Design & Home

Ask a Designer: Mike Johnson on Decorating Small Spaces

Expert tips for a tiny home that's big on style.
Designer Mike Johnson's 700-square-foot condo. Photographs by Geoffrey Hodgdon.

It’s safe to say Mike Johnson is as much a curator as he is designer. For a decade, he was the man behind Georgetown’s midcentury-modern furniture shop Sixteen Fifty Nine before teaming up with Lori Graham in 2011. These days, he’s a senior designer with Graham’s interior business and helps cultivate a vintage collection with Graham’s 14th Street showroom.

Turns out like many Washingtonians, Johnson lives in a smallish space—a 700-square-foot condo. Here, he shares his advice for designing for shoebox proportions.

Your mantra for designing in small spaces:

Knowing you can do whatever you want in the space. You will be amazed how much you can fit into a space and have it look fantastic and not cluttered. The key is to know when to stop!

One design element for which you should never think small:

Dark wall colors. Everyone should experience the feeling you get when painting a room a very dark color. I’m just getting ready to paint my living area a dark charcoal and can’t wait to have the room completely change.

The one piece you wish you could fit in your space:

My current space feels perfect to me, so there really isn’t anything I’m lacking. If I had to pick one thing, it would probably be a larger table for dining, but even then, I’m not sure I would use it that much.

The item you regret not buying when you had the chance:

I saw a very large black-and-white abstract painting about two years ago that I passed up because my walls were full. I still think about that painting; I wish I had bought it and just put it under my bed.

The unexpected perk of living small:

The need to not save things. You constantly are paring down to just what you need, be it clothing, decorative items, kitchen accessories, whatever. You realize how much you really need and how much is just fluff.

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