Treasure box

KATE PREECE
Last updated 15:51 29/05/2012

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A small cottage in Akaroa is a true example of shabby chic.

Treasure box

A white picket fence is dwarfed by a beautiful, rambling garden that threatens to spill on to Akaroa's Rue Balguerie. Between the foliage, a shell path leads straight to the door of a sweet two-storey cottage built in 1870. Inside, the rambunctious Molly greets us with a rally of barks, and soon Kirsty Cashmore is at the door, inviting us into the house she's redecorated with European styles in mind.

Inside the front door, the floor is flooded with light. The sun casts its rays from a window high on the landing, all the way down the white wooden stairs. It was this sight that made Kirsty fall in love with the house five years ago, even though the floorboards were in such disrepair the bank manager fell straight through them.

Kirsty, an interior designer, has since transformed the home, which was originally built by Italian immigrant Guiseppe (or Joseph, as he was more commonly known) Vangioni. One of the front rooms once held his son Louis's extensive collection of Maori artefacts.

Joseph, who arrived in Akaroa in 1864, helped build some of the town's roads and the first general store, which he ran until 1903, while Louis was responsible for 1900s' Akaroa tourist attraction Pompey, the penguin. Kirsty says Louis found the yellow-crested penguin at Fisherman's Bay, where it was looking for its mate, which had died. Louis decided to take care of the bird, which spent the next 17 years waddling around the town and has since been immortalised in a range of highly valued china.

There are no penguins in the house today, but rabbits frolic in paintings, a swan acts as a vase, and birds flit across a row of cups on a shelf in the kitchen. The animal theme is accidental, Kirsty says, but it ties in with her love of nature and the dog and four cats in residence.  

The kitchen is the most used area in the house. It's where friends congregate around the table or lounge - wine in hand - on mismatched chairs.
"I hate twee and I hate matching," says Kirsty, who has tied the room together with a duck-egg blue colour scheme.

While Kirsty says Kiwis are averse to covering up wood, she loves to add a lick of paint to any surface, even the floors. "They get worn over time, but that's fine." It all adds to the aged look that resonates throughout her home.

With interesting collections at every turn, it is easy to miss a precious treasure or two. An 1880 Ralph Lauren bag made from flour sacks hangs from a cupboard handle, while a 100-year-old circular cardboard box contains small scrolls of biblical text.

The basic pastel palette, inspired by Scandinavian design, allows for this mix of eras and cultures, but Kirsty doesn't want it marred by new-age gadgetry.

She cannot think of anything worse than a black television taking pride of place in any room. However, she realises it is unwise to stop partner Tom from getting his fill of sport and the news. A solution was developed by an electrician friend. In the kitchen/living area, a push of a discreet button makes a modern black screen rise out of an old cupboard.

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Kirsty doesn't believe lots of fitted cabinets are necessary either, and prefers to use plate racks and wall space instead. In the kitchen, an array of hanging utensils and pots seems to accomplish both practical and aesthetic goals, with a nod to a French-country style.

Linked by a hallway, the five downstairs rooms, including a bedroom, are bursting with prized pieces of furniture and trinkets. An eclectic mix of jugs, candles and cherubs rub shoulders atop tables and shelves throughout the house, creating surprises at every turn. A second glance into a room reveals items previously overlooked - from tin "Allumettes" boxes housing matches in each room, to a collection of fine glass bottles and jars in the upstairs bathroom.

"It's got to the stage where if I get something new, I have to replace something," Kirsty admits, saying an interiors and gift shop she owns and runs in Akaroa is useful as a home for past favourites.

The black-and-white tiled bathroom is Kirsty's favourite room, where she whiles away hours in the claw-footed bath. "I sit in there with my wine, candles and with my books, listening to the sound of the stream at the bottom of the garden." Many of her phone calls are made from there.

Three more bedrooms upstairs bring the home's tally to four. The main bedroom boasts a grand Italian 18th century bed Kirsty found in pieces in an antique yard in Auckland, and sconces, sourced from TradeMe, which match perfectly. The view out the window to Akaroa Harbour would improve any morning, as would leaning out and picking a couple of figs from the branches within reach.

At the top of the stairs, a bedroom nicknamed "the Anne of Green Gables room" is awash with florals. Flowers in various shades of red cover curtains, lampshades and bedspreads, while one wall is a grid of tapestries and embroidery samples, some centuries old. This room could easily be dubbed the red room, which would make the formal dining room downstairs, the silver one.

Lit by an ornate chandelier, candelabras and candles, the front room provides an impressive setting for a dinner party and is great on Christmas day, Kirsty says. A large mirror over a white mantelpiece magnifies the room's dimensions and reflects the dozen flickering flames. The silver double-layer curtains add to a sense of extravagance, with a sheer mesh studded with beads flowing across the floor. However, it is the French kitchen sideboard, circa late 1800s, and its small porcelain drawers, that receives the most attention, even if it's simply to guess the meanings of its French spice labels.

With furniture and decorative items prized for their age, and new items made to look old, Kirsty's home is an undeniable mix of shabby chic and European flair. It does not feel like a home just a short drive from Christchurch; it's far too easy to imagine the Vangionis, their pet penguin, and a time long since past.

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