Squeezing two households and two art collections into a 90m2 converted garage

KEVIN STENT

“We spend a lot of time around this dining table,” says Dee Johnston, who lives in a converted garage in Wellington.

Dee Johnston is the founder of Plain and Simple, which specializes in baby clothing, loungewear and ceramics made from certified organic and merino wool from New Zealand. She lives in Wellington’s Mt Victoria with her partner, photographer Simon Devitt, their two daughters Margaux, 6, and Charlotte, 5, and their cat Maschka.

DEE JOHNSTON: I moved here with the girls after breaking up with their father in 2019. It is actually a garage that was converted into a three bedroom home more than 20 years ago. It’s only 90sqm, but someone has managed to make the most of the space. People walk through the door and are amazed at how much we can fit in here.

I didn’t have to do anything for it. Luckily, a previous owner had painted the walls white and added dark floorboards. There are also exposed concrete walls reflecting its origins as a garage.

Combining two households and two art collections

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Combining two households and two art collections “was a challenge,” says Johnston with partner Simon Devitt.

When I moved here, I had to get rid of a few things. Moving from a large mansion to this space meant I had to ruthlessly sort through belongings. In my previous house, I had an entire wall of built-in bookshelves, but here I only have two shelves, so all the fiction books had to go. The only books I couldn’t part with were my cookbooks because I love to cook.

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I managed to accommodate all my artwork. I have been collecting mostly New Zealand art for more than 20 years and have found a place for them all. Simon moved here from Auckland a year ago, so combining two households and two art collections was a challenge. Four people in this room were also interesting and we are looking for a bigger house now.

The large black and white artwork behind the bed is Simon’s. It is by Mary McIntyre, a gift from the artist to Simon after he published a book about her. The black and white artwork is by Auckland artist Andrew Steel, who introduced me to Simon. We bought them in the summer.

Artist Mary McIntyre gifted Simon the artwork above the bed.  The black and white artworks above right are by Auckland artist Andrew Steel.

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Artist Mary McIntyre gifted Simon the artwork above the bed. The black and white artworks above right are by Auckland artist Andrew Steel.

I bought the couch at Bauhaus in Auckland. A friend I went to boarding school with started the company and I think I was one of his first customers. I’ve had it for 10 years and it used to be brown but then I got washable white covers which are important if you have kids and a cat.

The artwork above the couch is all by New Zealand artists. I have pieces by Michael Parekōwhai, John Pule, and the tiki piece by Robyn Kahukiwa, which was one of the first pieces of art I ever bought. I was 19 and my friends were buying handbags but I saved up like crazy to buy this painting.

I brought the big silver chest from my old house. I got it from Halo and it offers excellent storage in a home without much. The painting of the nudes on the wall behind is by Wellington artist Lucy McArthur. I found the globe at a Gray Lynn junk shop for $12.

Johnston has been collecting mostly New Zealand artwork for over 20 years,

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Johnston has been collecting mostly New Zealand artwork for over 20 years, “and I’ve found a place for them all”.

The bone carving on the gallery wall was a gift from my grandfather. He gifted it to me 25 years ago and it is one of my most treasured possessions.

The Taccia lamp was a birthday present from Simon. I’ve had it lusted for about 15 years. It came from ECC Lighting and is the best birthday present ever. The candlestick lamp and globe lamps are by Simon James Design.

We spend a lot of time at this dining table. I found it on Trade Me and bought the Corso De’ Fiori chairs. The cowrie shells were given to my parents for their wedding, they are over 40 years old. My parents now live in Whangārei, so they often send us boxes of avocados. There is never a shortage of avocados in this house.

Johnston says Simon's Taccia lamp is

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Johnston says Simon’s Taccia lamp is “the best birthday present ever”. The candlesticks and the globe lamp are by Simon James Design.

The black and white painting behind the dining table is by Sam Mathers, a Raglan-based artist. Simon took the black and white photo in the attic of Caldwell House in Auckland. It’s one of his favorites.

The shelf houses my favorite ceramics. We sell some of these at Plain and Simple, but there’s also a John Parker piece and items we’ve both collected over the years. Since there isn’t much space, we have to be careful when adding more.

What surprises guests is the original swamp under the dining room floor. It’s another reminder that this was once a garage. We now use it to store suitcases and other large items.

The girls need a lot more space, so Simon and I are currently considering buying our first house together. I will miss Mt Vic and how close it is to everything, but we want a piece of land in the apartment – somewhere close to the sea and with enough space to house all the stuff Simon and I have collected over the years.

Johnston says moving from a large mansion to the smaller space meant she had to be ruthless when culling possessions.

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Johnston says moving from a large mansion to the smaller space meant she had to be ruthless when sorting out belongings.

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