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Inside a lovingly renovated Victorian cottage filled with modern style

After many years living abroad, a small but perfect Auckland cottage caught the homeowner’s eye

After years of working abroad, Gretchen Young knew exactly the kind of home she wanted to live in when she returned home to New Zealand: sun-drenched, character-filled and close to all the action in central Auckland.

It didn’t take long for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom Victorian cottage in Ponsonby to catch her eye. The fact that it was just 85sqm was a boon – after all, she was an outgoing 30-year-old career woman who wanted to spend her spare time with friends, not cleaning empty rooms and bathrooms.

“I’m busy with work and not home a lot, so the last thing I need is more space, which equates to more mess and cleaning. This was the perfect space for this time in my life, but the fact that it was sunny was the clincher for me. I was looking for sunshine so when I went to the open home and saw it was north facing, I hardly even looked at the house – I just walked in, saw the sunshine and knew I liked it,” she laughs.

In a strategic move, she didn’t go back and view the property again because she didn’t want the real estate agent to know she was interested. “Instead, I arrived late to the auction, stood at the back and only placed one bid – the very last one,” she says.

The strategy paid off and Gretchen has been happily soaking up the sunshine here ever since.

A love of design

However, the house Gretchen saw that first day isn’t the house it is today. With her considered eye and careful approach, Gretchen has slowly renovated the home to suit her style – something she took great pleasure in doing because it allowed her to indulge in her love of design.

“Interior design is a passion of mine, borne out of my travels where I got to see so many perfect homes that were all entirely different and had very different budgets. The thing I love about interior design is the feeling you experience when all the elements combine to create a magical space. You could be in a thatched hut on a beach in Brazil and the feeling you get in that hut can be similar to the feeling you get in an extravagant home on the French Riviera. There’s magic when you get the combination of form, line, texture, light, colour and pattern right, but it’s not easy to do. It doesn’t matter how much you spend, if you get it wrong you can be left with a sterile environment,” she says.

Gretchen studied interior design at Sydney Design School while living in Sydney a few years ago. She also completed the Three Birds Renovations School, including a visit to creative director Bonnie’s “Dream Home”.

“Three Birds was just starting their reno-school. I was renovating my Ponsonby bathroom and kitchen from afar, so I decided it was a good idea to learn a bit from them. I learnt a lot, even down to small details like choosing handles and grout, which are my kryptonite.”

The renovation

You’d imagine a design lover like Gretchen would revel in a renovation, taking her time to mull over decisions and materials, but that wasn’t the case when an unexpected discovery saw her renovating her kitchen and bathroom from Sydney, where she’d temporarily moved for work.

“One tile came off the bathroom wall and it revealed water damage behind the tiles. The next thing you know I was doing a full bathroom renovation, and then mid-way through I decided to rip up the kitchen too,” Gretchen says. “It was really hard choosing tiles over Facetime walking in between meetings, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it. I was working really long hours and had to rely on the project manager to make some of the decisions. I flew back a couple of times and it was so much easier seeing everything in person, but I definitely didn’t get to live my design dreams the way it happened.”

Gretchen went for classic white for both the bathroom and kitchen to make them look fresh and in keeping with the period of the home. She chose a black framed shower to add interest in an otherwise white room. “I like that the shower glass is framed like a piece of art. It also complements the black handles I have in the kitchen for continuity,” she explains.

Just recently, Gretchen has replaced the bathroom flooring, using a material that is relatively new to New Zealand. “After a lot of research, I found the flooring I really liked was microcement. I used Isaac Tucker from Solid State Concrete to install it – he’s an expert in it, having recently returned from Europe where it is frequently used. I love the final result. It’s really soft and flat to walk on, yet you see the texture of the trowel lines. I like that it doesn’t have grout lines, which can get dirty and gather mould. It gives that very unique artisanal look and feel, and I am really happy with it.”

Gretchen also recently updated the wooden kauri flooring that runs throughout the house – the varnish had yellowed over the years.

“I worked with a team at North Shore Floor Sanding to strip it back to its raw and original colour, and then we trialled about four different tones of whitewash. Originally, I wanted to paint it completely white but the flooring specialist was a purist and advised me against it. I ended up taking his advice and going for the natural look. I am happy with the warmth it throws,” she says.

A considered style

Inspired by art, culture and history, Gretchen says her decor style is a mix of contemporary and classic to create interest and edge. With one eye on a budget and the other fixed firmly on a beautiful home, Gretchen says she makes it work by buying a few really nice designer pieces and working around them; designing things herself and then getting them custom made; and hunting down classic vintage finds.

“My lamp from Babelogue in the dining room was a good vintage find. It is like a piece of art to me. It is so unique; I have never seen anything like it. I’m a lover of light and I turn it on day and night because I love the ambience it gives my home. I also adore my side table from Babelogue. I love the mix of travertine and glass – natural materials are so perfectly imperfect and ground any home. I use the table to place some of my other arty objects, which I have mainly sourced from Simon James or Flotsam & Jetsam; I’m always moving them around and mixing it up,” she says.

Some items in her home have come from unexpected places. Like the Ghastly Studios candelabra, which was originally sourced for a client of hers.

“It looked perfect in his home, however when I went over there one day and saw it sitting outside with washing draped over it, I got the hint he wasn’t quite as into it as I am. So I took it to my loving home,” she laughs.

When Gretchen has a specific piece in mind but can’t source it or it’s out of budget, she thinks creatively. She couldn’t find a headboard for her bedroom that she liked so she designed one and had it made by an upholsterer. Wanting art for her walls but with all spending on hold while she saves to buy a business, Gretchen instead picked up a paint brush to create her own.

“I like to paint in my spare time; I find it really relaxing and fun. I am not an artist per se but I love playing with colour, form, composition and creating texture. When I am ready I will be hitting up the art fairs across the ditch as I love Australian artists.”

Taking it outside

In summer Gretchen flings the doors of the kitchen open and lays a big Persian rug out on the deck to make it into an outdoor lounge. “I’m all about creating feeling in a space and that goes for the outdoors too. I mainly use the outdoor space in summer. I’ll often spend the afternoon out here while friends pop in for drinks and nibbles.”

The previous owners planted cycads and bird of paradise, which add to the lush tropical vibe, but Gretchen has her heart set on a more traditional style garden. “Eventually I would like the garden to be more classic with English varieties, which will complement the style of the home. I’d love to create more of an enclosed oasis in the backyard with a green wall along the back fence and a plunge pool.

Future plans

This perfectly petite property has served Gretchen well over the past decade. “I think living away from home for so long gave me a real yearning for home and all of what that encompasses. Home is so much more than just a roof over your head. It is a base, security, your social network, a place for inspiration and your place to retreat to. I’m grateful that this home feels like a retreat, and that it’s comfortable and reflects who I am,” she says.

Words by: Debbie Harrison. Photography by: Helen Bankers.

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