Cottage life: At home with Mary Clare CarterPublished on September 21, 2008

  • "My favourite thing about the main floor is how I can be in the kitchen and everyone will gather around the big island. I think it makes for a better family life," says Mary Clare Carter. To contact her, e-mail Photo by Mark Holleron

  • When Mary Clare and her family bought this cottage with breathtaking views of the Gatineau River, it was stripped down to the studs. After overhauling the space and adding floor-to-ceiling windows, Mary Clare has created a casual, but classy beach house feel. Photo by Mark Holleron

  • Mary Clare uses a mixture of antiques and new furniture to create a rustic feel. She says one of her favourite activities at the cottage is to take time out to enjoy the river views with Murphy, their golden retreiver. Photo by Mark Holleron

  • The front of the cottage not only includes a wrap-around porch and comfortable wicker seating, but takes advantage of the uniquely-shaped land to provide water views from almost every room. Photo by Darren Brown

When Mary Clare Carter first saw the gutted remains of a cottage on the Gatineau River three years ago, she couldn't believe her luck.

While most people would have been overwhelmed by the scope of the project, the interior designer and owner of Every Square Inch knew she had found the space she had been searching for. Mary Clare gladly took on the challenge of renovating the 1,600-square-foot cottage, and she's overjoyed with the end result. With river reviews from almost every window, the sun-filled cottage has the feel of a beach house and it's become a frequent hangout for Mary Clare's busy family, which includes her husband, their four daughters and Murphy, their 10-year-old golden retriever. Mary Clare recently sat down with Ottawa At Home to discuss how she transformed the space from basic bare bones into an airy river retreat.

Were you surprised to discover this piece of property?

It's always been a dream of my husband, Geoff, and I to have a spot on the water. I knew I wanted it to be on a point of land and close to the water, plus something that we could tear down or gut. When we found this place three years ago it filled all of those requirements and the views down the river were breathtaking. But we had to buy it within a 24-hour time frame so it was very fast. The interior had been gutted because someone else had planned to transform it, but they didn't go through with it. We were lucky to get the opportunity and we really loved it. Within the first 24 hours I had it all planned out and knew what I wanted to do.

It sounds like the renovation was a labour of love?

I had a ball with it - I had free rein and I gladly filled it. The cottage represents my niche in design of filling every square inch because it's a small space. I decided to go with a beach house feel and the interior is mostly cream with borden batten walls on the interior and lots of beat-up antiques I've collected over the past 25 years. There's also lots of colour too, with reds and blues throughout.

How did you alter the space?

The kitchen was originally closed in, but the studs were exposed (see before shots, pg. 14 ) and I was thrilled with what we found. I knew that as long as the structure was sound, we could work with it. Most of the cottage is built on rock and the house is built to work with it. It was my goal to ensure that from every angle you could see the water and to embrace where the house sits on the land. We're lucky that it sits so close to the water because you just can't do that anymore with the regulations. The cottage was really a blank slate, so I had a lot of fun with it, but I also knew I had to stay to a strict budget. We opened up the main floor by adding a beam and floor-to-ceiling windows. It now has four bedrooms on two floors, but originally it was just a bungalow with a lower level that was very grungy and disgusting - a typical basement with tiny windows way up high. Where did you see the biggest transformation? Definitely downstairs because at first we were only going to renovate the upstairs. It was very dark and dingy down there with small high windows, but when we opened it up we saw that it made a perfect walkout to the beach area at the side of the cottage where the bay is located. We punched out a lot of concrete blocks and were able to add a lot of big windows and glass doors to bring in the light. It became an entire other level of living space with two bedrooms, a full bathroom with laundry, and a family room.

What's your favourite part of the cottage?

I think it's how my heart just races when I come through the back door and I get a glimpse of the water straight through the house. I did a lot of work on the place myself, with staining, painting and designing the layout and storage areas. Through the renovation I was here two to three days a week for at least three months and I totally fell in love with it. My favourite thing about the main floor is how I can be in the kitchen and everyone will gather around the big island. I have a big family and the space encourages everyone to gather together and you can have different conversations going on at the same time. I think it makes for a better family life because you're not segregated off into separate areas and everyone feels a part of what's going on.

Did you design the island yourself?

Yes, it's a bit bigger than usual, but I love how it functions. When the guys put down the pine boards for the counter top on the island, they neatly covered it up to protect it. I ripped it off right away and took a brick to the wood to roughen it up and make it look aged. They were horrified at first, but I told them that it was too perfect and I needed to bash it up. I put a milk paint on the base and I wanted it to be scuffed up because I knew it would get banged up from the chairs anyway. I think the rustic look can be a little overdone lately, but this seemed like the perfect place for it.

Do you have a favourite local supplier?

I do all my lighting at Multi Luminaire in Gatineau with the owner Carole Alain because she really knows her stuff. Lighting is so key to a space when you're creating the right ambience. The chandelier (over the dining table) was something I had my eye on, but I had put it aside because I had more important expenses to take care of at the moment with the renovation. But then my husband surprised me with it at Christmas that year.

How does the cottage echo your professional work?

This project was really a test for me as a designer. It had to be functional everywhere, with built-in shelves under the staircase, lots of kitchen storage and carefully planned-out closet space. Literally every square inch has been filled and that's also the name of my business (Every Square Inch) because I do so many small projects. I only do residential projects and my favourite part is working on floor plans and designing interior space. I do a lot of renovations, but the cottage was so much fun because it had been totally gutted and we were able to do exactly what we wanted.

How does the cottage complement your lifestyle?

It's a great little space and it's so nice that it's close to our family home in Ottawa. Eventually we're thinking about moving out here full-time since it's winterized and that was the intention when we renovated it, but right now we're so busy with our girls and all of their activities. We don't always get here for full weekends, but that's the beauty of the cottage being only a 25-minute drive from our house. Sometimes we get up here for only three hours, maybe to just grab a meal and relax. It's totally worth it. Plus it's easy for friends to just come up for an evening and go back to the city or even stay over. The cottage has been a lovely addition to our lives.

LIVE LARGE Interior designer Mary Clare Carter offers tips for working with small spaces.

1. Draw light into every possible corner by installing beautiful big windows, minimizing window coverings and maximizing your views. Make a lighting plan that uses pot lights and wall sconces so limited floor space is left free for furniture. 2. Make use of every square inch by thinking about your storage needs. Functionality is key. Built-in cabinetry or shelving with open baskets can be beautiful to look at and completely useful as well. 3. Think big by furnishing your room strategically with a few well-chosen pieces. They become focal points that anchor the space and draw attention away from the room's size. 4. Define your style by personalizing your space with items you love and ones that carry a uniform theme throughout to maintain a smooth flow.

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