrisse served as a director on ASID’s National Board from 2008-2010 and helped establish the national Emerging Professionals Council.
Following her graduation, Charrisse spent 9 years at Gensler. As a Senior Associate, Studio Operations Leader and Project Manager at Gensler, Charrisse managed and designed educational and corporate projects. Her clients included USC, Hyundai Capital, Herbalife and LACMA. Additionally, Charrisse oversaw the office’s pro-bono and community service initiatives, leading service projects for the Los Angeles Youth Network, the Ecole Nationale Jacob Martin Henriquez in Haiti, the Inner City Law Center and the new LA County “Housing for Health” clinic and offices.
Charrisse most recently was the Principal and Interior Design Practice Leader at Steinberg Architects, where she established the firm-wide interiors practice for offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, New York and Shanghai. However, she recently gave notice to Steinberg Architects, and is moving to South Africa to start her own design firm along with her fiancé.
We were extremely lucky to get to ask her some questions, including the best career advice she’s ever gotten and what her future plans entail, before her big move:
Tell us about your work at Steinberg Hart.
I just left Steinberg Hart, a 60-year-old architectural firm where I established an interior design practice. It was thrilling to be a Principal at a respected, medium-sized firm and build a brand-new practice from scratch. I’m now Past Chair of ASID’s National Board of Directors where head up two committees. And I’m busy gearing up for my move and coming up with ideas for the new design firm we’ll be starting up later this year.
Why are you moving to South Africa?
It’s time for a change! Interior design is my second or third career depending on how you look at it. I was pre-med in college, then got my MBA and worked on Wall Street in strategic planning before founding an event planning firm. Interior design came after that. Now that I’ve served as Chair of ASID’s National Board of Directors and I’ve put Steinberg Hart on the map as an interior design firm, I’m ready for the next chapter. My fiancé is a native Captetonian who left South Africa to practice architecture across the globe. So, we’re moving there to build our dream home and some rental properties, teach, and start our own design practice.
Where did you grow up?
In Princeton, NJ. I’m the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the oldest of four kids. Both my parents were both born in China, fled to Taiwan during World War II, came to the US to attend graduate school. They met here in the US, got married and became citizens.
What attracted you to interior design?
You know, I really didn’t know what interior design was when I attended the design program’s Open House. At the time, I was home with new baby, not working, and itching to get out of the house. UCLA Extension must have gotten my name from a mailing list of shelter magazine subscribers. At that Open House, I learned that interior design was so much more than decorating. I was still very intimidated, because I didn’t think of myself as an artistic person. So I took an art history course, followed by the Fundamentals class, and I just kept going. I loved that design is both a left- and right-brain activity and it engaged me on every level.
What inspired you to establish our ASID Chapter?
I wish I could take the credit but it really goes to Joanne MacCallum, my Studio I instructor. The chapter had been defunct when the previous officers had graduated. Joanne was the one who thought we should start it up again, and for some reason, she thought I would make a good student chapter president. It was because of her encouragement that I took on the challenge. She and I still laugh about the first meeting we hosted. She brought a dozen bagels (or was it donuts?) and maybe 2 other people showed up!
What is the last project you completed?
One of the most successful projects Steinberg completed is the historic PacMutual office building in downtown Los Angeles. The previous owner gave the building a terrific makeover and sold it for a record $200 million in 2015. The new owners wanted to take the repositioning a step further, and they asked us to come up with new amenities spaces that would further attract creative media tenants. We did extensive research and eventually gave them a hotel-like tenant lounge that’s a hang-out space during the day and an event space in the evening; a suite of meeting rooms of various sizes; a large multipurpose training room; a bike “spa” to store and maintain the tenants bikes; and a state-of-the-art fitness center. Throughout the spaces, we allude to the building’s Beaux Arts legacy while serving the lifestyles and needs of today’s workers.
What are 3 qualities that got you to where you are today, professionally?
1) saying yes to new opportunities, 2) self-discipline, and 3) a genuine interest in other people.
What is one of your biggest challenges?
It sounds like a cliché, but I tend to take on too much and saying yes too often. Last year I had some health challenges, which caused me to take a big step back and reassess my priorities.
What did your typical day look like in your last position?
When I was working at Steinberg, I would be up by 6, leave for work by 7, and arrive by 7:30/7:45. From 8-6, the days were filled with back-to-back meetings and conference calls. I sat in an open office with my team so we were constantly talking and sharing ideas – I loved that! I read and responded to emails throughout the day because clients expected that level of service, and I made sure to reach Inbox Zero each night. Around 5 pm, things usually quieted down enough for me to concentrate enough to work on proposals, write articles, etc. I tried to leave by 7 p.m. and not do any work when I got home.
Best career advice you’ve gotten?
Don’t be afraid to go for something you don’t feel 100% qualified yet to do. This is especially true for women. You need to stretch and take risks, and if you wait until you are totally sure you can do something, you’ll be left behind.
What is one helpful design resource you can recommend to students as they enter the field?
The reference book “Human Dimension and Interior Space: A Source Book of Design Reference Standards” is incredibly useful. I can’t tell you how many times I have consulted it. It tells you how much space to allot given all sorts of spaces – dining, learning, working, healing, etc.
Something you wish you knew when first got started designing?
Being able to accurately predict how long it will take to accomplish a given task. When you’re in school, the only limit to the amount of time you work on something is your own stamina and the assignment’s deadline. But once you’re working, it is crucial to work efficiently so you don’t blow the fee. Unfortunately, when you are just starting out, you tend to spend twice as much time as you estimate … and your estimate is already going to be longer than a more experienced person will take. So there is definitely a learning curve!
Who do you admire and why?
My mom. She came to the US at age 20 to attend law school, having already earned a law degree in Taiwan. She earned her JD in 2 years rather than 3, in order to save tuition, while working at a factory stringing beads and sending money home to her parents and sister. I learned the meaning of hard work and responsibility from her, and only now do I fully appreciate how she raised my siblings and me (4 kids in 5 years) on a modest income. She used to sew all our clothes, cook dinner every night, clean, do yardwork, teach us Chinese and make sure we practiced our instruments, all without any complaints. I can never repay her for the sacrifices she has made for the four of us!
Where do you go for inspiration?
I go inside my head – I read! I try to read anything and everything I can get my hands on, and not just design-related stuff, although I subscribe to a slew of design magazines too. I read everything from the news and restaurant reviews to research studies, political analyses and whodunits. I get bored easily, if you haven’t figured that out already!
What is your favorite thing in your own home?
My Knoll Womb chair and ottoman. It was an unholy splurge made during a moment of weakness, but I absolutely love it and have no regrets! There are only 2 problems with it: 1) it is so comfortable that I always fall asleep in it when I try to read, and 2) my cat seems to think it’s his cat bed. I really need to get it reupholstered because it’s looking pretty grubby.
What is something on your bucket list?
Eleanor Schrader’s art history courses opened up a whole new world to me. It’s like that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy lands in Oz, opens the door, and sees everything in Technicolor! All those buildings and paintings she described to us so vividly absolutely captivated me. Of all those spaces, I would love to visit two in particular: the Hagia Sophia and the Pantheon.