Homes & Design Photo Credit: Janis Nicolay

Photos: Inside a Mid-Century Modern Christmas Cottage

For designer Ami McKay, the trick to holiday harmony comes in small shapes and sizes—handcrafted and simplified.  

Too often the unspoken holiday soundtrack rings with “there’s still baking to do, guests to plan for and a shiny star that needs hanging upon that highest bough—and those angels on high look more like little devils.” Vancouver designer Ami McKay knows this holiday score: with four kids and a busy interior design career, her life can get insanely busy. But come December, she slows down by keeping things serene and sane—and her home is where it all starts.

Ami McKay Lions Bay Cottage
McKay brings a pared-down ethos to her home in Lions Bay in both the design of the space and the holiday decor. There are hand-made touches throughout, right down to the dining table: her husband, Don Thomas, designed it.

Ami McKay Lions Bay Cottage

There’s a Scandinavian vibe to her cozy seaside cottage in Lions Bay, a pint-sized winterized gem that sits in Howe Sound like a lighthouse offering refuge from the holiday storm. Its spare white-on-white palette eschews the gaudiness and overstimulation of too much decor in favour of simple. “I love Christmas and decorating for Christmas,” says McKay, “but I don’t do a normal, traditional Christmas.” While working with boughs and pretty arrangements comes naturally to her—she was once a florist—pomp and circumstance does not. “We did so many big mansions with my firm,” she explains, “that after many years, I was done with over-the-top, colourful and conventional!” She brings that pared-down ethos to her tiny abode, where a clean, natural and considered approach helps streamline her mind as well as her time.

Ami McKay Lions Bay Cottage
All of the holiday decor is handmade in McKay’s home, from the pompoms the kids crafted from her knitting stash to the hand-tied wreaths and chocolate-dipped marshmallows (below).

Ami McKay Lions Bay Cottage Ami McKay Lions Bay CottageAmi McKay Lions Bay Cottage

“I love natural colours and all winter whites—I just really love layers of clean and simple.”

Nature—in all its utter simplicity—is the focal point of the space. McKay has always loved flowers and plants (“I hate looking at empty pots!”), so harnessing the outdoors is her key to bringing harmony inside. “Things that are collected, curated and handmade over time are what make me happiest,” she says. The benefit of living on the edge of a forest is that McKay and her former furniture-designer and manufacturer husband, Don Thomas, can handily trim cedar boughs and fir branches just steps from their front door, cut down a Christmas tree on the nearby railway line or pick tiny saplings along its tracks to fill pots and planters both inside and out. “I never know what I’m going to come home with!” says this creative forager, her home filled with the fruits of her redolent labour rather than a prepackaged box of potpourri.

Ami McKay Lions Bay CottageAmi McKay Lions Bay CottageAmi McKay Lions Bay Cottage

McKay preps and primes the stage by removing art from the walls and rearranging vignettes so Christmas can be writ large. “I love natural colours and all winter whites—I just really love layers of clean and simple,” she says. Above the fireplace, fresh boughs are bent and tied into variously shaped wreaths that become as artful as the paintings they temporarily replace. A deer that Thomas sourced was painted white and repurposed next to the wreaths above the fireplace. The maple dining table, fashioned by Thomas, features a simple centrepiece with fresh cedar trim left over from the wreath-making, gold votives and doves, and silver patina candlesticks. “I’m so not into polishing anything!” laughs McKay. “I really stand true to the natural: I like the old, the patina, the antique, the mixed gold and silver.”

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Time spent not polishing means more time for family, which is central to enjoying the holidays. McKay and Thomas’s four children—ages 11, 13, 14 and 16—not only help forage outdoors by cutting down the tree, carrying it home and gathering wood (“We live in a small space, so they need to get out!” says McKay), they also pitch in with crafting decorations. A former knitter, McKay had stashes of yarn leftovers as well as wool from her travels to Scotland, so she enlisted the kids and taught them how to make pompoms for the tree. “It was a pompompalooza!” she says. The tree also showcases locally made lace ornaments picked up on Vancouver’s Culture Crawl. “I get weak in the knees for handmade lace,” she says. “When I was younger, I went to Spain and this woman taught me how to make it, so when I saw these tiny crafted decorations, I knew immediately how much work went into them…I appreciate them so much.”

And herein lies the key to peace on earth—McKay’s little slice of earth. It’s appreciation of those meaningful moments with family and a pared down to-do list. To make that happen, “it’s so important for me to create a peaceful environment here,” she says. “We’re all so fortunate to be in Western Canada…I love being here, I love our home—it’s about simplicity and togetherness. We just light a fire in our living room and hunker down for winter.”

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