"We have a photograph somewhere," she says, "that shows me standing in that bedroom with a wan smile. There were no closets and no shelves—just boards across rocks. Oh, I tried to be gung-ho about the fact that the bedroom floor ended very close to the bed and there was nothing to keep you from falling out of the kitchen. Tom kept repeating, 'I know you're going to be happy, I know you're going to be happy,' until I really was."
In addition to the complex of rooms and demirooms that makes up his own residence, Johnston has designed eight more homes on the Moonhole tract. All are unobtrusive and in full compliance with their natural settings. If there is a tree of beauty in the way or a rock that is esthetically pleasing (or impossible to move), Johnston builds around it. He uses no blueprints and, indeed, one of the remarkable things about his houses is that even when they are half-finished the exact end product is still in doubt. Fortunately, Johnston's clients know and trust him, so they are never dismayed when Johnston, standing in the middle of a half-finished house, says casually, "I think the bedroom will come roughly here. I haven't decided about the bathroom yet, and I don't know how we are ever going to get steps up to this place, but we'll figure something out."
"It is like painting with your feet," Johnston describes his art. "I keep smearing ideas around. I do what I feel like. If it doesn't work I hide it. If it works I take credit for it."
There is a saying on Bequia: "Don't throw anything away. Sell it to Tom Johnston. It will make him happy." Johnston uses considerable castaway material in his houses: fishnet floats as door frames and table bases; anchor chain as railings; whale ribs, vertebrae and scapulae as bannisters, chair seats and desk tops; deadeyes as towel-rack ends; spars, masts, planking and hatch covers as beams, doors and tables. He uses all such jetsam tastefully and for practical reasons, never merely to contrive a shipwrecked sort of atmosphere as so many tasteless inns and bars are wont to do. One of Johnston's clients, Elsa Voelcker, a partner in Ann Hatfield Associates, a decorating firm that has done several good Caribbean hotel interiors, feels the essential virtue of Johnston's work comes directly from the character of the man. "He builds to the sun and sea and the wind," she says. "He has a flair for making a house a part of the land. He succeeds with a natural, honest approach better than others because he is a very natural, honest and direct man."
A month after he had futilely tried to measure the Johnston home for taxes, Secretary William Tannis of the Bequia government returned to Moonhole accompanied by the chairman of the Bequia council and another council member. They brought an official council document proclaiming that the Johnstons should pay no taxes. The council delegation informed the Johnstons that the work they had done at Moonhole was considered contribution enough.