Brett Johnson’s Congress Street storefront is the kind of place that inspires creativity. It is small, just 750 square feet, but perfectly suited for his interior design business, Maine Street Design Co. A street-facing window features a compact, simply designed area, with a small armchair and vibrant accent pillows. Inside, a small library of fabric swatches from some of Johnson’s favorite companies, such as Romo, lines one of the walls. More fabric swatches are housed in the backroom. A bird sculpture made out of mixed metals stands erect on a table where magazines are neatly piled, opposite a miniature steel and brass spiral staircase by local metalsmith Al Kronk. Framed prints of dreamy landscape photographs by local artist Tanja Hollander give the room an ethereal atmosphere. Further back, above one of the computer desks, hangs a framed mixed media grid by another local artist, Louise Philbrick.
Johnson, who provided the interior design for restaurants like Fore Street here in Portland and the White Barn Inn in Kennebunk, and who is also currently working on Bard Coffee, used to look out at this space from inside Local 188 across the street and think about how perfect it would be for a studio. When it became available three years ago, he immediately snatched it up, relocating his Gorham-based business.
“I love this storefront,” says Johnson, whose career spans nearly two decades, with stints in Miami, Puerto Rico, and New York as a designer of retail spaces for the likes of Cole Haan and Ralph Lauren as well as boutique hotels. “It’s an old-fashioned little gem on Congress Street.” In truth, Johnson spends little time at the bricks-and-mortar location. He and his design team, which includes assistant designer Lisa Morris and production manager Alice Mobley, are usually working on site or spending a lot of time with clients, although Johnson does open his doors by appointment or for special occasions like First Friday Art Walks.
“There is always a process of discovery with every client and project,” he says. “What are their likes and dislikes? What are their schedules like? Does the space have more than one function? A huge part of my job is taking the time to learn about the way people live.”
The process enables such an insight and understanding of his clients that his partner, Tim, a child psychologist, often remarks that Johnson is the one who does more therapy. Relationships with clients are so integral to his design process that even when designing show houses, Johnson cannot begin to design a space until he has conjured a story, complete with characters and scenarios. Given carte blanche, one would expect most interior designers to showcase their own personal vision—but Johnson prefers to take himself out of the equation.
“The older I’ve gotten, and the longer I’ve been in the business, the less concerned I’ve been with leaving my mark on things,” says Johnson. It is perhaps one of the secrets to Maine Street Design Co.’s success.
Johnson shares a story about an intensive residential project on Chebeague Island that required an entirely new design scheme: a different furniture plan, updated window treatments, rag and woven wool rugs. At the end of the project, the client remarked that the best thing about the house was that it looked as though Johnson had never been there.
“It was the best compliment I could have gotten,”hesays.“Iknowthatsoundsstrange, but I want spaces to feel like they’ve evolved naturally. And when people come home at night,Idon’twantthemtothinkabouthow wonderful I am. I want them to think about how wonderful their home is. I want them to look forward to coming home. This isn’t about me, it’s about them.”
Johnson exudes a self-assured ease that fits right into the character of Maine life. And it’s no surprise, really, since he grew up here, and his family roots on Bailey Island are 17 generations deep. But that ease, he says, took some time to settle into.
“I love what I do, and I’m very fortunate because I’ve sized my business to be as busy or as quiet as I want it to be, and neither of those scenarios scares me like they used to. I used to feel I had to take every job in order to keep busy, and I was petrified of not being busy enough. I don’t think that way anymore. It all comes down to right-sized living—figuring out what it is you need and not worrying about aspiring to be bigger or having more,” says Johnson. “Maybe it’s a very New England Yankee way of thinking, but I really believe in living within your means and being grateful for what you have. When you start to aspire to have more things, bigger things, you lose touch with what really matters and you end up living a very scarce life.”
Superfluity is a major pet peeve of Johnson’s. In fact, the manufacturing sector of his business, Maine Street Mercantile and Mfg. Co., which creates custom-designed furniture and decorative pieces, was born out of Johnson’s desire to see more simply designed things.
“My design philosophy is very committed to the idea that form follows function, and beauty organically comes out of that. If something doesn’t serve a purpose, it doesn’t need to be there,” he says. It has also given him a chance to work closely with local artisans and craftspeople. “We have a skilled team of local draftspeople, cabinetmakers, finishers, and upholsterers, many of whom come from their own family heritage of quality work,” says Johnson.
Pride of place factors in every aspect of his work, from his design and manufacturing team and the local art that graces his walls right down to the landscape, which inspires and informs the spaces he designs. “I just want to find a little joy every day in helping people. Creating spaces that people want to come home to does that for me,” he says. “It’s not an altruistic thing—it’s just what makes me happy. I would venture to guess that’s true of many artists and people who create things. It’s how they feed their souls.”