Last season, we had the pleasure of interviewing Johnny Cubert White, the incredibly creative and talented Art Director for "Top Chef: Miami". Johnny is being considered for an Emmy nomination for his amazing work last season, and we thought our readers would enjoy a second look at his interview, which was originally posted on the "TC Gals" blog in August of 2007.
Not that we don't love chef interviews, but there are so many of them out there this season that we thought it might be interesting to go behind the scenes and see who is responsible for the vastly improved sets for this season's Top Chef...and who better to start with than Top Chef Miami Art Director, Johnny Cubert White.
BS: Johnny, how long have you been an Art Director?
JW: I received my MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in filmmaking and came to LA after directing and producing a feature film (Temporary Girl) with my friend Lisa Kotin, an amazing actress/writer. When I first arrived in LA, in 2000, I was not going to wait tables or be a production assistant. I had too much experience and I did not come to LA to not make my next film.
After two years of not working, I would go to Chicago and Boston for work AND did game shows to win cash. I finally took a job on Master & Commander in Mexico. I was cast as the lieutenant of the marines under Russel Crowe's command and spent seven months in Rosarito as a glorified extra. (My nephew says he saw me 15 times in the movie...my friends sometimes miss my two close-ups).
When I returned I was determined not to be unemployed in Los Angeles and took the first job I could get - being a day painter on "The Bachelor". It was the Firestone season, and my neighbor was the Art Director. I begged him to consider me and told him of my experience with my mother and step father building our home in Florida. (The night before my GREs I was smoothing our cement driveway!)
He called and offered me one day of work painting a wall. I was to make one hundred flat and could expect no more work. I took the bus to Malibu immediately. (Did I mention that I don't have a car or a cell phone in LA?!) That one day painting gig on The Bachelor evolved into me being the seamstress, set dresser, leadman -- by the time we were shooting Meredith, I was the Art Director, it took six months. That was in 2003.
BS: Exactly what does an Art Director do?
JW: That's a great question and the answer really changes with every production -- film or television -- depending upon what needs to be done and if there is a production designer involved and to what extent that designer is actually involved.
When I was art director with The Bachelor, we rented a house and decorated it. The designers (Tiffany Dior, Angelic Rutherford) were very hands on, and on the set every day. (Angelic Rutherford came in as designer after Tiffany Dior left the show) With Top Chef, Jeff Hall (America's Next Top Model) did a fabulous job designing the kitchen. As the Art Director my duties included decorating the kitchen and the penthouse living space; and designing, constructing and dressing the interview rooms and the "stu" room (the storage room where chefs wait while the judges deliberate). Plus all the pragmatic duties of heading the art department, hiring, budgeting, spending, accounting....My team also made the benches for the dining room table, the driftwood bed sets w/ side table and headboard, and researched and set decorated for every challenge. The headboards are actually bath mats from Crate & Barrel!
BS: Were you involved in Top Chef 2?
JW: No. I worked on Top Design with Bravo, fall 2006.
BS: How do you think the seasons compare artistically?
JW: How do YOU think the seasons compare artistically?
BS: What were some of the challenges you faced when designing the overall look of the Penthouse?
JW: Filling such a gigantic space. I wasn't allowed to paint or put holes. And the limited time to get all of the work done - less than two weeks.
BS: The Penthouse is located in the luscious Fontainebleau Resort in Miami. Wasn't the rest of the hotel undergoing renovation during that time? Did that mean no housekeeping while the chefs were there?
JW: There was a lot of construction going on around the hotel in the resort, but the hotel was new and fabulous.
BS: Did the producers have any "reality TV show requirements" in your design that you might not normally encounter as an Art Director?
JW: All of my experience art directing has been in reality TV, so to me their requirements/ requests were pretty normal. Shauna Minoprio (executive producer) warned me not to go too "Surreal Life" on her - she wants the people and the food to pop, not the background. (On the Bachelor/ette, Lisa Levenson would shout out from the control room over the walkie to me "Too Temptation Island!" when she felt we went overboard with flowers and/or candles.)
BS: Did you only work on the Penthouse or did you work on the kitchen or some of the location shoots?
JW: All of the above. I had a lot of help from Lee Anne Wong (Season 1 contestant and now Culinary Producer for "Top Chef 3 Miami") in the kitchen and the Asst. Art Director Jenn de Mahy on the locations. I was spread pretty thin but had a great team working with me to make sure it all came together. Even the producers would jump in! It really is all about the team.
BS: Any penthouse disasters you can reveal? Sculpture as hat racks, blenders in the hot tub?
JW: Funny that you have mentioned the hat rack! Contestant Brian had a collection of hats, and on one of my visits to the PH to make sure everything was still camera ready and in one piece, I popped in while they were out shopping. In an alcove in the foyer someone had placed one of his hats over a borrowed Jonathan Adler vase -- a metal vessel of fine porcelain with an over glaze of platinum. I was enraged. (Silly, I know, but what if a camera shot it? And of course one did, and it made an episode!) I took his hat, kicked it and threw it in a utility closet. (One of my few tantrums throughout the season). If I've learned anything about the set is that the little things you let slide show up in the final cut. I hate electrical cords, tape, holes in walls, and hats on vases!
BS: Who came up with the idea to use Hobart parts as decoration? We love it. I keep expecting for them to show up on Ebay.
JW: When I saw the mixing accessories at the kitchen supply store - I saw sculptures. My intent on the living space was to decorate it with objects and images that complimented the look and the theme of the show. I loved the jagged curves, and steel color.
BS: Did you get to decorate Casa Casuarina in Episode One?
JW: I would say set decorate, but not decorate. We added practical items for our purposes... Jenn de Mahy, assistant art director, led the team through that challenge. She did a great job. It was a huge day, for everyone!
BS: I absolutely love the photography decorating the Penthouse. Steven Hamilton Photography, I believe. How did you guys hook up with him?
JW: Stephen and I met in Chicago - we both went to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he studied photography, I studied filmmaking. We became friends while working together remodeling his studio loft where he runs his business. Again, when I was brainstorming on how to decorate the house, I thought of his photographs. I was really careful to showcase images of the tools and ingredients and not images of finished meals.
BS: What have you been working on since the end of Top Chef?
JW: I did a reality pilot for NBC with Reveille Productions (The Office) and then went to Chicago for a filmmaking summer camp for teens that I've been a part of since grad school. In one of the classes we studied Jane Eyre and created a short film based on the text. You can see it on You Tube
BS: Okay, last question. It's the Honorary Harold Dieterle
Underwear Question. We asked, he answered, so why stop a good thing. Boxers, Briefs or Commando?
JW: It depends on my mood and the company I plan to keep.
BS: Thanks for chatting with us, Johnny, it's been a pleasure!
JW: Thanks for your humor...I LOVE YOUR SITE!!!!! You guys are great.
Originally published 8/28/07