Quirky Cottage

from Decorating
Gain an appreciation for offbeat and mismatched pieces in this cheerful display of quirky home décor ideas.

Leap of Faith

Mimi Reilly has a full résumé. The secret of her success? Creativity, curiosity, and courage — the courage to do it her way.

“You’ve got to have a sense of yourself,” she says, “what makes you happy, what makes you tick. And then you have to make the leap: You have to trust yourself.”

Mimi’s Cape Cod, Massachusetts, beach cottage, set high on a hill overgrown with rhododendrons, is filled with a style defined by self-knowledge and self-confidence. The house began life in 1907 as a tiny artist’s studio. In the 1940s it gained its first addition. The second came sometime in the last half century.

“By the time I saw it six years ago, it was a pretty sad little place,” Mimi recalls. Still, she knew immediately what the home had to offer. And that it was the perfect place to unfurl her exuberant furnishings. “It’s an instinctual thing. I could see its potential.”

Mimi followed these principles to cheer up her space:

Recognize and take advantage of decent architecture and good light. Mimi moved walls, remodeled the kitchen, and painted almost everything white, creating the kind of summery, beachy backdrop you’d expect to be furnished in casual, sandy neutrals and dewey, beach-glass pastels. But that’s not Mimi, not by a long shot. “I love white because it provides the opportunity for brilliant contrast,” she says. “I love the pop of big, bright color against white.”

2. Create distinction. Audacious color contrast is visible throughout Mimi’s house, but nowhere more riotously than in the living room, where 200-year-old bright blue Chinese ceramic birds perch on wall sconces surrounding a classic Venetian mirror, creating a loud, whimsical racket against white walls and a white sofa. “That’s the kind of contrast I adore,” Mimi says. “This is a simple little beach house, so I kept things unpretentious, vibrant, and fun.”

3. Focus on the details. The home’s relaxed and quirky nature belies Mimi’s tremendous gift for display. Rather than begging visitors to stare at artistic displays, each corner of this home gently trips and delights the eye, causing it to pause for a moment and ponder. Vignettes throughout the house — juxtaposing the old and new, shiny and matte, and strange and sublime — display originality. These vignettes adorn tabletops, shelves, pedestals, and the walls with the express intent to provoke, whether it’s thought, wonder, memory, or just a spontaneous smile.

Consider, for example, an ingenious arrangement of antique mirrors on a master bedroom wall. The mirrors have special meaning to Mimi because each one belonged to a woman in her family. There’s an aunt’s elegantly simple mirror above the bureau; a grandmother’s tall, thin mirror to the left; her mother-in-law’s ornate Italian mirror above and right; and her mother’s round starburst hanging, like a crown, atop the rest.

“It’s so nice to wake up to,” Mimi says. “[It’s] so interesting to contemplate what forms and styles spoke to each of the women in my family and to consider who they were and the influences in their lives.”

4. Loosen up. Pushing furniture up against the walls can make a room feel static, too tight, and uncomfortable, Mimi says. “Make sure to give your sofas, tables, and chairs room to breathe. Your spaces will feel fresher, more relaxed,” she says. “And be sure not to overtreat windows. Simple is best, especially when you’re dealing with informal spaces like this one.”

5. Put it on a pedestal. Mimi gives favorite design elements a new sense of importance by putting them on pedestals. “It makes all the difference,” she says. “It makes you really consider the object.”

This is apparent in Mimi’s dining room, where she used simple block-style pedestals to showcase a large green-glazed jar in one corner and a statuesque candelabra dripping with crystals in another. She also recommends table stands for favorite vessels. A bowl on Mimi’s dining room table is elevated “to allow light and shadow to play under and around the object.” And definitely consider wall sconces. Mimi has used them extensively as another form of high-impact display, especially for figurine collections.

6. Work with white. Painting walls and floors white smoothed out and cleaned up Mimi’s cottage. She says it’s a strategy that works like magic to quickly and inexpensively spruce up and streamline, especially cottage spaces. Mimi used a color called Linen White because, with its hint of yellow, the hue is a bit softer than decorator’s white. She used semigloss throughout.

“I made the switch a few years ago,” she says of the shiny finish. “It may sound tacky, but it’s not. It’s radiant and casts a reflective glow.” White provides the backdrop for the color contrast that is so vital to this cottage’s charms. Bright blue, clear green, sunny yellow, spicy red, and fresh orange accents create good cheer and lighthearted sophistication against white walls and pickled floors.

7. Keep things a little quirky. Mimi admits that she has a big soft spot for oddball, slightly off-balance elements of design. “Imperfection is what keeps interiors interesting,” she says. The bronzy metal candelabra on a pedestal to the left of the fireplace leans. So what? On the other side of the fireplace there’s an old painting that was cut from a larger painting so that all the action is down in one corner. “I think it’s beautiful!” Mimi says. “The off-kilter gets you thinking, makes you wonder where something’s been, how many people have owned it, how it got to be that way.”

The painting, like every inch of the cottage, tells a story that can’t be taken in at a single glance. You can expect the wonder to unfold slowly, delightfully, and — of course — confidently. Mimi has put her faith in it.

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