Billings architect designs coolest kitchen

Billings architect designs contemporary kitchen

Architect design is best of 50 entries

Brian Johnson, a principal partner at Collaborative Design Architects in Billings, where he currently resides, recently won the grand prize in the Monogram Dream Kitchen Design Contest for his renovation redesign of a mid-1960s contemporary kitchen.

Johnson won the top spot out of more than 50 entries with his redesign of a client’s home in the Gregory Hills subdivision of Billings. The contest’s only requirement was that architects integrate Monogram appliances into their designs.


Johnson is a 1997 and a 2008 graduate of MSU, having earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the School of Architecture.


Brian Johnson, a principal partner at Collaborative Design Architects in Billings

Brian Johnson, Billings resident and a graduate of MSU’s School of Architecture, won the grand prize in the Monogram Dream Kitchen Design Contest for his renovation design of a mid-1960s contemporary kitchen. Photo courtesy of Brian Johnson.


Johnson attributes his success in great part to the training and education he received in MSU’s architecture program, believing it to be one of the best in the nation.


“School taught me not to be afraid, to think differently, creatively--there are no ‘bad ideas’,” Johnson said.  “But, it also taught me how to listen to people, to work with them and modify my designs based on their feedback. In other words, I learned how to take constructive criticism.”


And this was an extremely important part of his education, according to Johnson. “As architects, we have to sell our ideas, so we need to listen if we want (prospective clients) to become satisfied clients.”


Another important idea that Johnson said he learned at MSU is that design is an art.


“We may be in business to sell ideas, but (design) is absolutely an art,” he said. “And, as such, you can’t be afraid to try, to experiment, to push forward and never be satisfied. That’s how you get better.”


Johnson is remembered by professors as an outstanding student, one who truly embodied the school’s ideals of passion and experimentation.


Ralph Johnson, interim director of the SoA and one of Johnson’s former professors, said Johnson (no relation) stood out from his peers.


“Brian was always an outstanding student,” said Johnson, the professor. “And, in his work and attitude, he actively supports the School of Architecture (and its ideals) every day.”


Johnson is an excellent role model for current students, according to Steven Juroszek, a professor and past interim director of the SoA.


“As a current professional, he actively nurtures emerging design professionals and our students, giving them the support and encouragement they need (to be successful in their own careers).”


Johnson’s prize-winning entry recaptured the original architect’s spirit of design of the mid-‘60s home, while incorporating updated features and appliances, according to Johnson. The home was built at the base of a 200-foot ridge of sandstone, and panoramic views were a large part of the original architect’s plan. Johnson was able to incorporate the sweeping views into his updated design using glass walls with transparent corners for an unobstructed perspective.


Interior views were also a component of the redesign. While the kitchen itself was considered open to the rest of the space from a plan standpoint, Johnson said that the kitchen was actually closed off from the eating and living spaces by a swinging door and walls.


“These walls became barriers that created awkward and unnecessary transitions between the kitchen, family room, breakfast nook and dining room,” according to Johnson’s description of the project. So, he tore them down and, instead, added a counter-high buffet, leaving the site lines open but still defining the space.


While the open concept design may have been the primary focus, updating the entire look and feel was extremely important as well. The most exciting feature was a floating 14-inch soffit, according to Johnson. Quartz counters, new cabinets with aluminum hardware and stainless steel appliances added to the more modern look and feel.


“The new kitchen has been completely transformed to capture the beauty of the site and the delicate lines of the home’s (original) architecture,” Johnson said in an interview on the website Save Room For Design.


Johnson said while it is not necessary for a designer to enter or win competitions, it does have some practical benefits, such as national exposure and recognition.


“Architects enter competitions for a number of reasons,” Johnson said. “Happy clients don’t always mean that your design work is good. I entered simply to see how my design measured up with other designers from around the U.S. and Canada.”  


Speaking to practicality, he said that while being recognized in a competition and winning an award feels wonderful, getting such positive feedback from experts in the industry is even more important. That recognition not only adds merit to his portfolio, it gives his clients a great deal of confidence in their investment with him, in both time and money.


For more information about the College of Arts and Architecture’s School of Architecture, see:

SRFD: How did you become interested in design?

