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Originally published November 30, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Page modified December 1, 2012 at 10:36 PM

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Renovating slowly, surely — and cheaply

Unable to afford a big remodel, couple find out what they really need.

New York Times News Service

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MIAMI — Sometimes not having enough money to renovate right away can be a blessing in disguise.

At least that’s how Nina Johnson-Milewski, an art dealer and the owner of Gallery Diet, and her husband, Dan Milewski, an artist who owns a cafe and wine bar, have come to regard it.

In 2006, they bought a 1939 bungalow here for $230,000, but they couldn’t afford to make the changes they envisioned before moving in. So they spent the next six years living in the one-story house while they gradually renovated it, putting in thousands of hours of their own labor, as well as $75,000 — in bits and pieces, whenever they could.

The advantages of slow renovation quickly became obvious. “You only see what you need once you’re living in the space,” said Johnson-Milewski, 27. That’s when “you see how you want the house to function.”

So it was first by necessity, and later by choice, that the couple, who met in 2004 as students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, let the design of their 2,100-square-foot house evolve room by room and chair by chair.

As Milewski, 33, put it: “We’ll stand in a room and labor over a half-hour or an hour over where to put the chair. We didn’t have a meta-plan.”

It helped that Milewski is what you would call handy — the son of a cabinetmaker and the grandson of a plumber (on his mother’s side) and a machinist (on his father’s) — and was willing to tackle jobs the less-handy would find intimidating.

He tore down walls, ripped out ceilings and built bookcases, window frames and sills. He gutted a studio apartment in back of the house, in what was once a garage, turning it into an art studio. He built closets, to hold coats and a washer and dryer (things they realized they needed only after living in the house for a while), and he hung chartreuse sliding doors on barn-door hinges to conceal them.

The house is furnished with an eclectic mix of objects: antiques and midcentury modern pieces, many found at antique shows or thrift shops, and art by Milewski and other artists represented by Johnson-Milewski’s gallery.

The effect is warm, colorful and personal — and often more functional than you’d think.

In the dining room, three of Milewski’s works hang on the wall: felt-lined boxes that hold handmade nun-chucks, sticks connected by chain or rope that are used as martial-arts weapons.

A portrait of Johnson-Milewski’s grandmother hangs over the fireplace, dominating the room, and a cast-metal chandelier from a 1920s movie theater is suspended over the long dining table, where the couple hold weekly dinner parties.

Set at an angle, the table emphasizes Milewski’s artwork. But the odd placement also serves a purpose: It was the only way they could fit such a big table in a small room.

In the sunken living room, Milewski uncovered a beamed ceiling, reinforcing it by doubling the number of beams and inserting blocks of wood as cross-supports, to create the appearance of a rustic coffered ceiling. Hanging in the center is an ornate wrought-iron chandelier that tapers down to a very sharp point with a small bell on the end.

The bell is decorative, but like the placement of the dining table, it serves another purpose as well. It’s what Johnson-Milewski likes to think of as a musical alarm.

“I put a bell on the chandelier,” she said, “so Dan, who is 6 feet 4, hits the bell before he hits the point of the chandelier.”


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