Design & DIY

How this Toronto couple revamped their ’50s cottage on Crystal Lake

For first-time property owners, 28-year-old Rebecca Mandal and 29-year-old Emmanuel Athanassakos, buying a cottage on Crystal Lake, Ont., instead of a house in the city was a long-time coming. When their dream cottage hit the market again last spring, the couple jumped at the opportunity and purchased the 1,300 sq. ft., three-bedroom place for $755,000.

The two took advantage of their new cottage at the height of the pandemic to work from home and spent some much-needed time redesigning the space to make it their own. “When we started looking at cottages in August of 2019, most of our friends and family thought we were nuts, and in all honesty, that made the idea even more appealing,” says Emmanuel. We wanted this purchase to strike a balance between quality of life and intelligent investing, and a cottage was the perfect fit.” 

About their family

The Toronto-based couple grew up frequenting nearby Ontario cottage country. While Rebecca spent summers at her family cottage on Crystal Lake, Emmanuel visited his extended family’s cottages on Gold Lake and Beaver Lake just north of Buckhorn, Ont. Rebecca has always felt a special connection to the Crystal Lake area, one that she is now able to share with Emmanuel. “My family friends at the lake are now Emmanuel’s too, and we hope to continue growing with the community,” says Rebecca.

The work-from-cottage lifestyle

Rebecca and Emmanuel spent the summer of 2020 working remotely from their cottage. They both work full-time for the same Canadian bank (where they met), so the flexibility to work from the lake was a big win. “I thought it would be a challenge because I’m in a client-facing industry, but the firm adapted,” says Emmanuel. To overcome the challenge of cottage reception, the couple was able to install a satellite dish for cell and internet service. As for office space, “We made one bedroom into my office, and Emmanuel has his own nook where he works,” says Rebecca.

About their design aesthetic

“I knew right away I wanted a cozy, rustic feel with modern touches,” says Rebecca. They had some work to do to replace the existing ’90s comfy cottage aesthetic—mismatched furniture, deer wallpaper, and knick-knacks galore that didn’t exactly fit their vision. 

Now, you’ll find a lot of thoughtful accents, such as their wooden kitchen table, which was handmade in Thailand, leather chairs hand-picked for drinking their morning coffee, and a modular couch for movie-watching (a favourite family pastime). They added an outdoor sauna, one of several amenities on their property, including a bunkie and a cabana. There are also plans to make a “barefoot paradise,” which will include an outdoor shower and a bonfire pit for outdoor entertainment. 

Their favourite design elements

One of Rebecca and Emmanuel’s favourite cottage features is the stone fireplace—original to the ’50s building. “It centres the cottage and can give a really romantic feel,” says Rebecca. The cottage is on a hill and is mostly windows, so they get excellent sunrise views of the lake from their back balcony, which is also where they eat most of their meals alfresco during the summer.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Mandal

They brought a few touches of home to add some character to their decor—framed personal photos, a winter painting by Emmanuel’s dad, and a solid marble chessboard that they received from Emmanuel’s parents, “coffee stains and all,” says Rebecca. They also commissioned a custom desk for Emmanuel’s office corner from a local woodworker in Toronto. 

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Mandal

DIY projects

The couple doesn’t shy away from DIY projects either. Take, for example, the old barn beam that they turned into a light fixture. “We used metal piping to affix it to the ceiling. We love to bring the old and new together,” says Rebecca.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Mandal

They also made a mini bookshelf with some leftover cedar from the sauna that they attached to the wall with some leather straps. Their side tables are made with lumber from Rebecca’s parents’ property, and they built a floating deck and staircase that props up their sauna. “There were a few stages to the sauna platform. We originally built just the floating deck, and later built up the stairs and railing,” says Rebecca.  It was our first big DIY project. We had never built anything like it before.” 

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Mandal

Where they shop

Some of Rebecca and Emmanuel’s favourite places to find great deals include Wazo in North York, where they bought their live-edge kitchen table and The Chesterfield Shop, where they found their couch (it’s a dupe for one of the pricey sectionals from the Restoration Hardware Cloud Modular collection, at a fraction of the cost). They sourced the sauna from Dundalk Leisure Craft, another family-owned brand.

The best part is that nothing went to waste—they were able to donate some wooden benches to a local school and sell a lot of the previous owner’s furniture on a local buy and sell page. The money that they made went towards their new decor.

Advice for furnishing a cottage space

“Take your time, and don’t rush to fill the space just because you feel like it needs to be done,” says Rebecca. “Budget every month and say, okay, I can spend this amount of money, and then find the pieces that speak to you. Live in the space first and see what works for your lifestyle before you make big changes.”

The couple is renting in Toronto with their one-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever, Hudson, and has no plans to move to the cottage full time. One day, retirement may lead them to Crystal Lake for good, but for now, they couldn’t be happier with their new cottage getaway. 

“Nothing has ever compared to the community that is Crystal Lake,” says Rebecca.

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