When the Johnson family set out to find their perfect home, they didn’t expect that it would mean building one. Luckily, Minneapolis native Lea Johnson, knows a thing or two about crafting interiors. A project manager, consultant, and stylist by trade, Lea was able to draw on her passion for design (and her knack for thrifting) to create their urban farmhouse. Finding ourselves inspired by their cozy, idyllic abode, we caught up with Lea to chat about her design process and the challenges of building and styling a home from the ground up.
How long have you been in your home and how did you find it?
We’ve lived in our home for just over three years now. It was a struggle. We actually built this home but didn’t want it to seem "builder basic," and that was tough because of the budget! We hadn’t planned on building, it sort of happened organically. We were searching for older homes (1920’s-1930’s builds) throughout Minneapolis.
We were constantly outbid, and it became frustrating. So, after over a year of searching, we started looking for lots throughout the city. We knew we didn’t want a super large house, but we were also realistic about our lifestyle (having two college-age kids who live at home, we knew we still needed space and balance).
What are some of your favorite features of the house?
Since we did build, we were able to put our stamp on it right away, or at least as much as we could afford (oh…I have a whole laundry list of things to do on my home wishlist)!
I would say, one of my favorite features is the master bathroom. It still needs some work, but we have separate sinks and vanities, and wow…that is a total relationship saver. It’s actually a very tiny bathroom. We can’t even fit a bathtub, but we didn’t find a tub useful for our lifestyle anyway. So, out went the tub. Instead, we made room for sinks! It’s in the little things. Also, since it’s hard to find privacy in our household (no one has any boundaries), having the toilet separated by a door was a "mom" moment in design.
"Having the toilet separated by a door was a 'mom' moment in design."
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
My design aesthetic is hard for me to describe. I’m a huge thrifter. I will always try to thrift before buying something new. It’s funny because when the kids were little, I would take them thrifting and antique shopping every Saturday morning (we’d grab breakfast at a little café and go on an adventure).
As they grew a little older, they hated it, but now that they’re in their early 20’s, I see them out thrifting for themselves and it makes my heart happy. I definitely mix styles, periods, and genres. I just fill our home with things that we love and find throughout our many thrifting adventures—our home reflects that for sure!
You have some really incredible antique furniture. How long have you been collecting furniture and what do you look for in a vintage piece?
I would love to say I have this eccentric relative who I’ve benefited from, but nope. The dining room cabinet is from a local shop. The owners travel to Denmark twice a year sourcing, and then containership back to the U.S. where they restore their vintage pieces. All of them are beautiful and certainly heirloom quality. The antique Persian rugs were sourced by a really good friend who has her own shop (www.shophenslin.com).
I try to mix thrifted purchases with new purchases and find a good balance. In the powder room, I found an old child’s dresser painted many shades of chalk paint by its previous owner. I knew I wanted to turn it into a bathroom vanity. It was narrow enough to fit in our tiny powder room, but it was so short. Luckily, my dad is very, very handy. He stripped the whole dresser down to the beautiful original oak that was hidden under all those layers of paint. He then cut the dresser about 3/4 of the way up, added another drawer, and made a cutout for the sink (which I also found thrifting). He stained it a color without telling me…#dads. At first, my heart sank (it’s not what I had planned), but now I love it, and it reminds me of him all the time!
You mentioned that interior design and styling are “more than selecting a paint color or deciding where to place a sofa.” What sort of things do you try to accomplish with your design that goes beyond those basic decisions?
I used to get really frustrated with friends who would say, "oh you do design, can you come over and tell me where I should move my furniture and hang up all my art?" Now, I look back and realize it’s all about the interpretation. I don’t take clients anymore, but I found that what I really love about the design process is styling. I think people want to love their homes and surround themselves with a beautiful space.
"Sometimes, all you need to do is make small adjustments. It’s really all in the details."
What is the most exciting part about taking on a new client project for you?
That’s a great question! For me, it’s about watching someone feel truly at home in their own home (that you helped create). I love a good challenge, but sometimes you find that unicorn that just has all the good bones and you’re like hold my drink…
Are there any common mistakes clients make, or areas where they could improve what they’re doing with minimal extra effort?
The mistakes I see the most are curtains that are hung too low on the window or art that is hung too high on the walls. Also, those throw pillows that come with sofas (like the sofas from big box stores)… don’t.
As we enter summer, do you have any favorite ways of shaking off the Minnesota chill and making your home ready for the warmer months?
I’m glad you asked! Ok, this year it’s been incredibly rainy, but we do need it, so there’s that. Mostly, we can’t wait to just throw those windows wide open! Minnesota has some of the best summer weather. We have so many lakes (ahem…"Land of 10,000 Lakes" is one of the state’s nicknames), and there’s so much to explore and do.
We have some amazing local bars and restaurants. You can also rent a bike, scooter or canoe and explore downtown Minneapolis. I think every Minnesotan will agree that after you’ve lived through a winter (have you ever been somewhere so cold your tears freeze to your eyes?) when summer finally rolls around, we live outdoors! I mean Minnesota definitely holds a "secret sauce" to keep so many people wanting to live here despite the long brutal winters.
Remington is extremely cute! Do you have any favorite parks or walks you like to take her on?
We never planned to add a dog to our family. Even though both my husband and I grew up with dogs, when the kids were younger, it wasn’t practical. Now that our kids are in college, we have the time to give. Remi has become my toddler or "my daughter" (insert my family’s eye roll).
We are working on socializing—more than we maybe should be in the earlier stages— so she’s like the kid that talks really loud in your face that doesn’t understand personal boundaries yet. Sometimes she’s a bit naughty, but it’s what makes me love her more. She loves the dog park, car rides, grabbing coffee with mama, playing in the snow in the winter or sprinklers in the summer… and she loves photoshoot day!
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Photography by Francois et Moi