Photography: Janis Nicolay
This sun-drenched cottage on B.C.’s South Pender Island puts a whole new spin on a white Christmas.
Step into Carrie McCarthy's Scandi-white cottage on South Pender Island, B.C., and you might assume she’s a staunch minimalist – but you’d be wrong. “I love abundance and classic red and green for Christmas in the city,” says the designer and stylist, who lives in Vancouver with her husband, real estate developer Cameron Thorn, and their nine-year-old son, Leighton. “But the island is so light and serene. It makes sense that the cottage decor reflects that.”
Carrie’s less-is-more approach extends beyond the decor to the very cottage itself. In 2006, when she and Cameron bought the two-and-a-half-acre lot – dreamily set on the edge of a mountain road overlooking a valley – they planned on building a 2,400- square-foot second home. “I thought it would be a good idea to start small,” she says. “So we built this open-plan 850-square- foot guest cottage to start with, and we’re still here.”
The family ferries to the idyllic retreat year-round, but during the holidays, the getaway becomes more than a respite from the city. “South Pender Island is a magical place to spend Christmas,” says Carrie. “It’s so quiet, restful and unbelievably peaceful, offering the kind of serenity only nature can.”
It was fitting, then, that nature was the starting point for decking out the space for Christmas. “I love a real tree and we always for- age one from our property,” says Carrie, referring to the charming scrawny firs that dot her land. And her hunter-gatherer approach to decorating extends inside. “Each year, I walk around the cottage, see what’s in storage and try to use things we already have, like an old tray or pottery, in different ways.” She layers in thrift store finds and ornaments that range from vintage to homemade, including treasured ones created by her father-in-law.
All of these details set the stage for the family’s annual Christmas Eve traditions: “We have hot chocolate and mulled wine and unwrap one present before bed. In the morning, we open stockings, go for a hike, return for breakfast, then unwrap gifts.” A log fire is lit, CBC radio plays and the Monopoly board is set up and ready for a day of family time before friends arrive for dinner. “This kind of simplicity is the ultimate luxury,” says Carrie, “especially at Christmas.”
Just don’t call her adept mix of minimalism and merrymaking a lesson in design. “There are lots of rules in design, and I say, ‘break them!’ I still love the chintz, dark wood and rich colours of our Vancouver home, but Christmas needs to be authentic, and that’s just what our serene little cottage is.”
A sketch torn from an antique book depicts a scene quite similar to the family’s annual Christmas Day celebrations right here at the cottage.
On the patio just off this cottage’s living area, the picnic table is a popular perch, especially over the holidays. “When it’s cold, we sit out here wrapped in blankets with mugs of hot chocolate and enjoy the peace and quiet,” says homeowner Carrie McCarthy, pictured with her nine-year-old son, Leighton Thorn, who calls the spot his happy place.
In the airy double-height living area, defined by a striking streamlined wood-burning fireplace, a black chandelier makes a bold statement. Of the Christmas tree chopped from the surrounding forest, Carrie says, “I don’t know what kind it is, but its sparseness works here.”
Family ties define this earthy vignette: Finished with a new marble top, the metal coffee table frame hails from Carrie’s grandparents’ farm, while her father-in-law made the wooden tray.
“The linen sofa’s bench-like shape is perfect for napping,” says Carrie. The privacy of the woodsy setting allows the windows to remain unadorned.
Carrie shows off her resourcefulness by skirting the tree with an old army blanket and wrapping gifts with drawing paper and some ribbon remnants.
Throughout the open-concept main level, a polished concrete floor adds unexpected warmth – literally. “It’s heated and can be controlled remotely, so it’s toasty when we arrive,” says Carrie. The sleek dining table in the kitchen is a door from IKEA that she repurposed by adding stainless steel legs.
Carrie created a studio feel in the small kitchen with white cabinetry, floating shelves and industrial stainless steel. During the holidays, she loves to cook hearty dishes like casseroles.