Neighbours used to call Harriet Di Maio’s cottage “that horrible orange bach”. They can’t say that any more. Since buying the ramshackle home 10 years ago, Harriet and her husband Giovanni have lovingly restored it, keeping the cool retro vibe while eliminating all signs of orange.
Harriet, an interior designer, and Giovanni, a builder, are the sort of people who love to look at houses and dream. When Harriet’s father died they invested the money he bequeathed her in a little place by the sea. Raglan, with its wild beaches, is just an hour away from their home in the Waikato town of Cambridge.
And that horrible orange bach was the final house the real estate agent showed them after a long day of seeing nothing that appealed.
“We loved it straight away,” recalls Harriet. “We couldn’t even go inside because they didn’t have a key so we just stood on the rickety deck and looked at the incredible view.”
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Inside there was a lot more orange – curtains and carpet. The place was cramped, the shower was in the kitchen, and the window frames were rotting. But it was north-facing and warm, without a hint of damp, and to Harriet it just felt right.
“After we’d bought it we used to drive out sometimes just to sit on the deck and have a picnic and then go home again,” she says.
Family and friends pitched in with the renovation, replacing the ugly old cladding with new weatherboards, and building a spacious new deck. Harriet knew how she wanted the bach to look inside – not too modern and perfect, and most definitely not characterless. “It was always really important that we kept it original so that as soon as you go in, it still feels like a little seaside cottage,” she says.
The usual renovation story is that unseen horrors come to light once work starts. But there was no chipboard or fibrolite hiding here. The carpet came up to reveal beautiful wooden floorboards and behind the kitchen ceiling Harriet and Giovanni were delighted to find a pitched roof with tongue-and-groove lining, and original beams.
“Even though it was a shack, there were all these structural elements I’d have wanted to create that were already there,” she says. “It was so exciting.” Once the interior had been stripped back to the bare bones, she painted all the walls and ceilings white and began collecting treasures to furnish her new holiday home.
“My style is very nostalgic and English,” Harriet says. “It’s based on my slightly rose-tinted childhood memories of family holidays in Norfolk and Dorset with the sound of seagulls and the beach, and little piles of shells everywhere. So I always try to recreate that period.”
One photograph from that era was a particular inspiration. It shows a young Harriet with her brothers and father at a beach hut they used to stay at in Norfolk. To recreate the carefree beachy feel captured in that image, she trawled junk stores and scoured Trade Me for retro items. “The crockery came from op shops and I picked up the little Formica dining table for $20 on Trade Me,” she says. “It was all done on a really tight budget.”
While Giovanni is the builder of the family, Harriet has a flair for bargain hunting then turning trash to treasure. Tired old pieces like the kitchen plate rack and the chest of drawers in the bedroom were spruced up with a coat of paint.
But her very best Trade Me buy is the model yachts displayed on a high shelf in the living area. “They’re beautifully made and so intricate with tiny lifeboats and rafts; and they fit perfectly.”
There is no object so precious here that people can’t relax for fear of breakages and Harriet loves the way holidaymakers who have rented it via Bachcare often rearrange the little displays of shells, adding their own finds, or leave behind their books on the shelves and toys in the boxes beneath the bunk beds.
This place truly is tiny, just two small bedrooms and the living space, but recently the couple invested in an expensive addition: a pergola with a Louvretec roof to shelter the deck.
“The view is so wonderful but we could never sit out there for long because it was just too hot,” says Harriet. “We ummed and aahed for so long about putting a cover over it because I didn’t want the deck to feel closed in. But now it’s great because it’s made a little outdoor room.”
This Kiwi version of a beach hut has been where Harriet has made a lot of wonderful new family memories with her own children Matteo, 13, and Valentina, eight. When they were younger they spent hours exploring the bush at the bottom of the steep section and the whole family used to fit into one big kayak, including Timmy the pug. Now Harriet’s days are spent gathering shells on the beach, going for walks in her gumboots, browsing round the Raglan shops and then watching the sunset from the outdoor bath, often with a glass of wine in hand.
When cousins come to stay a tent is pitched on the deck and mattresses put on the floor, and somehow everyone is fitted in despite the lack of space. “It’s not terribly comfortable,” admits Harriet, “but it’s really nice to have everybody there.”
Harriet is certain her late father would love his legacy – the simple, charming beach house with its stunning, ever-changing view. “Some days the water is like glass, others it’s stormy and wild. In every room you get a bit of view. Even from the bathroom you can look through a tiny window and see the sea.”
Q&A My decorating style:
A gradual build-up of layers and treasures to create a home. I like to start simply and then add different things – for their aesthetic value, or because they make people happy and bring back good memories.
A tip for other homeowners:
You don’t need to spend a fortune to find wonderful things. Work with what you’ve got before you start from scratch. Brand new is not always better – sometimes a little imperfection makes things even more perfect.
The home improvement that caused the most debate:
The TV and dishwasher – I was determined we would all be reading books, and doing dishes by hand. I lost that argument.
My perfect summer’s day:
Is spent on the deck with a cup of tea or glass of wine and a good book. Perhaps a stroll to the beach or shops, or a kayak in the bay.
This summer I’m reading:
Some old favourites such as anything by Dick Francis and PD James, along with the latest Kate Atkinson, Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George. Harriet Di Maio, hdmdesign.co.nz