Kitschy versus modern: which cottage style is better?

Updated: July 5, 2018

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Is a house-ified cottage really still a cottage? Before you decide, listen to what Zim has to say.

“My sister says we need to update the cottage decor: whitewash the walls, buy matching cushions and curtains, and lay down wall-to-wall carpeting. But I can’t imagine a cottage without fish taxidermy and a collection of postcards from the 1950s. What’s your opinion—is it okay to make the cottage less kitschy and more like a house?”

Giving advice on cottage decor is always risky. Because whatever I think about faux-fur throw cushions or mirrors made from old window frames, there will be someone who holds the opposite position. That is why cottage decor is perilous territory for discussion. No matter what is said, feelings will be hurt, egos will be dented, and tempers will flare. So let’s get started.

For some, the kitsch-filled cottage, deeply laden with family memories, is the only proper interior. Others, preferring comfort and convenience or maybe just lacking generations of family tradition, opt for a more modern take, just like your sister. It’s a thorny debate, and I can see the merits—and faults—of both sides.

I think that sometimes it is easy for multi-generational cottagers to get a bit smug over what constitutes acceptable decor. What about the first-timers who have never been to a regatta or heard the story about Uncle Jim and the talking trout? Is their take on style somehow irrelevant? I personally feel that a cottage’s decor should not be constrained by someone else’s traditions. It’s your place, and you can jazz it up however you like. White on white with white furnishings? Liquor cabinet made from an old rowboat? Ozzy Osbourne-style purple velvet hot tub sepulchre? I love what you’ve done with the place.

Whether you choose classic cottage kitsch or house moderne, however, there are some pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. Sentimental with just a touch of tacky, kitsch succeeds with a sly wink to its own faults. It is unfailingly honest, a charm fake kitsch sorely lacks. Here’s the difference: real kitsch is the old postcards somebody mailed to your forebears, a stuffed moose head the previous owner shot in 1934, or the regatta pennant you won back in the day. It is old family photos and love poems your parents wrote on sheets of birchbark. Fake kitsch—the paddle with “I love the cottage” painted on the blade or the antique sign stamped out in China last week—is just depressing. True kitsch is collected over time. Fake kitsch—rustic letter blocks that spell “family,” fibre-glass deer antlers, and piles of hardcover books that no one has read—comes from the mall. Real or fake, it’s your choice. But be warned: a cottage decorated with fake kitsch soon resembles the fake Authentic Olde Irish Pub that everyone hates (but drinks beer at just the same).

If the footprint stays under 20,000 sq. ft., and you can’t see the orchid conservatory or the polo pitch from the lake, then a house-cottage is perfectly acceptable. And it’s actually easier to decorate a house-cottage because you don’t have to agonize over the authenticity of your old stuff. But the danger is that when the cottage becomes just like home, urban routines can supplant cottage ways. And if your city brain takes over, all is lost. It goes like this: cottage brains love to read sketchy romance novels or play Michigan rummy, but city brains need Netflix or a trip into town to see what’s at Winners. Cottage brains love the morning swim and a walk on the road. City brains obsess over gym lockers, yoga mats, and post-workout kombucha. If you lose your cottage brain, bass fishing becomes a golf membership, and a book club will convene in your screened porch. Horrors! So, sure, make your cottage a city house replica, but don’t forget that there’s a lake out there. Which is the reason you came here in the first place, right? Driving four hours to visit the spot you love the best is called going to the cottage. Driving four hours to sit around indoors while you creep on Facebook and binge-watch Game of Thrones (again) is called a waste of time.

I think you should try taking the high road on this one. Let your sister have her carpeting and matchy-matchy couch cushions. It doesn’t have to change the way you enjoy the cottage, and you will be forever regarded as “the better sister.” But if the very thought of compromise makes you choke, another solution, as practised by both Lucille Ball and Homer Simpson, is to divide your cottage in half with spray paint or duct tape. Your sister can decorate her side in modern home style and you can have a heavy hand with the kitsch. See what happens. Maybe one of you will have a change of heart. Perhaps a new hybrid decorating style, Contemporary Ironic, will emerge. Having been down this road a few times, I can offer advice from bitter experience: you will be tempted to claim the kitchen for yourself. Think twice. A washroom and an exterior door are smarter choices. Good luck.

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