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Interior designer expands into historic Lake Avenue building

Isola Design and Mavis Furniture principal and owner Jill Isola Johnson, holding her dog Pepper, stands with Assistant Designer Mireille Kidd, left, and intern Kyla Schulte in the new office furniture showroom.

An interior designer responsible for cutting-edge urban commercial properties like the Whole Foods Co-op and Canal Park Brewery is opening a new office furniture showroom in a historic Downtown Duluth building.

Isola Design principal and owner Jill Isola Johnson purchased 17-19 N. Lake Ave. in March and will open Mavis Furniture in a street-level storefront in June. Isola Design offices have relocated to a connected room and plans include remodeling a second floor for leased office space.

The new dealership will offer connections to a variety of modern, international brand office furniture for Duluth area business, health care, education and government entities. The project expands the services offered by Isola Design, which was founded nine years ago and has been located above Lizzards Gallery in the Wirth building on Superior Street.

“One of the great things about our location is that within a block in the area there are a number of interior designers and architects that will be using our services,” said Isola Johnson, a Duluth native. “This is where we wanted to be.”

Isola Design and Mavis Furniture are located in an early 20th Century building at 17-19 N. Lake Avenue in Downtown Duluth.

Mavis Furniture and Isola Design will be located in a building recently occupied by Wagner Zaun Architecture, which moved around the corner to Superior Street last fall. Isola Johnson purchased the building with her husband Tom Johnson, who is assisting with renovations.

“This is a really cool and old building with lots of history,” said Isola Johnson. “We’re really excited to be taking care of this place. It’s a really pretty building and it needed a little bit of love.”

According to a National Register of Historic places registration form for the Downtown Duluth Commercial District, 17-19 N. Lake was built in 1905. The two-story building served as a barbershop until the 1920s. The property has undergone a number of renovations as its uses have changed over the years. Isola Johnson said the building served as a radiator repair shop and headquarters for wind turbine pioneer Elliott Bayly.

The building still has a hayloft in the back used to feed working horses in the early 20th Century. The unfinished space is cluttered with abandon items including an old automobile engine, which will eventually be removed through the hayloft doorway.

Isola Johnson said renovators sanded the floors, painted walls and removed a bookcase that blocked a long-forgotten building connection to what is now Prøve Gallery. A new roof with skylights will improve the second floor, which will be renovated and leased to independent businesses.

Unoccupied rooms on the second floor will be renovated for office space and leased to creative professionals.

“We’re making that a creative zone for people who are in design or the arts,” said Isola Johnson. Cartoonist Chris Monroe is one of the current tenants.

Doug Zaun, of Wagner Zaun Architecture, said his firm occupied the Lake Avenue building for more than 10 years before moving to 3 W. Superior St., a historic bank building constructed in 1884. He said the firm was looking for a fresh space and knew the property well: Wagner Zaun served as architects when the building was renovated into a yoga studio years ago.

“We’ve come a little bit of a full circle here,” he said. “We like it. It’s a real nice architectural space.”

Zaun said Duluth has seen good business growth in the past decade, which created work for architects, interior designers and other small business entrepreneurs. Now some of those early entrepreneurs need to expand.

“There’s some churning going on and a lot of it is to accommodate growth,” he said.

Like Mavis Furniture.

Isola Johnson started the business — which uses a childhood nickname she earned polishing silverware for a woman named Mavis — as an expansion of Isola Design. The interior design company serves primarily Duluth and Twin Cities clients but also sees work from neighboring states. She said she wants to keep building on her success.

“When I was growing up, Duluth was going through hard times. I just wanted to get out,” she said. Isola Johnson earned a design degree from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities in 1993 and returned to Duluth in 2001. “It’s changed now. People can come and work in a creative field in Duluth and you don’t have to move away. I want to help foster that idea.”

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