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Renovation: Art does the talking

Surrounded by modern art and a chic black-and-white palette, Judith Mackin’s home in Saint John, N.B. is the perfect canvas for sleek design.

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Designer Judith Mackin marries her love of minimalist design with expressive artwork in her home in Saint John, New Brunswick.

To view our photo gallery of Judith’s home, click here.

Judith Mackin and Robert Moore’s home in Saint John, New Brunswick is full of striking contrasts. From outside, its large size and tidy lawn make it seem like any other heritage home in its quiet city neighbourhood. But stepping inside, its edgy black-and-white colour scheme, vibrant modern art and rustic handmade furniture immediately set it apart.

Situated on historic Mount Pleasant Avenue, the house is a 10-minute walk from the city centre, close to shops and restaurants. At the end of the street is Rockwood Park, the largest city park in Canada. “It’s one of the most coveted streets to live on in Saint John,” Judith says. “Our neighbour is the Red Rose Tea house—it’s a beautiful brick house. There’s a lot of heritage and meaning on this street.”

The couple’s 4,000-square-foot home dates from before the Great Fire of Saint John in 1877. It was originally a two-family dwelling, with one large flat upstairs and one on the ground floor.

When they purchased the house in 2009, they didn’t plan on living in it. “We bought it for rental income,” Judith says. “But as we started spending more time here, we changed our minds…Over a couple glasses of wine, we thought, why not gut it out and move here?”
The project turned into an eight-month renovation, converting the house into a single dwelling. “We sold our other house and moved into our current home in October 2009,” Judith says. The space now boasts five bedrooms, two bathrooms, matching front parlours and a custom-built library.

The couple liked the original structure of the house but not its small dark rooms. They tore down several walls and created a great room—one large gathering area joining the dining room and kitchen. “The problem was there were a lot of doorways,” Judith recalls. “We ended up covering four doorways and making them into walls. We had to really make space for the art—that was the biggest challenge.”

Passionate about contemporary design and art, Judith put her personal style into the décor. She owns Punch Inside Interior Design, an offshoot of her Saint-John based marketing and event-planning company, Punch Productions. Robert is a professor of English at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus as well as an actor, director and playwright.

Their shared appreciation for literature also inspired their décor choices.  “It’s about poetic license and using things that make you think about beauty in a different way,” says Judith. “Robert is a poet and we incorporate some of his poems into the design as well.” One of his poems takes shape in modern vinyl lettering, gracing a panel in the downstairs hallway.

Black and white are key colours. “I like the black-and-white austerity and that sense of style and design,” says Judith. “I’m not an earth-toney type of girl.” Apart from three black accent walls, the walls and trim are white, creating an ideal canvas for displaying the couple’s formidable art collection.

“Eighty per cent of our art is from New Brunswick artists,” Judith says, noting her history of running artist-run galleries and curating art shows. “The art injects colour and texture where needed. We’re art addicts and we have over 500 pieces. We’re fans of Suzanne Hill, Ricks Burns, Chris Lloyd, Fred Ross and Gordon Jennings. We also have a lot of paintings and sculpture by Robert’s late brother, Doug Moore.”

One standout piece in the home is the large self portrait by Gordon Jennings in the great room. The oil painting depicts the artist wearing a Taekwondo helmet and holding a gun. The strong image is a great conversation piece. “We enjoy paintings that have something to say,” Judith says. “Art’s purpose is to make us think. It’s about creating an interesting conversation element in a room as well.”

Judith’s decorating style also involves playing with unexpected designs and patterns, including dabbling in the macabre. “We have features throughout the house reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously,” she says. “We like to throw in an unexpected twist, like the skull wallpaper in our kitchen and the wallpaper of flies in the bathroom. Both are by the wallpaper design collective, Rollout. Who would think flies would be beautiful but it is.”

Another off-centre yet whimsical element is the plastidermy deer head by Science and Sons (a Toronto design firm), that sits above the fireplace in the front parlour. “It just seems to float over the fireplace,” says Judith. She and Robert gutted the fireplace and applied white marble tile, salvaging the mantelpiece from another home in the city.

Robert turned one bedroom into a three-walled, floor-to-ceiling library. “When people visit our house, it’s the real showstopper and Robert built it himself,” Judith says, noting that the renovation was a family effort. “Our son and daughter also helped, removing walls and stripping wallpaper. We restored all of the walls back to their original state and all of the original plaster, a credit to our
plasterer Tom Walker.”

Throughout the house, Judith mixes rustic East Coast statement furniture with high-design pieces. The primitive wooden drawers between the living room and the library once held pottery tools from Deichmann’s pottery studio in New Brunswick. The historic studio was a pioneer of studio ceramics in Canada. Judith created a seating area with two bright-red Eames chairs in front of the eclectic drawers.

In the dining room, a large table by New Brunswick furniture designer Bruce Gray is the focal point. The table has special meaning for the couple. “It was the first piece Robert and I bought together,” Judith says. “We went to Bruce’s studio in Fredericton and actually picked out the two slabs of elm.”

Its angled front edge is actually a removable sideboard. “People often skimp on the dining room table but when you think about it, a lot
happens at that table,” Judith says, noting that the table was an investment of $6,500. “It’s something we’ll pass down to our kids.”
Keeping her mantra of blending rustic with modern, Judith has a fun stylish lamp from Ikea over the dining table. “People go crazy for it and it cost $90,” she says. “I mix and match high-end pieces with smaller more inexpensive pieces.”

Ultimately, the house showcases the level of design and care Judith and Robert put into their home and their commitment to using local
suppliers. “We try whenever we can to support local stores and companies,” Judith says. “Like Terra Verde in Moncton, MNO Pottery in Oak Point and Attica in Halifax. Much of our art is from Peter Buckland Gallery in Saint John. If we can’t get something here, then we look regionally and then nationally.”

Along the way, the couple found special joy in decorating the space to suit their own tastes. “When you are designing your own space, there’s no client. You can just let your personality shine.”

Judith’s Top Five Design Dos

  1. EDIT YOUR SPACE: Start with an empty room and only add what is beautiful and necessary. Just because you own it, doesn’t mean you should display it. Good design needs room to breathe.
  2. EXPRESS YOUR CREATIVITY: Don’t trump your personal taste for someone else’s idea of what is trendy or hip. Judith went with a black-and-white palette because she loved how it set off her artwork.
  3. PICK ORIGINAL ART: Collect art that speaks to you on a personal level. Judith thinks art is a necessity, not a luxury. She chooses a piece for the emotional connection it gives her.
  4. MIX IT UP: Display smaller-ticket items with more expensive pieces. Well-designed items of various price points can work together in a space. A few things are worth large investment, such as the dining room table and appliances.
  5. PREPARE TO MAKE MISTAKES: Judith tried painting one wall bubble- gum pink, as a nod to designer Karim Rashid. “It looked awful,” she recalls, noting that she painted it back to white. “But it was worthwhile. Only by taking a step in the wrong direction are you likely to find your way to the correct destination.”

To view the photo gallery, click here.