Home Tours

An earthy and eclectic cottage on Sydney’s North Shore

This charming Federation cottage is a melange of cultures, character and cosy textures.
Brigid Arnott

Sometimes it takes an expert eye to spot a diamond in the rough. Case in point is this once-dilapidated Federation cottage, which attracted just one bidder when it went to auction seven years ago – its current owner, Mei.

“It was a hovel before!” the former architect and mother-of-two admits. “There was mould on the walls, the floor creaked, the bathroom was leaking – everything needed to be gutted.” But Mei, who along with her husband, Thai, shares a passion for repurposing the old and handmaking the new, could see the rundown home had promise, and couldn’t resist its sprawling backyard for her growing family.

Mei’s knack for unearthing hidden gems is most evident in the living room. A treasure trove of collected curios and artefacts from the family’s travels, its cohesion comes down to her expert eye. “There’s a little bit of an Asian influence, a bit of country, a bit Scandi, but it works because the tones and materials are similar,” muses Mei.

A year leasing out the property gave them time to meticulously plan a full-scale renovation, which they completed across a record two months – not bad considering their builder went MIA before they had barely begun. But what could have been a major roadblock didn’t faze Mei and Thai, who together own a glazing construction company, and they took on the remainder of the renovation themselves.

Impressive antlers (ethically sourced from a Phillip Island deer farmer Mei found on Gumtree), a Mark Tuckey ‘Eggcup’ stool and grey ‘Jasper’ wool rug from Oh Happy Home lend a note of Scandi style, while the mid-century modern reading chair was a lucky op-shop find. A rattan House Of Orange chair and Oishi Furniture teak desk create a comfy study nook for son Kobi.

“I look at the foundation of a room, such as light, size and defining features such as plasterwork, before decorating.” ~ Mei

Removing the original kitchen bench to make space for a dining table (above left) fulfilled Mei’s wish for “a kitchen that was just like another living space, where people can sit around and chat while I’m cooking and have a glass of wine.” Built by Thai using recycled oak beams, the attractive tabletop’s colour and thickness match the American oak benchtops in the kitchen beyond. Vintage metal dining chairs and eye-catching Mother Of Pearl & Sons pendant lamps add an industrial edge to the scene, softened by sheepskin seat covers and a Nouvelle Nomad vintage Moroccan rug.

The pair lived in the house for a month without a bathroom while they managed the replastering, rewiring, painting, floorboard installation – they even found time to make pieces of furniture, such as the European oak dining table, themselves.

Despite the relatively recent renovation, the home is imbued with a distinct old-world ambience, thanks to Mei’s love of naturally worn materials and pieces with history. Buttery leather, linen and timber create an earthy colour palette brimming with cosy appeal, and timeworn treasures hark back to eras gone by, be they artfully clustered on ironbark shelves built by Mei and Thai, or fashioned into a vignette atop rustic timber stools.

The kitchen pays homage to Mei’s love of natural materials, with a splashback of hand-pressed ‘Mood Bianco’ subway tiles from Art Of Tiles and breezy Ikea linen curtains drawn across a Uniqwa eucalyptus pole. A row of amber Rekorderlig bottles along the windowsill throws golden light into the room, while the brass mixer by Candana is a gleaming metallic accent.

“We make things when we can; we Gumtree it when we can – I love looking through op shops and antique stores,” shares Mei. “There’s no defining theme because I’ve bought things from different cultures, but the materials and colours tie it all together.”

American oak cabinetry with rattan inlay by Loughlin Furniture helps to visually connect the kitchen with the adjacent living room. “I have rattan and basket weave everywhere,” says Mei. “My husband says I’m obsessed with baskets!”

The abundance of beautifully aged materials gives the house a wonderfully lived-in look that means nothing is too precious (a necessity when decorating with her two boisterous boys in mind, Kobi, eight, and Kaiden, three). “We wanted it to feel like home,” explains Mei. “If you ding something, it doesn’t matter. There are styles I enjoy looking at, where the houses are pristine and pattern-mixed to the end, but if you damage something, it shows.”

Layers of luxurious bedlinen (a collection from Cultiver, Kip & Co and Hale Mercantile Co), an antique chandelier and glittering Lee Broom ‘Crystal Bulb’ bedside pendants create the aura of old-world romance in the main bedroom. “We don’t have an adults’ retreat away from the kids, so our bedroom needed to be that for us,” explains Mei.

Bespoke touches throughout perfectly cater to the young family’s way of life: take the glorious custom-made rosewood barn door by Brookvale Doors & Screens, which connects the living area to the backyard. “I wanted a barn door so I can leave the top half open, yell to the kids, and keep an eye on them from the kitchen,” reasons Mei.

In the bedroom, a rustic Oishi Furniture solid teak bed continues the home’s timber theme, while a formerly flourishing bonsai makes a sculptural statement in the corner of the room. “We let it get too much sun, so now it’s an ornament!” she admits. Cleverly, a quick coating of hairspray keeps its leaves in place.

“It’s an old-fashioned room, so I had to have a dressing table!” explains Mei of the beautiful pre-loved timber piece she chanced upon on Ebay. “It’s by the window so I get nice light for make-up – the boys know not to disturb me if I’m sitting there!” A cane stool – another Ebay find – sits atop a sheepskin rug for a tactile touch.

It’s just one of the hand-wrought timber elements that creates the cosy feel of a log cabin in winter, an effect enhanced by Mei’s penchant for layering tactile sheepskins, neutral-toned velvets and woollen throws. “Before we moved here, we were out a lot, but now we’re much more home-based,” reflects Mei of the sanctuary she has carefully created for her loved ones. One look around her cosy home and it makes perfect sense: why would you want to be anywhere else?

A feature wall of brick-look tiles by Steel Backed Brick Company lends another rustic note in the bathroom, completed by aged mirrors Mei had custom framed.

“We wanted something earthy, something that reflected our lifestyle and what we’ve collected over the years.” ~ Mei

A far cry from your typical wet zone, this bathroom enjoys the feel of a luxury eco resort, courtesy of its reliance on timber (marine teak to prevent water damage) and natural textures. “We wanted to make it feel a bit like a spa, but it had to work with the rest of the house,” says Mei. Eastcoast Joinery built the striking bath surround and matching vanity, topped off with ACS Designer Bathrooms basins and black tapware by Candana.

“All the pieces we have tell a story.” ~ Mei

A glimpse of the garden man cave for Thai and the boys, by Creative Line Constructions.

A salvaged wheelbarrow by the front door is home to a thriving string of pearls plant.

A grand old timber gate Mei chanced upon via Ebay forms a striking entrance to the side garden, a verdant oasis of ferns and palms.

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