Real Estate

Take a peek at the kitschy collections in this charming one-of-a-kind cottage in Port Carling

“She’s the driving force,” says 59-year-old Howard Kirshenbaum, a Toronto lawyer, neatly passing all credit—or is it blame?—to his spouse, Dyan. She’s the one responsible for all the…stuff…stashed inside their Port Carling, Ont., cottage: the collections of metal sand pails and miniature wooden houses, fringed silk souvenir pillows and folk-art carvings, iron doorstops and Depression-era picture frames, pop art, hooked rugs, quilts and blankets, shop signs, early 20th-century Doukhobor furniture, Inuit drawings, vintage salt and pepper shakers, contemporary paintings, and much more. The list reads like an audition for Hoarders.

Which makes walking into the Kirshenbaums’ cottage for the first time a total surprise. First comes an exuberant you can’t- ignore-us greeting from the “love dogs,” the family’s two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Chloe and Simmy. Once given the attention they know they richly deserve, the dogs retreat to the living room’s sand-coloured couches, leaving you free to notice: the place is light, airy, and stylishly modern. There’s nothing crammed or claustrophobic about it. Except for the sand pails that line the fireplace mantel, the cottage doesn’t appear to have any collections at all. At first glance.

“People think of collections as being together,” says Dyan, 59, who had planned to be a painter but ended up as a decorator. “But it’s more fun if they’re not. It’s like, ‘I spy with my little eye.’ ”

My little eye immediately spies a fringed silk pillow from Niagara Falls nestled next to Chloe on the couch. All the rage from the 1930s to the 1950s, souvenir pillow covers like this one now are kitschy collectibles. But Dyan’s collection consists of just this one. Until I wander through the cottage and find the rest—a couple dropped into the decor of just about every room, sly little jokes lurking among more conventional throw pillows. Even the rooms belonging to the kids—30-year-old son Noah and 28-year-old daughter Roxy—aren’t immune. “We get a laugh out of them, but they’re also annoying and slippery,” Dyan says. “So I don’t have too many. We don’t want to be tortured.” But how many is that? “Just enough,” she quickly answers. Ask Dyan the number in any of her collections, for that matter, and she can’t tell you. “I don’t want to be the collector who has to have everything.”

Every object Dyan chooses, however, has to mean something to her. “The way the cottage is decorated—it’s who I am.” Articulate and outgoing, an “oldest clothes at the cottage” kind of girl, Dyan has no trouble explaining her collecting philosophy. The peace-sign pillow and the one patterned with Jerry Garcia bears in the den? “I’m such a hippie.” The vibrant colour of the Inuit drawing hanging above them picks up the hot pink and tangerine of the bear pillow (and the two together also make a subtle connection, she says, between the Inuit and bears). But why that particular piece of art? “It’s done in Laurentien coloured pencils,” she says, “like the ones in my school kit when I was a kid. The artist created his art with something I also used. I always put myself in the picture somewhere.”

Dyan remembers playing with sand pails when she was a kid too, at her family’s cottage on Lake Simcoe’s Jackson’s Point. “I told myself, ‘If I ever have my own cottage, I want them on my mantel.’ ” It took a while. After renting every summer for 20-plus years, she and Howard finally bought their own place in 2005, and she finally had a home for the sand pails she’d bought—most at the annual antique show in Port Carling, while the couple were renters. A book about collecting them, including prices and dates, sits nearby. But, Dyan says, she didn’t know the book existed when she bought her pails—and, besides, she’s not interested in those things. “Sure, folk collectibles have a value. But I’ve never sold anything.” And why look up dates? Part of her pleasure is figuring out when a pail was made by the hairstyles and the clothing of the children depicted on it.

Dyan’s approach would appall a conventional collector in other ways too: she uses what she collects. Her hooked rugs are underfoot. Her antique doorstops hold doors open. Her oh-so-collectible tramp-art frames—made during the Depression from pieces of packing crates and other scrap wood notched together without nails—display family photos. “Nothing is sacred. We sit on them, walk on them, snuggle under them, enjoy them. If something breaks, I’m okay with that.” The wooden folk-art cat perched on the edge of the kitchen island looks as if it’s getting ready to leap down and torment Chloe and Simmy. Entirely understandable, given that the dogs chewed its ears when it lived at floor level. A wooden folk-art horse is missing one ear entirely. Not the dogs’ fault, though, says Dyan: “The ear kept falling off and being reattached and was eventually lost for good. But that’s the patina of the cottage, part of its story. It goes back to not making anything too important. That affects the fun.”

And the fun blasts through clearly. A whimsical wooden whirligig perches on a tree trunk made of cast concrete. A portrait of the family’s beloved spaniel Molly, who preceded Chloe and Simmy, hangs near the front door. But it’s not your usual 8×10 pet photo: it’s a blackand- white headshot, five-feet square. “It needed to be blasted, to remember this important figure in our lives.”

See Dyan’s tips for how to collect and display your treasures

Juxtapositions pull disparate pieces together. Across from Molly, a rich aqua Doukhobor bench with a couple of lipstick-pink pillows plays off the colours of a painting of two swimmers (by the contemporary American artist Alex Katz) above. “I like to sit in different places and enjoy the picture they create together. I’ll look up, and it will stop me for a moment from whatever else I’m doing.” Around the corner, a change of gears: Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix face off in two fab black-andwhite portraits (shot by Henry Diltz, who has done hundreds of album covers and was the official photographer at Woodstock). “I give Howard photos of people we like. Mostly musicians.”

