Manhattan Beach designer Jill Johnson tells us how she remade a rental mess into her dream cottage, one room at a time.
Writer Steele Thomas Marcoux
1 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: How do you spot a diamond in the rough? Are there specific things you look for to know a project will look great when renovated, or is it just a feeling?
JJ: Having gotten through this renovation, my top criteria for a potential fixer-upper is one that's never been remodeled. The more dilapidated the better!
2 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: This cottage exudes cheerfulness. Is that what attracted you to it?
JJ: Absolutely not! When we bought the house, it was a total shanty, thanks to poor upkeep and a slew of ill-conceived additions. I never thought I'd live here―our plan was to paint the whole thing white and rent it out. But once it was painted, I thought, "This could be cute with a little work."
3 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: Oh, the transformative power of white paint! So what specifically did "a little work" entail?
JJ: For our first round of renovations, we started with the kitchen and bath. By the time we had raised the ceiling in what was then the living room, I thought, "I could live here after all―but I'm going to have to redo the whole thing."
4 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: Yikes! Did you really start from scratch?
JJ: Pretty much. Only the master bedroom is in the same spot it was before. We converted a one-bedroom house to a four-bedroom house just by enclosing some indoor/outdoor spaces and tinkering with underused interior spaces. We also replaced the garage with an airy carport and added architectural details throughout.
5 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: Is that how you brought back the charm?
JJ: I wantd the 1920s house to look its age―not like the 1970s halfway hose it resembled when we bought it. So we pored over magazines and books to get the details right. We installed light hardwood floors, and added lots of molding and trim, all new windows, cedar-shake shingles, and the brick drive out front.
6 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
Taking Your Time
CL: How did you keep your sanity through several years of renovating?
JJ: We did it in stages, which made things easier on the budget, too. We also lived elsewhere during the intense construction work, something I highly recommend. If that's not an option for you, make sure to keep one room that's a "safe" escape from the battle zone beyond.
7 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: What single item completes a room, in your eyes?
JJ: Easy―a vintage bamboo chandelier. I have one in almost every room. My biggest coup is one that I found on the side of the road in Texas for $30. I painted it, and it was a s good as new―or better!
8 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: This house lives a lot larger than its 1,800 square feet. How did you pack so much in?
JJ: We utilized every last inch of the house by creating seating nooks out of pass-through spaces, like the built-in sofa opposite the island in the kitchen. That used to be part of the living room. There are hardly any closets, so we also built out every last nook with drawers for storage.
9 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: Are there tricks of the trade that make cramped spaces seem airier?
JJ: Definitely! We sacrificed our crawlspace attic for pitched ceilings in as may rooms as possible. Just that extra couple of feet in terms of ceiling height made rooms seem so much larger. We also added windows and skylights wherever we could to bring in more natural light.
10 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: With so many different spaces―nooks carved out of walkways, rooms of varying size―how did you give the interiors a cohesive look?
JJ: A lot of that has to do with my palette―I love blues and greens. There are just hints of color on the walls, and we clad the ceilings in white-painted V-groove. It's very soothing―not every room looks the same, because I varied the patterns throughout, but there is a unified effect.
11 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: How would you describe your decorating style?
JJ: I would say my personal look is "cleaned-up eclectic." I like my upholstered pieces to have very clean almost modern, lines―nothing that looks too old-fashioned. But I like to mix in vintage pieces and flea market finds, as well.
12 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
Mixing It Up
CL: We love all the layered patterns. How dod you do that so successfully?
JJ: The key is to vary the scale so patterns work together without competing with each other. I was a clothing designer for 12 years, and I think my background in fashion and fabrics helps me mix prints in my home.
13 of 13Photographer Grey Crawford
CL: Who are some of your favorite fabric designers or manufacturers?
JJ: I love Raoul Textiles, Hable Construction, and Schumacher. Quadrilled is definitely another favorite.