At Home: Thinking outside the small space box 

When Randi Johnsen and Greg Rotter moved into their Mission Dolores apartment, they faced the same set of issues shared by many San Francisco renters.

Nestled in a cozy side street just off the bustling 18th Street corridor, the apartment was in a prime location. But the rental was small and in need of a few key updates.

Luckily, Johnsen, a landscape architect, and Rotter, an interactive developer at the California Academy of Sciences, had the vision and know-how to transform the space.

Their love affair with the Mission district began while they were both living in the East Bay. Johnsen would “come here to shop at the thrift stores for much-needed breaks from grad school” and Rotter admits to taking “BART to 16th Street, getting a burrito and then hopping on the next train back.”

So when they saw the apartment’s promising details — including huge windows, a view of the vibrant Women’s Building mural and proximity to a lively neighborhood and great restaurants — they couldn’t pass it up.

Having her own landscape design firm, Third Nature Studio (, Johnsen knows how to transform a space within constraints.

“I work with a lot of clients who are passionate about design but don’t have endless amounts of money to burn or space to play with. It’s a great way to learn how to create something amazing by using only the most essential ingredients.” she said.

That experience was put to use when decorating the one-bedroom apartment. The living room is a warm space with key pieces that include a custom upholstered Case Study daybed, a Saarinen coffee table and wood-laminate bench that functions as seating and storage for the couple’s record collection.

For the compact kitchen, with its vivid turquoise walls, the duo chose no-VOC paint color-matched to a Mexico City hotel that they share fond memories of.

The palette in the bedroom is restrained, showcasing a bamboo plywood platform bed, designed and built by a good friend. An IKEA bookshelf houses a growing design book collection, while a Craftsman tool chest stores jewelry and makeup.

After their daughter, Ovidia, was born, the couple put their creativity to work once again. Not ones to shy away from maximizing a small space, they converted the hall closet into a nursery, squeezing in a convertible Stokke bassinet and a kitchen shelf as a changing table.

“Even though I’m a bit of a scavenger and collector, I’ve learned that minimalism can have a real richness and warmth, inside and out,” Johnsen said.

Style keys

Design philosophy:
“I think it’s easy to get seduced into buying new gadgets that seem “green” instead of just keeping things simple and timeless.”
Inspiration: “We travel a lot and have been really influenced by life and landscapes in Japan, India and Mexico.”
Design advice: “Recycle or give away everything you own that you don’t love or use. One strong design move is worth so much more than a million little ones. Don’t be afraid to redo your rental: sometimes you have to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.”

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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