to hear Ulla Johnson and Zach Miner tell it, the process of pinning down the perfect 19th-century Brooklyn row house is a little like dating in the age of swipe left or right. “There are so few properties, and it’s so competitive,” says Johnson, “that you have to woo people.” So when the couple finally happened upon a home that made their heart sing, they didn’t just put in a bid. “We met the homeowners and hung out with their kids. We had so many shared interests—culturally, politically. We’re still in touch with them today!” the fashion designer reveals with a satisfied smile, sitting cross-legged on the hand-loomed cream carpet in their living room.
Johnson and her husband, director of a private contemporary-art foundation, first settled in Fort Greene more than two decades ago. A native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper East Side, she describes it as being a dynamic community, adding, “I was raised on a street that I wasn’t able to cross until I was 10. My kids have such a different life. They ride on scooters, there are playgrounds on every corner, people run over to each other’s houses.” Adds Miner, a Michigan native: “It’s as close to ‘I’m out of sugar; can I come over and get some?’ as it gets in 2019.”
The couple knew the neighborhood so intimately they had narrowed their search to just two streets, and from the moment they walked into their current home, “we had a wonderful feeling about it,” Johnson says. “The prior owners had been here for 40 years, raised two sons here.” Miner chimes in: “Sending them to the same school we send our kids to.” Dating to the 1850s, the four-story house had plenty of space to comfortably fit a family of five, but not so much that it swallowed them up. “We wanted something warm and welcoming—of a human scale,” Johnson says. It also possessed a gracious, west-facing garden that is bathed in light all day long. For flower-obsessed Johnson, this sealed the deal.
She had worked with AD100 architect Elizabeth Roberts and Peter Marino–trained interior designer Alexis Brown on her Bleecker Street store and continued the collaboration here. “I like to surround myself with female teams,” she notes. Of course, given her and Miner’s backgrounds, they were equally hands-on. “We both have strong opinions and emotional reactions to things. There wasn’t a ton of vacillating.”
IN TERMS OF THE ARCHITECTURE, the couple didn’t approach it as a preservation project. “We wanted to honor the bones of the building but allow it to adapt to how we live today,” says Miner. That meant painstakingly restoring the ornate lacy plasterwork crowning the living room but juxtaposing it with what Roberts calls “more casual detailing.” Along the back of the parlor floor, they added a solarium wall that kicks out two feet, “creating the illusion of more light and space,” the architect says. Bringing the outdoors in extends to the top of the house, where a James Turrell–esque skylight floats above the curved staircase.
“We wanted the house to be elevated and elegant, but it had to be a real living space that was not too precious,” Johnson explains. The parlor floor holds the living room, open dining area, and kitchen and exudes warmth and tactility. The same love of textiles and craftsmanship that suffuses Johnson’s clothing collections surfaces in hand-loomed, metallic-threaded window treatments and a living room sofa that’s dressed in a nubby abstract ikat woven in California. Brown says, “I always tell Ulla and Zach, ‘You’re a young, modern couple. Making this place too old-world isn’t who you are or what you’re about.’” Many of the walls are finished in a blush-hued pearlescent plaster, and the hearths feature colorful marble inlays inspired by Italian mosaics.
LIVING FINISHES, such as unlacquered brass hardware and soap-coated wood floors, add to the layered effect. “The touch of these is like velvet,” Johnson says, brushing her feet along the Douglas-fir planks laid out in a chevron pattern across the parlor floor. “You don’t get that when wood is polished. You have to embrace that it will ding up, but we like the idea of things having imperfections.” Much like the easy, effortless, sophisticated take on bohemian style that she’s built her mega successful brand on, she isn’t driven by aesthetics alone. “When I design clothes, all I think about is, Well, it’s beautiful, but how does it make you feel? That, for me, was an organizing principle in this house as well.”
Art plays a starring role, too, via treasures by Ugo Rondinone, Marina Rheingantz, and Françoise Grossen. “A lot of our work speaks to the natural world,” says Johnson, pointing out a woven piece by Sheila Hicks on the living room wall. “I’ve been obsessed with her since I was five, so the fact that this made its way into our home is amazing to me.” Adds Miner: “We think of ourselves as stewards not only to this house but to the objects we surround ourselves with. It’s a lifetime collection.”
The dining area is open to the kitchen, with its rosy marble island, and the deck and garden lie just beyond. Johnson notes that Miner is an excellent cook, and the couple often squeeze in parties of up to 20 at their custom surfboard-style dining table, which they purchased from architect Arthur Casas on a trip to Brazil.
“We both have strong opinions and emotional reactions,” notes Johnson. “There wasn’t a ton of vacillating.”
“We wanted to honor the bones of the building but allow it to adapt to how we live today,” says Miner.
UPSTAIRS ON THE MASTER LEVEL, Brown designed gently curving carved vanities around the double sinks in the bathroom. “It almost feels like waves of water,” observes Miner. The travertine floor envelops a lounging tub, and the walk-in closet features cabinets stenciled with an African-inspired design. An organically shaped mirror by Rogan Gregory, a close family friend, hangs above the master bedroom’s mantel, which showcases delightful woodshop sculptures by two of the couple’s children.
Soren, 13, Asher, nine, and Agnes, seven, have laid claim to another floor, their bedrooms encapsulating their personalities. Supreme stickers and KAWS figurines pop against a backdrop of Farrow & Ball’s Setting Plaster in Soren’s room. “He wanted to paint it pink, which made me very happy,” says his mother. Asher’s room incorporates a Milky Way mural, as well as a skylight with a telescope. Meanwhile, a vintage 1950s wallpaper and a wicker bed lend a fairy-tale vibe to Agnes’s room. “When I lie in bed with her at night, there’s so much sky,” Johnson muses, looking out from the window.
Demo on the house began on December 15, 2017, and “we pretty much moved in the same day a year later,” she continues as she and Miner wander back downstairs. On the bottom level, an open library and family room look out onto the peony-and wisteria-filled garden. AD100 talent Miranda Brooks handled the landscape design, creating a gestural asymmetry punctuated by two Willy Guhl chairs at the end. “We liked that juxtaposition of formal structure and something that was quite wild, which also speaks to what we did inside,” Johnson notes. “It’s so magical back here, and this is just in its nascency.”
Reflecting back on their arrival at the house, which, less than a year since they settled in, already feels every bit their own, Johnson reveals that they will soon be hosting the previous owners. “They moved across the street,” she says. “It’s so sweet—they looked all over New York and came back here because they love the block so much.”
© UGO RONDINONE, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GLADSTONE GALLERY, NEW YORK AND BRUSSELS; © SHEILA HICKS, ASCLEPION, 2018, COURTESY OF ALISON JACQUES GALLERY, LONDON. HAIR BY RUBI JONES FOR JULIAN WATSON AGENCY; MAKEUP BY ZENIA JAEGER FOR STREETERS. ARTWORK: © FRANÇOISE GROSSEN, BLUM & POE ■