Home Decor

How to Add Character to Your New-Build Home

“I love when people walk in and the first thing they ask is, ‘Is this new or a remodeled old house?’," says homeowner Lea Johnson.

August 18, 2020
Photo by Sage E Imagery

It was 2015 and Lea Johnson, founder and lead stylist at Creekwoodhill and IT wizard, sat with her contractor excitedly sketching out a floor plan on a napkin. The chance to build a home for her family of four from scratch in Minneapolis, MN was a rare one, and she was determined to make the most of it. Laundry room here, kitchen facing this way, staircase winding like so, and the list went on.

Customizing the home to her family’s needs was not the only thing at the forefront of Johnson’s mind throughout the build, though. She also aimed to seamlessly combine the amenities of a brand new home with the character of an older one. Vintage dressers would act as bathroom vanities, backsplashes would come with a backstory, and every light source was going to exude personality.

At four years old, the home bears little resemblance to other newer houses thanks to the clever choices Johnson made during its infancy. So little, in fact, sometimes her guests are fooled: “I love when people walk in and the first thing they say is, ‘Is this a new-build or a remodeled older house?’ To me, that is a compliment,” Johnson adds proudly. Keep scrolling to see how she pulled off the sleight of hand.

Photo by Sage E Imagery

By dressing the young home in a collection of secondhand art and furniture that spans different eras, Johnson instantly infused it with a sense of heritage. In the dining room, for example, her collection of mismatched dining chairs surround the table. Next to them stands a cabinet that looks to be original to the house, but is actually an old hutch Johnson dug out of a basement 15 years ago. By tucking it into the corner and painting it the same color as the walls, though, Johnson has mimicked the look of a built-in.

Photo by Sage E Imagery

The adjoining living room is covered in cozy wood-paneling; it's the most extensive addition to the home and a nod to Johnson’s lifelong love of farmhouses, including her own grandmother’s. “As a child, I just loved all the character in her home...there was so much texture,” she explains.

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Top Comment:
“I think one of us was looking over the other's shoulder in planning our respective builds...our architect designed ours to an extent to look like it was added on to over the years (e.g., a bumped-out "shed" for the tub and shower), and I also love antique furniture and plan to make our bath vanities from converted old dressers. Our tastes are somewhat different though as I don't plan to have this much white, and our furniture and lighting styles will be less eclectic. But I do love the wall-mounted farm sink in the laundry (so hard to find in our part of the country), and the homemade wall paneling (which I'd love to do but the husband is less of a fan). Ours is meant to be our forever-home too, and it's such a gift to be able to design a home from scratch that perfectly suits us. ”
— Terry
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To create the look, the construction team installed simple plywood panels in a staggered pattern over the existing drywall. During the install, Johnson had the crew leave a sliver of space between each panel to give them a grooved appearance and decided against filling in the nail holes so as to preserve their organic vibe. To complete the illusion, Johnson strategically held back when it came time to give the panels a second coat of paint. Skipping the step has kept the wood grain visible and adds to the installation's rustic charm.

Photo by Sage E Imagery

Johnson saved quite a bit of money on her custom build by not having the crew install any light fixtures. “Our contractor actually owed us money for this portion of the build because we barely tapped into the preset lighting allowance,” she says with a grin. The omission also gave her time to curate just the right lighting for each room. The home office, specifically, is crowned by a ceiling medallion (a $30 find) that Johnson unexpectedly paired with a Japanese paper lantern. Both items came from common big box stores but exude sophistication when married together.

In the kitchen, shaker-style cabinets are accompanied by a one-of-a-kind backsplash Johnson created alongside her friend Mercedes Austin, owner and founder of Mercury Mosaics. The subtle pattern they devised resembles pixels in a “techy”–but stylish–wink to Johnson’s background in IT. Like the simple cabinetry, the accent adds interest to the kitchen while still playing nicely with all that surrounds it.

Photo by Sage E Imagery

Off the kitchen sits a narrow laundry and powder room. Its petiteness gave Johnson an excuse to install pocket doors; a feature that would both save space and add a dash of charm. “I love homes from the 1920s-40s, and they all have pocket doors somewhere,” Johnson begins. “This was my way of adding a piece of that into this house.”

Photo by Sage E Imagery

Slide open the door that leads to the powder room, and you are met by a vanity crafted from a well-worn dresser. When Johnson came across the $40 piece at a thrift store, her father was battling cancer and looking for a distraction, so he jumped at the chance to revamp it. He sanded off the four layers of chalkboard paint it wore, added a shelf to make it counter-height, cut out all the holes for the plumbing and restained it. “Now it sits as a reminder of his work, and I love it,” Johnson says.

Besides the vanity, the rest of the custom touches peppered throughout the home are Johnson’s gifts to the next owner. That is, if the family ever leaves. “This was meant to be our forever home, and it was built that way,” she tells us. “It feels just right…it feels like home.”

What's your favorite part of this home? Tell us in the comments below!


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Garrett Fleming

Written by: Garrett Fleming

Interiors Editor & Art Director

18 Comments

Terry August 24, 2020
I think one of us was looking over the other's shoulder in planning our respective builds...our architect designed ours to an extent to look like it was added on to over the years (e.g., a bumped-out "shed" for the tub and shower), and I also love antique furniture and plan to make our bath vanities from converted old dressers. Our tastes are somewhat different though as I don't plan to have this much white, and our furniture and lighting styles will be less eclectic. But I do love the wall-mounted farm sink in the laundry (so hard to find in our part of the country), and the homemade wall paneling (which I'd love to do but the husband is less of a fan). Ours is meant to be our forever-home too, and it's such a gift to be able to design a home from scratch that perfectly suits us.
 
Meg O. August 23, 2020
Love! What is the wall covering in the powder room?
 
Ally M. August 23, 2020
I have the same question! Would love to know the source.
 
Author Comment
Garrett F. August 24, 2020
Hi Meg,

It’s “Diamanté” by Hygge & West.

-Garrett
 
Meg O. August 24, 2020
Thank you!
 
cosmiccook August 24, 2020
Thank you
 
Ally M. August 24, 2020
Thanks!
 
deanna August 23, 2020
I love the simple details throughout the house. Does anyone have any info on the mounted drying rack over the sink, in the laundry room. I would love to know more.
 
Arati M. August 23, 2020
Hi Deanna. I believe it’s available on georgeandwilly.com :)
 
Arati M. August 23, 2020
Hi Deanna, this is by George and Willy, I believe.
 
deanna August 23, 2020
Yes that looks like it! Thank you.
 
cosmiccook August 23, 2020
Any info on the powder room wallpaper brand and pattern?
 
Author Comment
Garrett F. August 24, 2020
Hi There,

It’s “Diamanté” by Hygge & West.

-Garrett
 
cosmiccook August 23, 2020
I'm intrigued by the bathroom wallpaper! Its subtle pattern is just what I'm looking for.
Could you please reveal the brand and pattern name please?
 
Author Comment
Garrett F. August 24, 2020
Hi There,

It’s “Diamanté” by Hygge & West.

-Garrett
 
Jennykimen August 23, 2020
I love so much about this home and I want to know about the dining room overhead light fixture. It is exactly what I am looking for.
 
Arati M. August 23, 2020
Hi Jenny. I’ll wait for Garrett to confirm, but a version of this is available at IKEA. I’ve also seen similar at Bed, Bath... as well as HAY. Hope that helps.
 
Author Comment
Garrett F. August 24, 2020
Hi Jenny,

It’s from Portland-based brand Schoolhouse

-Garrett