Inspiring Cottage Style: Gorgeous Gulf Island Retreat
A Vancouver design team transforms a condemned Mayne Island cabin into an idyllic retreat from the big city.
The report said it all. At the 100-page mark, in big, black marker, the inspector had written: “This property is uninhabitable.” And underlined it three times. But Ian McLeod and Kerry Johnson had already fallen for the place. Set on an acre of waterfront on Mayne Island, British Columbia, the cabin had been home to a pair of chain smokers who had literally left the walls yellowed—even the cobwebs were stained orange. But Johnson and McLeod—who together make up Johnson McLeod Design, a team known for their work in Vancouver on luxury condos at places like the Fairmont and the Shangri-La—knew they’d found a diamond in the rough. “After 20 years in the business, we know how to look through clutter to see the bones of a house,” says McLeod. “Though this was a challenge.” The two-level home was tackled one floor at a time, each evolving according to its own characteristics. “Each floor has told us what to do,” explains McLeod. “The upstairs has a tented, varnished cedar ceiling with floor-to-ceiling windows, and is post-war modern. That dictated what we did.
“Downstairs was very bright, and with its local sandstone fireplace, it felt very east coast. So we’re Cape Cod downstairs, and upstairs it’s Gulf Islands.” Bringing the home back to life started with gutting the walls (the nicotine-soaked atmosphere had the effect of helping them work 14-plus-hour days without exhaustion), and opening up the ’60s-era, boxy design into a modern, open-concept space. The living room, which McLeod refers to as “Sinatra goes to Tahoe,” is a twist on Mad Men-esque design, with ’50s-style sofas gathered around the hearth—a look that’s meant to evoke a vintage cottage passed down for generations.
One large master bedroom was divided into two cheerful bedrooms, separated by an insulated wall with a transom window. Tucked in behind the hearth, the sleeping quarters enjoy the radiant heat of the fireplace on damp winter nights. There was originally nothing but solid wall on the western side of the home, so they opened it up to the view and afternoon sun with new, oversize windows. Likewise, a stairwell receives natural light for the first time in 40 years with an ingenious trick: an internal window on the stairwell opens onto a guest bedroom, bringing through the room’s natural light. When the room is occupied with guests, the window can be shuttered again for privacy. And, to counter any dark, West Coast days, the pair has dotted the space with orange: bright throw pillows inside, and dozens of umbrellas and lanterns outside.
Working on Mayne was a lesson in island living: because bringing materials over from the mainland can be a hassle, they wanted to work with local products as much as possible. Home Hardware became their stomping grounds—the spot where vintage tin buckets and quirky decor items could be refashioned into chic finds under the couple’s design-savvy guidance. Mayne finds its way into the decor in other ways, too: branches of driftwood are collected into those tin buckets; seashells found on the beach are gathered in shadow boxes; and local pottery becomes a modernist statement, grouped together on the dining table as an art piece.
And, for the first time in 20 years, Johnson and McLeod became their own general contractors as well. “We call it designer’s boot camp,” laughs Johnson. “We don’t do a lot of hands-on work in the city, but when we get there, we’re breaking out the power tools and the paint brushes. It hones your skills, and it’s a lot of fun.” Johnson designed and built coffee tables—each one “strong enough that 12 people could dance on it”—that are found on both floors, and the pair crafted boxes that fit in their custom kitchen island for storage. (Johnson built them, and McLeod painted them. The one that houses the tinfoil is coloured a cheeky silver.) It’s a way of life that suits the couple, a break from the design world they inhabit in Vancouver and the hectic pace that greets them any time they go back. “We love doing it,” says McLeod. “We could not wait to get over and finish those storage boxes. In town, it’s all meetings and 200-page reports handed off to contractors. But here, we find ourselves blissful, just painting a window frame and listening to the radio.”