It’s the opening gambit of a perfectionist. When Kim Johnson welcomes visitors into her home for the first time, she invariably notes, “Everything is a bit of a work-in-progress.” To the casual eye, it’s hard to believe that there can be much more to improve, but Kim has a long list of finishing touches and ideas still waiting to be completed. Suffice it to say that what Kim and her husband, Jeff Jenkins, have accomplished so far makes for a space you’ll find nowhere else. Their house is a true labour of love, the decor and design based on passion and individual taste rather than on any kind of trend.
A design blogger behind the internationally popular Desire to Inspire site, Kim engages with an online community of thousands of other design junkies while bringing her own ideas to fruition in the couple’s modest brick house in the Civic Hospital area. She’s a woman always on the hunt for unusual items — the house is filled with quirky finds that strike her fancy as she trolls flea markets and one-of-a-kind shops both at home and abroad. “I like weird things,” she says, pointing to a shelf in the living room filled with an array of appealing oddities. “I found these dolls at highJinx,” she says, referring to the Centretown thrift store. “I dropped by one day, saw them, and said, ‘I need those dolls.’ ”
While Kim blogs and collects, Jeff builds. With help from carpenter and furniture maker Matt Wallace of na Coille Studio, he crafted the couple’s dining room table from hemlock that was dug out of Toronto Harbour during an excavation for condos. The age of the wood is anyone’s guess — the trees might date back to the 1600s. What is apparent is that in a
previous incarnation, the boards served some sort of practical purpose (there’s a visible spike hole in one corner of the table). Jeff claims to be a “dabbler” when it comes to carpentry, but if this is dabbling, you’d be hard pressed to define a master. The couple’s table is just one of several he has made, though his specialty is refinishing old radio cases that house modern sound equipment, which he sells through Daff Design.
Another notable piece in the dining room is a sideboard that likely dates from the 1970s. Kim was originally planning to buy Ikea cabinets, but “they’re not as cheap as you think,” she says. And so she picked up a much more distinctive sideboard from a Montreal dealer who posts new finds on Instagram. The vintage tulip chairs, which came from the same dealer, are in such pristine condition that they could have been manufactured yesterday. Then there’s the spider-like mid-century-modern light fixture with serious style cred — Kim’s eye for quirk and quality definitely makes for an eclectic room.
While the dining room reflects an assortment of eras, the entrance hall is all art deco. It came together slowly — and with a lot of grief. The hand-printed Farrow & Ball wallpaper, in particular, proved to be a challenge to hang. The first contractor the couple hired was simply not capable of hanging it properly. “I left him a note to say it wasn’t working out very well,” says Kim. The next thing they knew, he was crying in his car in the driveway. Jeff ripped the wallpaper off and they started again with a new contractor, buying many more rolls of paper.
The hallway wainscotting and stairs were stained mahogany, but the wood was far from that. “It was fake,” says Jeff, “and it was primed white underneath.” So they didn’t feel any guilt about painting it over with Farrow & Ball paint. They paired the deep charcoal of the wainscotting and stairs with a floor of black-and-white ceramic tile that runs through the hallway and into the kitchen. It looks as though it might be original to the house, which dates from the 1940s, but was inspired by a visit to a very modern restaurant. “We went for dinner at Supply and Demand, and they have these tiles,” says Kim, “so I got in touch with their designer and ordered them.” Whereupon a third challenge reared its head — Kim admits, “I’m not happy with the tile work. The contractor lost interest when he got to the kitchen.” Nonetheless, a lack of perfection in the spacing of the tiles doesn’t detract from the overall effect.
The living room is a repository for gems that Kim has hunted down over many years. “Thrifting is one of my favourite things of all time,” she says. “When you find something, it’s like the best day of your life.” Also on display is an assortment of Jeff’s tables. The original oak floors are finished in soft grey, while the walls are painted in a similar, though deeper, tone. The atmosphere is both character-filled and moody — it almost feels like a soundstage ready for a movie shoot.
Any visitor to the house will notice the cats. The couple have several, two of which are feral and need an inordinate amount of care. Kim doesn’t limit her affection to her own cats, however. Her one-hour walk to work every morning involves visiting plenty of them. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “I have treats in my backpack.” One feline belongs to an elderly woman who told Kim she’ll be getting a call when the woman dies — she wants Kim and Jeff to take the cat when the time comes.
The small bedrooms upstairs reflect the era of the house. The master bedroom holds the bed, and not much else, while the couple use the remaining two as dressing rooms. Here again, Kim’s knack for interesting finds is on display — a mannequin wearing a fur stole and fake pearls takes centre stage, while feather angel wings hang on the wall. “I have a thing for [American fashion designer] Rick Owens,” she says, referring to a collection of completely impractical footwear, some of it vaguely militaristic in tone.
Jeff pipes up: “She gets dressed up as a storm trooper on Star Wars Day.”
“He’s kidding,” says Kim. “I couldn’t care less about Star Wars.”
Ottawa isn’t much of a mecca for thrift stores, and Kim is glad of this. If she were to live in a larger city where the pickings are endless, “we’d have to get a shipping container,” she says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself … I mean, where do you start?” These days, as their “work-in-progress” gets closer and closer to completion, Kim and Jeff’s unique style is truly on display. There is a richness to their house, the decor both preserving the home’s original features and playing up its strong character. And as each drama unfolds — the furnishing challenges, as well as the many triumphs — the design-minded followers of Kim’s blog and Instagram live vicariously through the transformation.