In episode 4 of the Cottage Life Podcast Season 3, we’ll listen to an essay all about collecting classic cottage kitsch, which first appeared in our June 1993 issue. Listen here or visit cottagelife.com for access to all of the episodes.
Three years ago we went shopping for a cottage. Our requirements were simple: All we wanted was a picturesque shack surrounded by rocks and pines – you know, a couple of bedrooms, a big living room with a stone fireplace, a wraparound veranda, and a century’s worth of memorabilia accumulated by the original owners.
Strangely, such places turned out to be exceedingly rare – at least in our price range. We eventually found rocks and pine, but they came with a brand-new, perfectly pristine, split-level prefab. Hydro, hot and cold running water, wall-to-wall carpeting in the bedrooms, and all the charm of a suburban motel.
It didn’t help when Art and I met our neighbours. On one side were Myron and Clara, whose cluttered log cabin had been the hunting lodge of a 100-year-old-estate. On the other side were Buddy and Flo, who had designed and built their own cabin, guest house, sheds, and decks, all of which were filled with toys, tools, and 10 years’ worth of familiabilia. We traipsed back to our barren prefab and focused on the efficiency of the R-30 insulation and the million-watt fluorescent light fixture in the kitchen.
We were desperate to “decorate” – but didn’t know where to begin. Hammering the fire hole in unmarred cedar walls was too traumatic to contemplate. Besides, we didn’t have much of anything to hang on them. Finally, we put up a Navajo rug. Big mistake. It only accentuated the fact that there wasn’t a single other cottage collectible in the place. We sorely felt the absence of clutter.
Luckily, we had relatives. They gave us old linens: brown-and-white plaid sheets, orange-and-brown throws, navy pillow cases, brown-and-yellow towels, not a complete set in the lot. These certainly helped take the edge off our Holiday Inn look.
Then Art’s parents donated an ancient woodstove – big, dirty, and horribly inefficient. We loved it. And after I dropped a couple of hot lids, which left round burn marks on the pristine carpet, we were well on the way (as I kept telling Art) to the we’ve-been-here-forever ambiance we craved.
The second year, I bought a can of taupe paint and painted over the white drywall in the kitchen. The results were ghastly, as Art pointed out when he returned the following weekend: “That’s not taupe, it’s brown,” he said.
No matter. I went paint crazy. I obliterated the too-clean look of the Ikea furniture by painting it dark green. It looked so good, I used the same green to cover up the taupe. Perhaps I got carried away. After an unpleasant scene with Art over the matter of some laminated maple bookshelves he has recently built, and which I thought needed a good coat of enamel, I put the paint away.
An interior designer’s guide to updating your cottage decor
After three years of admiring our Navajo rug, dirty woodstove, bare green walls, and R-30 insulation, we knew something was still missing, but we were stuck in Metropolitan Home and didn’t know how to get out. It was the lamp that finally helped us break through the barrier into true cottage-style decor. Another gift from Art’s parents, it has a ceramic base with little figures and a red shade made of old Venetian blinds – kitsch if ever there was. We weren’t sure we wanted it, until Art’s sister said she wanted it, which made us realize we had to have it. We sat it on the counter, plugged it in, and had a laugh, and it’s been there ever since. In fact we recently acquired its mate – a prancing steed wearing another Venetian lampshade.
The lamps were quickly followed by a dozen family photos scattered across a nearby wall. Then, after three years without a cottage guest book (because we couldn’t find one to meet our exacting design standards), we started taking Polaroids of friends and making them create their own twig, bark, and painted cardboard frames for the Bathroom Guest Gallery. Old posters were unfurled and ruthlessly plastered onto every available wall. We stopped living out of overnight bags and imported Goodwill drawers for the bedroom. We hung up Art’s toy boat and plane to get them out of the way and liked the way they looked. We drilled holes all over the cedar walls for coat and hat pegs.
Everything is still too new, but we know that with time, a continuing influx of clutter, and a little courage on our part, our cottage will be as properly shabby as any other on the bay.