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House and Home Magazine

House and Home Magazine

Two designers craft a family cottage that is true to the character of its island setting.

It was no beauty, that old timber-framed box. Stained stone-grey, with pokey little windows and an unremarkable door, it was more like a wooden tent than a cottage – a shelter to return to when you’d had your fill of the beautiful natural surrounds. But it did contain memories, and some salvageable materials, and it had an ideal southern exposure over the waters of Ontario’s Georgian Bay

When residential designer-builder Ray Murakami and Ann Johnston, a designer, bought this island almost four years ago, they decided to retain the wood frame and subfloors of the existing old cottage and tiny adjacent boathouse. Although they have since altered the two buildings considerably to accommodate their young family, both the new owners and the former owner, who now lives just across the lake, get a sense of satisfaction knowing remnants of the quaint little cabins live on.

It’s a two-hour drive north of Toronto, and then a 25-minute boat ride to the island where the original cottage has perched since the late 1950s. The island. a 1-1/2 acre slab of granite shaped like a fish without a tail, looks across the water to a peninsula called Bear’s Head, in the Sans Souci region. “Probably because it’s shaped like a bear’s head,” the couple mused when they first bought the land. Not long after, while sitting on their favourite lookout point, they discover its true namesake, standing on the rock by the water’s edge. “That’s when we knew this place would be adventure,” recalls Ray.

“Ray loves fishing. I love the rock,” says Ann of what brings them here each summer. Their children, Sarah , 7, and Trevor, 5, like it all: fishing trips in the canoe, swimming, watching tadpoles turn into frogs in the sheltered inlet, diving into deep water off smooth stone shelves. There’s even a little sand beach, a rarity in this rugged land. “For a small island it has a lot of character,” Ray says. When they have exhausted nature’s entertainments, the family moves inside for crafts , card games and the still, silent occupation of view watching.

Perfectly situated for the latter activity, the cottage also benefits from being sheltered to the north, west and east by a stand of 2OO-year-old pines. The family spent their first summer living in the original cabin, assessing what renovations and additions would be required, and it was the pines, largely, that told them.

To the main cabin they have added three bedrooms, a dining room, a screened porch and a deck. The new spaces are small but all the family really needs. Determined not to cut down any trees, the couple let the pines dictate the parameters of the additions. “If you look out any window, there is a pine,” Ann says, their trunks anchored in the Canadian Shield like giant tent pegs. Two sprout out of the back deck. When they couldn’t go out any further, they went up, lifting the roof to create a cathedral ceiling over the central living space, with windows in the gable ends to bring in natural light. French doors and a grand stone fireplace, made from rocks they collected on the island, have enlivened the original structure, as has the new kitchen.

When they couldn’t go out any further, they went up, lifting the roof to create a cathedral ceiling over the central living space, with windows in the gable ends to bring in natural light. French doors and a grand stone fireplace, made from rocks they collected on the island, have enlivened the original structure, as has the new kitchen.

Fabrics are an uncontrived potpourri of leaf and feather prints, plaids and solids, all in soft earthy colours. “I love rustic furniture and rustic colours,” says Ann, who in her professional work is known more for traditional elegance. Let loose in a country cabin of her own, however, she confides, “I love twigs, stone, iron, things that are hand, made.” These elements appear throughout. Inserted in the kitchen’s tile backsplash, for instance, are ceramic bears, frogs and other creatures native to the region. The bathroom tile border echoes local foliage while an inlaid pebble border in the floor evokes the surrounding rock.

Wherever possible they worked with local tradespeople and artisans. The kitchen cabinets were painted and antiqued by a local artist and all the wrought-iron accessories were made localy. In keeping with the rustic ambience, wood in the main space remains exposed. However, for the bedrooms and bunkie (the boathouse turned guest cabin) they opted for the more refined look of painted tongue-and-groove panelling.

Ray is no stranger to the cottage aesthetic. His architectuaral firm has built numerous traditional-style clapboard-and-shingle cottages on the Muskoka lakes. He prefers the wilder character of Georgian Bay, however, and wanted to be true to the region’s architecture, where rooflines are lower and houses generally more low-key. When asked what he loves most about his Georgian Bay getaway? “Nothing,” Ray says. “We do so many things in the city, it just so nice to do nothing. It’s idle time not idly spent.