In the language of decorating, cottage style is the equivalent of your great-aunt's lace handkerchief. Pretty and practical, the style also awakens the senses with eye-pleasing lace trims, the fragrance of candles and sweet-smelling soaps, and wide rocking chairs that welcome body and soul. Classic cottages may sit seaside, decorated with shells and sailboats. Sometimes they're found on the edge of town, covered with vines and flowers and filled with vintage spreads and wicker settees. The style, though, can surface anywhere; it's the attitude that makes a house a cottage.
Today's cottage style often incorporates a soft palette of greens, blues, yellows, and shades of lilac; it may rise to a brighter standard with crisp colors gathered from natural surroundings. Florals are everywhere, in wallpapers, fabrics, and dainty embroidered napkins. Glassware sparkles, whether it's clear or tinged with color. Cottage is serviceable, too, with handy tables, sturdy old beds from the family attic, and bare floors with throw rugs that are easy to sweep and shake out. Think flea markets, fresh flowers, vintage patterns, and a bit of romance, and you've defined today's expression of cottage country. Above all, it's light and airy, fresh and fun, and completely, unequivocally original.
Sue Balmforth loves to surround herself with fresh flowers, but she's quick to point out that there are times when a single bloom has as much impact as a whole bouquet. "Romantic doesn't mean overdone," says the owner of Bountiful, an antiques store and growing enterprise in Venice, California. "In some rooms, romantic means simple and easy." That relaxed attitude is evident throughout this Malibu beach house, where a pine farm table and a crystal chandelier are equally at home.
Sue began developing her signature style with her first antique purchase: an 1870s cowboy dresser she bought when she was 13 years old. Years later, when she moved from Bountiful, Utah, to Los Angeles, she took a job traveling with The Pointer Sisters. Soon she was spending days on the road antiquing with Ruth Pointer. "She was my partner in crime," Sue says. "Wherever we went, the two of us went antiquing." In 1991, Sue decided to start an antiques business of her own.
At first, she sold country pieces from her apartment and at a local flea market. Eager to find and sell "real" antiques, she flew to Orlando, rented an 18-foot truck, and shopped her way back home. "If I was excited about something, I bought it," she says. Now, in addition to her 12,000-square-foot antiques store, she also has a lighting workshop, a furniture restoration studio, an art gallery, frame shop, and a penchant for selling architectural fragments.
Sue also designs her own lines of custom mirrors framed in ceiling tin or barn board, as well as lampshades and pillows fashioned from lace, tapestries, and vintage fabrics. For decorating her own home or those of her clients, she relies on favorite touches. She places loose arrangements of flowers throughout the house, enlisting ironstone pitchers as vases. Victorian floral paintings are framed in old barn wood or fluted Victorian trim molding.
And she uses wicker furnishings indoors and out for a light, casual mood. The finishes, too, are easy and comfortable, with paint and rough textures mixed with smooth cottons and crystal candlesticks. Chandeliers, a personal favorite, are something of a hallmark for Sue, who has more than 100 hanging in her shop. "They are my greatest extravagance," she says. Like her easy and romantic mix of cottage elements, "they turn the country look into something special."
To incorporate some of Sue Balmforth's signature elements of cottage decorating, try these simple techniques.