Inside Fashion Designer Ulla Johnson’s Bohemian Brownstone

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.”

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Ulla Johnson, who wears her own designs throughout, in the garden, which was planned by Miranda Brooks. Outdoor dining table and chairs by Roda.

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In the master bedroom, a Pierre Paulin sofa wearing a Rogers & Goffigon bouclé sits at the foot of the bespoke bed. Sheets by Julia B.; vintage Hawaiian cutwork appliqué quilt.

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.

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In the master bedroom, a custom Rogan Gregory mirror hangs above the original carved-marble fireplace. 20th-century Swedish flat-weave carpet; on right wall, art by Bill Lynch.

“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.