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Toronto designer Shelley Kirsch thought it was hilarious when a long-time client asked after her mental state midway through a project.
“He called and said, ‘Shelley, are you okay? Is anything wrong?’” Kirsch recalls, laughing at the memory.
The client was perplexed by the principal bedroom’s neutral colour scheme. The rest of the residence — a cottage in the village of Coboconk in the Kawarthas — brimmed with colour.
Tomato-red paint energized stair rails; there were baby blue walls in the great room and wallpaper speckled in green figs in the dining area. Orange and teal popped up in quilts, rugs and ceramics. Hammered copper accents provided interest along walls and on a display alcove.
Whimsical line drawings by Toronto illustrator Alanna Cavanagh of a fluorescent orange bagel and cream cheese, and a jaunty pointed shoe, brought cheer to the loft that overlooked the great room.
The cottage had been “Shell-ified,” as the clients’ three teenagers called the vibrant treatment. Having previously designed the family’s colourful Arts and Crafts house in the city, they knew Kirsch’s work and had a fantastic rapport with her.
But by the time Kirsch got to the principal bedroom, she figured the couple — lawyers who also live with a chocolate Lab — would appreciate a low-key palette in the room where they rest.
“Neither one of us has an interest in what you’d normally see,” says the husband, referring to ubiquitous white and wood cottage decor.
“We love colour,” he says. “What is wonderful about what Shelley was able to do is make it feel like a family cottage in a space that was not really built that way.”
The 2,500-square-foot cottage was once the most homogenous of forms: a prefab Viceroy home built from a kit in 1998. An older couple had lived there permanently. While the cottage architecture included a cathedral ceiling and generous windows that filled the house with light, its interior lacked zip and the layout was wonky.
“The dining room was enclosed by four large corner cabinets,” says Kirsch. “It was still open but there was bulky construction that shrank the main floor space.”
To create better flow, Kirsch eliminated the cabinets, burying the structural posts in the wall. “Opening up the dining room opposite the kitchen made a huge difference,” she says.
She installed a bench that functions as a daybed along the window that has been particularly popular with the teenagers. “It’s common to find two or three of them there,” says the husband.
The previously unfinished basement, meanwhile, is now kitted out in double murphy beds (the cottage sleeps 10), a lounge area with a refreshment bar, a ping pong table, a Peloton bike and an office, because lawyers are always on duty.
“We love being up there,” says the husband. “It’s a manageable size. There’s enough room for everybody but not so much that it feels burdensome.”
Best of all, the cottage purchase has meant a continuum of tradition. “My wife’s family has been going to Balsam Lake for her entire life,” he says. “And her family has been there since the ’40s.”
As a nod to her client’s childhood, Kirsch brought in the same classic furniture her parents had, by Pioneer Handcraft. Those would be the chunky Flintstones-like beds in one of the kid’s bedrooms, as well as the great room’s charming baby blue pieces.
“There’s a tremendous warmth of colour in the house,” says Kirsch. “It creates an optimistic feeling. You walk in and there are so many lovely things to rest your eye on. It’s a very happy house. It’s a colour bounty from every angle.”
The cottage has been put to good use since they purchased it two years ago. In seasonable temperatures, the husband drops the kids off across the lake with extended family, then hits the courts.
“I play tennis every weekend at the community courts with my brother-in-law,” he says. The family also visits throughout fall and on Christmas.
“It’s a four-season place but we mostly use it for three and a half seasons,” he says, pointing out the kids have activities that mean they have to be elsewhere.
“My wife and I would spend all of our time there if we could. We love being up there,” he says.
And that principal bedroom? It’s since been Shell-ified.