Your Home | Makeovers

Creating a beautifully organized space that’s comfortable, too

Divergent tastes unite to bring organization and elegance to a century-old Newton home.

joyelle west for the boston globe
Mark Johnson and David Dai in their new kitchen. Designer Sonja Haviland chose an understated but textural Carrara marble tile backsplash in a herringbone pattern and added X-trim detailing to existing glass-front cabinets, as well as task lighting to the cabinets’ undersides.

Newton homeowner Mark Johnson likes clarity in design. In fact, Johnson, the global director of visual merchandising at New Balance, attributes his professional success to his obsession with organization. He approached designing his home in much the same way that he creates retail environments that are clean, simple, understated, and relevant. “Everything must have a purpose, be easy to use and understand,” he says. “And be beautifully organized.”

When a friend introduced Johnson to Boston-based interior designer Sonja Haviland, whose background is also in retail and residential design, the connection was immediate. He knew she could make the 1906 Dutch Colonial house he shares with his husband, David Dai, feel like home. The couple met in Shanghai in 2010 and moved to the Boston area (Johnson in late 2015, Dai four months later) to be closer to Johnson’s family. Dai had never lived in the States, so it was important to Johnson that the interiors of their four-bedroom home feel not only welcoming but also reflect their life abroad.

Easier said than done in the 2,400-square-foot gambrel-style house. Like many couples, Johnson and Dai favor competing aesthetics. Johnson likes moody tones and layered vignettes, while Dai’s taste runs to clean lines and symmetrical arrangements. Haviland’s approach to blending the two: “I would implement Mark’s vision, then pull back a bit.” The result is a home that’s pared down in possessions and palette, with deliberate lines and related hues of varying depths.


The entry is painted a warm white with hints of gray, such as the pin-striped runner on the stairs. A large abstract painting  in watery blue and earthy taupe tones — Johnson and Dai commissioned the piece years ago from a Japanese artist they met while living in Shanghai — offers a bright welcome.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Haviland transformed the small formal dining room off the left side of the entry into a double study in a symphony of gray tones that lend a cocoon-like feel. Playing off an existing window seat at the front of the house, she added another under the side window with a built-in bookshelf between them, as well as a pair of built-in desks with floating shelves above. The result is cozy and masculine without a hint of heaviness. Johnson sorted his books by color and used them in groups throughout the house. Here the books are predominantly green, gray, and cream.

Off the right side of the entry hall is the living room, which the couple initially discussed painting black. They ultimately concluded that a deeply saturated navy meshed better with the overall scheme. Linen-covered seating orients toward the fireplace, which Haviland redesigned with a modern shiplap surround. Anchoring one corner, a demi-lune cherry cabinet with black marble top that the couple commissioned in China allows for a creative vignette. Bright white trim adds high contrast to satisfy Johnson and Dai’s shared love for crisp detail.

The kitchen and family room area, at the back of the house, echoes the front hall in its airy brightness. Recently expanded, the sunny, warm space is where Johnson and Dai spend the most time. As in the living room, there’s a new shiplap-covered feature wall; this one has an integrated television. Underneath, the grillwork on the new built-ins evokes the radiator covers in Johnson’s grandmother’s house.

The cohesive color palette continues on the second floor, with an elegant master bedroom painted dark charcoal and a guest room that Johnson describes as “an exercise in off-white.”


Thanks in no small part to Haviland, the couple settled quickly into their nest. Dai found a job and earned a driver’s license within two months of relocating, and Johnson is elated with the decor, which continues to evolve. Haviland is already at work on the basement and the back gardens. “It’s hyper-comfortable despite the order,” Johnson says.


joyelle west for the boston globe
A low-backed velvet sofa from Room & Board keeps the family-room view clear to the yard, while the wing chair from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams fills the wall under the high windows.

nicole baas
An antique rug brought back from China was the starting point for the living room.

nicole baas
Draperies separate the dining area — furnished with the couple’s existing pieces — from the living room.

The couple kept the refurbished bead-board ceiling in the family room, shown before the redesign.

Send comments to Follow us on Twitter at @BostonGlobeMag.