KEYSHAWN JOHNSON is not at all pleased with his grill -- not the cooktop, but an unevenly painted heating duct in a zebrawood-paneled wall of his Westwood condo. The 34-year-old Carolina Panthers wide receiver and celebrated USC alum prowls his 3,300-square-foot pied-a-terre, chugging bottles of water while an NFL official sits in the sleek, white marble kitchen waiting for a urine sample as part of the league's random steroid testing. At Johnson's side is Christos Joannides, a principal of Idea Space Design, the Beverly Hills firm that crafted Johnson's swank quarters.
"Where are the toe kickers?" the football star asks, noticing missing baseboards. Joannides dutifully scribbles it on his ever-expanding to-do list.
"When you're an athlete, most people think you don't know or care anything about design," Johnson says. "That's like saying all actors are on drugs and crazy."
Having invested in spec homes and decorated personal residences in New York, Florida, North Carolina and multiple spots in L.A. since he went pro in 1996, Johnson has become as confident in a furniture showroom as he is on the gridiron. He developed an interest in design when he first became a homeowner, he says, and life experiences have since shaped his tastes.
"I've stayed in some of the best hotels in the world. I read House & Garden and Casa Vogue," says Johnson, adding that he's a fan of Fendi's and Armani Casa's home collections. "I spend hours at Hennessy + Ingalls in Santa Monica looking at architecture books like some weirdo."
Richard Landry, a Los Angeles architect working on a mansion for Johnson in Calabasas, refers to his client as not just an athlete but an aesthete and an entrepreneur, one who has a solid understanding of how design can enrich lives and bank accounts.
"Keyshawn can actually read architectural plans and see the finished work," Landry says. "He strikes me as a guy with a vision who is open to the process."
Other athletes may invest in cars, clothes and diamonds, but Johnson has developed a real estate portfolio -- and acquired a hands-on education in design along the way. Whether he is building a Mediterranean mansion, as he is doing in Calabasas, or collaborating on the interiors of a modern high-rise, Johnson has a sensibility informed by two elements, Landry says.
"He thinks about what his family needs as well as his own style, which is clean and uncluttered."
JOHNSON has long lived that way. Growing up in central Los Angeles, near USC, he recalls that his room was small but efficiently organized. Though he had Michael Jordan posters and a dartboard on the wall, his space was uncommonly tidy for someone his age.
"I was different," he says. "I don't like clutter. I try to have everything in its place. I don't want to walk around trying to figure out where my things are."
That room was a far cry from the new Wilshire corridor tower that Johnson and his fiancee, teacher Kristen Coleman, now call home. She lives in the condo full time while pursuing a master's degree in education at Loyola Marymount; Johnson also owns a condo in Charlotte, N.C., where he lives during football season.
The three-bedroom unit here cost $2 million when Johnson bought in 2005, before developers broke ground. The elevator rises from the swank lobby and opens directly into the couple's foyer.
In the entryway, defined by a shimmering gray Venetian plastered wall and limestone floors, guests are asked to remove their shoes. Despite the natureinspired serenity of the setting -- a cantilevered glass-and-wood console shelf is filled with black river rocks -- the lose-your-shoes requirement is not a Zen thing.
"In most of my homes, I have a basket out front with a bunch of footie socks," says Johnson, who is in stocking feet himself. "I don't want dusty shoe prints."
With floors made of 5-inch wide planks of oak stained a deep espresso, coffee tables topped with glass and other furniture made from exotic hardwoods and sumptuous fabrics, Johnson has good reason to fret over the pristine condition of his interiors. Nevertheless, the condo exudes luxurious comfort rather than uninviting grandeur.
Gizmo, Coleman's fluffy white Shih Tzu, has free run of the house. Maia, 11, and Keyshawn, 8, Johnson's daughter and son from a previous marriage, have their own rooms for when they visit.
"My kids enjoy it here," says Johnson, who conceived a queen-size trundle daybed for his daughter, so she can host sleepover guests. "They think it's cool."
Oh, it is. Johnson's design concept was influenced by his travel-packed schedule as a professional athlete.
"When I come home, I want to feel like I'm chilling in a W or an Ian Schrager hotel," he says, adding that the look is purposefully restrained. "We're not trying to be Louis XV here. I need a place where I can wake up in the morning and just go."