Once Dyan decides what she wants and where she wants to put it, she rarely rearranges. “I’m really fast. I make decisions; I don’t dither.” This decorating confidence doesn’t come from formal training, though. “I didn’t learn the rules to begin with, so I don’t have to worry about breaking them.” She started by doing over her own room as a teenager, wildly mixing patterns and colours, and soon found her mother’s friends asking for her help with their decorating. By the time Dyan graduated from York University (with a degree in art history) and got a job selling advertising for an art magazine, she had begun assembling her collections.

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That’s not to say she’s the only collector in the family. The hundreds of CDs flanking the fireplace and the terabyte of music on his Mac are Howard’s contribution. “His music is the salt and pepper on top of it all. He has the best playlists,” says Dyan. “He designs some to work with nature—the wind, the leaves, the water, the chirping, and the music, all melding together.” He also has a fondness for rock T-shirts, Dyan says (“New ones, not vintage”). And as for his collection of handmade Canadian knives, he explains: “I used to take Dyan to antique shows, in hopes I’d be able to drag her away at some point. I had to look at something while I was waiting.”

“I’m the straight man for this guy,” Dyan says. And, sure enough, she soon proves the point. She explains her purchase of a carved and painted folk-art squirrel with a simple “We love the red squirrels here.” Which gives her drywitted husband the opening for a joke: “They’re the patron saint of wives. They’re always giving me shit.”

“They’re calling us to the boat,” Dyan says, as Chloe and Simmy joyously bound down to the lake ahead of us, hoping for their favourite activity (after eating). Oddly, when the Kirshenbaums bought the cottage, there was no path down the steep, thickly wooded slope to the lake; only a hillside lift. The couple immediately hired a local builder, Jason Sinasac, to put in 185 broad granite steps—“We didn’t want to rethink it, so we built to last”—but you’d never guess they’re new. They blend in so well, you’d swear they’d been there forever.

On one of the two landings, a Modernist table and chair likewise seem part of the forest: cushioned with leaves, the once-bright plastic is now mottled and muted to a pale yellow-green. Along with some rattan furniture on the cottage’s spacious deck, these pieces are her only collectibles that live outdoors. “Any more would be too much work,” Dyan says.

Looking back up the steps, the cottage has just about vanished. When Howard and Dyan bought it, she insisted on repainting the light green exterior (“The colour was soooo not me”) to a soft black, so it would fade into the trees. The new octagonal gazebo, which hangs on a rocky edge off the deck, is also almost invisible—a hidden aerie that, inside, holds (what a surprise) more vintage pieces.

The Kirshenbaums also gave the cottage a fresh name: Snnoooka, after a cabin at Camp Walden near Bancroft, Ont., where the couple met as teenagers. “Noah and Roxy went to Walden too, so it meant something to all of us,” Dyan says. Howard claims that, back in the day, snnoooka was hipster slang for cool, though the term hasn’t made it to Google yet. But snnoooka pretty much sums up the place and what Dyan has put inside “I like having things to enjoy and think about when I’m here,” she says. “It’s a form of storytelling.”

Sometimes the plot line is obvious—as with an irresistible sculpture by folk artist Ewald Rentz: a sleigh piled with logs, with a man astride the top, reins in one hand, whip in the other, being pulled by a primitive ox. “It’s autobiographical,” says Dyan. “Rentz worked in logging camps in Northern Ontario. He’s picturing himself here.” Other works, such as curiously carved busts of a man and a woman by an anonymous Quebecois carver, let you spin your story from scratch: Who is this couple with the helmet hairstyles, piercing eyes, and strange smiles?

Dyan’s miniature houses—scale models, dollhouses, even a few birdhouses— are wonderful props for daydreaming, she says. “Their bright, saturated colour speaks to me first, but then it’s their storytelling. It’s people-watching, without the people. Who owned this? Where did they make it? Why?”

The blue and yellow house from Quebec on the kitchen island certainly has tales to tell. Its long verandah gives it a cottagey feel. And its carved figures wear swimsuits, except for the woman who’s topless and the guy who’s naked and in an obvious state of arousal. “One form of folk art is erotica,” says Dyan.

When friends ask her opinion of something they’re thinking of buying, she’ll almost always tell them to get it: “There’s no such thing as a mistake, only being too timid or safe.” But if friends stumble onto something that fits with one of her collections, they don’t dare give it to her. “They’re afraid,” Dyan says. “I’m picky, and I make my opinions known. I’m a tough, strong, specific girl.” Bringing chocolate is a much safer bet. “I’m a fanatic; they know I’ll love that.”

Dyan shows no mercy, even where family is concerned. Her dad, now 95, took up painting in his sixties. “If it works for me, it goes on my wall. Otherwise, it’s ‘Sorry, Dad.’ He would get so angry, but what’s up is up for a reason.” One that made the cut is an evocative Modigliani-like painting of a woman lost in thought. “It’s of his mother, my grandmother, who died in childbirth,” Dyan explains. “I was named for her.”

But ask her if she has favourite pieces, and she’ll tell you that they’re all her favourites. Ask her which ones she’d grab if there were a fire, and she’ll tell you, “None. I wouldn’t waste a moment getting out.” Ask her what she’s still hoping to find for her collections, and she’ll tell you—huh?—nothing. “I stopped adding to them a decade ago. I had enough to enjoy. I’m not a hoarder.”

Cold turkey, just like that? “I have to be honest,” she says, gesturing towards her sand pails. “If I came upon one I didn’t have, I would buy it. But I’m not actively looking.”

And, oh yeah, Dyan admits she does have one new collection on the go: old doors. Eventually, she hopes, every entranceway to every room of the cottage will have its own “character” door “to be a frame for the rest of the room; to make you wonder, ‘Ooh, what’s in there?’ ”

This story was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Cottage Life. Get more of Dyan’s tips about creating collections. 

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