Brian: I was always interested in art and more specifically, sculpture and drawing. In high school I often discussed my love for the arts with my parents who were always very supportive and nurturing with my passion for music and drawing. They encouraged me to explore how I could make money as an artist. Although they understood the term “starving artist,” my parents were careful not to immediately squash my dreams.  As I evaluated the success of many painters and sculptors whom I admired, I found that most of them didn’t make a lot of money or get “discovered” until long after they were dead. I found myself frustrated and confused about how I could make a living from doing something that I truly loved. In the spring of 1990, my high school art teacher (Tom Spencer) scheduled a field trip to the College of Arts & Architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. He knew what I was going thru and he wanted to expose his students to opportunities in the creative professions of art, graphics design, print making, interior design and architecture. As we walked through the doors into the School of Architecture, I remember the smell of gouache paint and glue. There were multiple studio spaces littered with paper, drafting supplies and X-Acto blades. It looked like an art shop had exploded. Students were walking around in pajamas and most of them looked as though they hadn’t slept in days. The galleries were peppered with different displays of abstract art. We were able to sit in on student critiques and listen to professors speak intelligently about the projects and offer constructive criticism on how to make them better. At that moment, my professional life had a solid direction.

SRFD: Tell us about a recent project you really enjoyed.

Brian: I am currently designing and general contracting my own spec home for a local 2016 Parade of Homes here in Billings, MT. It is refreshing to have complete control over both the project design and construction decisions.

SRFD: A trend you’re over?

Brian: I am over granite. With so many solid surface and composite products on the market, I feel like using granite for counters and backsplashes seems a little cliché.

SRFD: A trend you’re excited about?

Brian: There are a couple of trends that I am really excited about. The first is the use of open shelving as opposed to closed cabinetry. Open shelving offers options to make a kitchen feel more commercial or more elegant simply by giving the client control of what they want to expose.  Flatware and dishes make the kitchen feel a bit more functional and commercial, while displaying antiques or artwork make the kitchen feel a little more designed and personalized to the owner’s needs.

I also really enjoy the trend of modular refrigeration. Being able to spread refrigeration out in the kitchen really helps to make the area more functional. Separating the refrigerator and freezer and using refrigerator drawers really can give designers some freedom from the massive appliance wall installations.

SRFD: Tell us about your winning project.

Brian: Situated at the base of an ominous 200-foot ridge of sandstone, this mid-1960’s contemporary cedar home provides the canvas for this year’s Monogram Dream Kitchen Design Contest entry, “The Sandstone Niche.” The home is situated on a site that takes full advantage of the property’s 270-degree views of the prominent cityscape and distant mountain panoramas. The significance of the views to the home’s original concept was realized by the incorporation of glass throughout the project.  Walls of glass terminating at butt-jointed transparent corners are not only unique, but also evidence of the importance of the project’s placement on the site and the surrounding views.


When the client contacted me, we spent time walking through the home. She wanted an idea that would capture the spirit that her original architect had created for their family nearly 50 years ago. The home was designed as two 900 square-foot boxes connected by a 15’x15’ square circulation tower. Due to the site’s steep nature, the home’s users enter the dwelling on the lower level (private spaces) and circulate up to the public spaces (views). On the upper level, the architect celebrated the use of cedar, glass, Saltillo tile, and stone. The ceilings were vaulted and the wood-beam structure was exposed, creating a more massive volume to make the square footage seem immensely larger than it really was.  From a plan standpoint, the public spaces were open to one another; however, the kitchen was completely closed-in with 8’ tall walls and a double-hinged door into the dining room. These walls became barriers that created awkward and unnecessary transitions between the kitchen, family room, breakfast nook, and dining room.

My concept for the project was to “resurrect” the architect’s original vision by creating a kitchen area that opened itself to the entire home. The walls around the kitchen were torn out as well as the flooring, wood-burning stove, counters, cabinets, and appliances to expose a raw open (cedar) room. Integrated back into the open space was a 42”-high buffet that defined the kitchen area. This buffet housed a new gas range, but left the site lines open between the spaces and to the exterior views. Above the buffet is where we added the design’s most unique and exciting feature – a floating soffit. The soffit element allowed 44” tall pendant lights to penetrate its mass. This element, with its repetition of light, created a dramatic contrast within the cedar volume. In addition to the pendants, the 14” soffit is also intersected by a 4-foot square, custom, aluminum shaft containing an integral hood insert and additional lighting for the work surfaces below.

Around the kitchen’s perimeter, quartz counters and European-style cabinets delicately defined the edge of the space.  I designed the cabinetry with wood faces as well as aluminum hardware and detailing that tie into the kitchen’s Monogram stainless steel appliances and Kohler plumbing fixtures. A new pantry was relocated in place of the old buffet to satisfy the need for the displaced food storage which was formerly located in the walls that were torn down. The buffet also provides continued privacy between the family room and formal living room in the adjacent “box.”

The new kitchen has been completely transformed to capture the beauty of the site and the delicate lines of the home’s architecture. The client’s only wish is that the idea would’ve been integrated 50 years earlier.

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