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This interior designer stamped her mark on a rental property

An interior designer shows how she stamped her mark on a rental property and turned it into home

Meet & greet

Mary (self-employed interior designer and artist) and Matt Tapsell (executive chef), and their daughters Rosemary, six, Olive, three, and Daisy, one.

The property

Three-bedroom attached rental unit in Bucklands Beach, Auckland.

For Mary Tapsell, home should be a calm and comfortable place – a sometimes tricky proposition when you don’t own the property you live in. But the interior designer, artist and mother of three, has turned transforming a rental into an art form, creating soothing spaces for her family without interfering with the integrity of a house.

Two years ago, when Mary saw the attached unit in a beachy East Auckland suburb, she knew this would work for her, husband Matt and their girls.

At just 120sqm, it wasn’t big, but it had three bedrooms and features she instantly liked – new flooring, pale walls, an open-plan layout and a deck. It helped that downstairs there was an office and second bathroom. Then she set about stamping her mark on the unit using all her design experience, which includes decor for cafes.

With many New Zealanders living in rental properties, Mary’s simple tips and tricks to make a house a home are gold.

Makeover magic

The house already felt fresh, but Mary had something to make it feel even more light, bright and breezy – curtains. She uses her own sets in rental properties, and so up went sheers in the main living area. “It’s a small space and white sheer curtains work really well,” she says.

Her style, she adds, is one of continuity – especially in small spaces – and without clutter. “You should be able to decompress and become calm. Clutter doesn’t enable that.”

She’s a fan of neutrals, and rejects the notion that these are inevitably less than exciting. “A neutral colour palette doesn’t mean boring. Play around with textures and tones, bring elements of the outdoors inside and ultimately, create a space that you can’t wait to come home to.”

In this house, interest and texture is introduced through art, punches of colour and organic shapes. In Mary’s three-dimensional artworks, which hang in her home, texture is introduced through plaster. Spatulas and other tools are used to create intriguing surfaces.

“I keep it very organic and use a loose hand to create soft peaks and lines. I chose paint colours that were in keeping with the neutral and earthy tones of the furniture, so it merged beautifully together.”

Art doesn’t have to be perfect, she says. “I think it should bring whatever tone you want to bring to the space, whether that is calming and fluid or bold and energetic.” If you don’t want to create pieces yourself, she says, then find something that “makes you feel a certain way and your eye is drawn to it every time you are in that space”.

Shades and shapes

A natural, light palette doesn’t mean a dearth of colour. Here, Mary has chosen one colour to stand out in each room, such as the deep, earthy orange in cushions and throws in the living room, and gold in lampstands and mirror frames. It’s a way of defining and introducing personality to each space without interrupting the continuity. “For small spaces, ensure every room flows through to the next and be mindful of what the eye can see in each room. In our home, standing in the dining room means you look straight into our bedroom, so I made sure the design of the bedroom tied in seamlessly with the design of the dining and living space.”

Mary concedes that light, creamy tones are not for everyone – it’s all about finding out what makes you feel relaxed. “Once you know what that is, whether it is neutrals, luxurious rich colours, natural elements or greenery, then play with that and keep the theme throughout your home.”

Form also plays an important part of Mary’s style, as evidenced in the curvy mirrors and vases. “I love using abstract shapes,” she says.

Make mine magic

When it comes to making and adapting pieces for her home, Mary is a whiz. There’s her art, of course, but she’s also turned her hand to other projects. One of her favourites is her DIY organic-shaped bedhead.

To craft it, she drew out the shape she wanted onto plywood – this took a few attempts – then used a jigsaw to cut it out. She traced around it onto some foam, cut that out, and then using liquid nails, attached the foam to the plywood. She then drew the headboard shape (plus an extra 10cm) onto linen, cut it out, and using a staple gun, tightly attached it to the base. She loves the headboard, and it’s something she can take with her if she has to move.

Another trick Mary has devised for adding personality and fun to rental properties is wall decals and stickers. For her girls’ bedrooms, she created flowers and spots to match their bedding on Adobe Illustrator, then had them printed. These have added a fun, lively dimension to the rooms and, of course, can be removed when the family leaves.

There’s more: Mary bought $20 terracotta pots from The Warehouse, then painted and sponged them in a cream colour for a textured effect. You’ll find these dotted around the home.

The little things

In keeping with the clutter-free and calm theme in her modest-sized home, Mary has storage solutions for the girls’ rooms, including a toy trunk. In Rosemary’s room, the wardrobe has been turned into a cupboard with cube storage. In Olive and Daisy’s room, toys and teddies are stored in easy-to-retrieve big bags from Adairs and stored under the bunk bed.

She has other tricks up her sleeve. “Strategically place your furniture to ensure you are making the most out of your spaces and create a feeling of relaxation for your guests,” she says. “Don’t place chairs with the backs to doorways or walkways as it doesn’t give a relaxing feel for the person sitting there. Move your furniture around and reorder rooms until it feels right.”

In the couple’s bedroom, where room is at a premium, “you couldn’t fill it up with furniture, but something like a headboard can bring a smaller space to life”.

Words by: Fiona Barber. Photography by: Babiche Martens

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