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Nicolette Johnson and Tom Dawson


There’s an art to living in a small space, and when it’s done in style it’s a testament to the inhabitants’ creativity! Today’s 1930s inner-Brisbane apartment is a wonderful example of making the absolute most of a small space – it’s rented by photographer, Nicolette Johnson, and IT analyst, Tom Dawson (and tolerated by their cat, Lola!).

Our Brisbane contributor Jo Hoban recently chatted to this young couple about their first home together.

17th February, 2016
Jo Hoban
Wednesday 17th February 2016

Two and a half years ago Nicolette Johnson and Tom Dawson were searching for their first place together. Fortuitously, a family friend had a cosy corner apartment available for rent in a building he owned in South Brisbane. It’s an obscenely handy location – just a stroll to the centre of West End, GOMA, the Performing Arts Complex, Southbank, the CBD, and the Barracks Precinct. The young couple snapped it up, and have loved making it their home (they are now husband and wife so things have clearly gone well!).

‘This place is a dream for people watching,’ says Nicolette of the modest sized apartment, which measures just over 55 square metres and sits one floor above street level. It’s made up of a living room, extending into a sunroom, and a short hallway that links to the bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a combined bathroom/laundry. While it’s a small space, it definitely makes up for this in character. The 1930s building features enduring heritage qualities such as decorative molding on the ceilings, and a charming curved corner wall of windows in the light-filled sun room, which is used as a shared study.

Upon moving in, there were some challenges to overcome. ‘The compact 1930s kitchen lacks bench space and storage. So we built some shelves from found wood, and bought some antique drawers that fit the space,’ mentions Nicolette. ‘We also changed the hardware on the kitchen cupboards from ugly, white plastic handles to sleek, black metal handles. Those things made a huge difference!’

Wary of clutter, Nicolette and Tom’s harmonious space is carefully considered. ‘Our home has evolved from collecting furniture slowly. We try to only introduce things we either absolutely love or absolutely need.’ Nicolette has a keen eye for unique, nostalgic objects and vintage artworks. Over the past year she has also turned her hand to ceramics, with many of her own gorgeous creations dotted about the place.

‘I’m very inspired by 1960s modernism, the American Southwest, and natural materials. I find myself drawn to rich colours and patterns,’ Nicolette says. ‘Tom and I also love to collect things while we’re travelling. I find it incredibly fun to bring unrelated things together as though they were meant to be.’

One of Nicolette’s favourite pieces is an animal sculpture that she brought home a few years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico. It had belonged to her late grandmother, and depicts the Bremen Town Musicians, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Tom on the other hand, declares the living room Afghan rug as his favourite. He loves to joke that it really ties the room together (a reference to the Coen Brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski).

Nicolette and Tom’s home is a soulful inner-city sanctuary that has seen them through some special times. That said, a change is always fun! With Lola the cat craving broader horizons, and Nicolette needing more space to create, the couple has plans to start searching for a small Queenslander to start their next chapter.

Nicolette and Tom love their Pierre Vandel Aluminium Etagere bookcase, found on Gumtree for the bargain price of $70! It showcases the Bremen Town Musicians sculpture, which belonged to Nicolette’s late grandmother. Photo – Nicolette Johnson.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email