Catherine Clark and Edward Mowbray thought they had the perfect home for their young family. Located in Halifax’s gracious South End, it was spacious, at 3,900 square feet, on a generous corner lot and surrounded by mature shady trees.
There was a living room that no one lived in, a dining room that no one dined in (except during special occasions), and more bedrooms than people. As for the yard, fledgling golfers Catherine and Edward preferred the short trim grass at Brightwood Golf and Country Club. They started to dread autumn because it meant spending every weekend raking leaves.
there is more art than furniture and each piece needs to breathe
Then, when the kids started flying reconnaissance missions from the nest, first Emma and then Luke, the couple decided it was time to downsize. Soon there were epic yard sales and Kijiji shoppers at the door, haggling over household items and furniture accumulated over 10 years in the now much-too-big and no-longer-perfect-for-them home.
A move to a smaller home, a narrow row house in the same neighbourhood, at half the size, signaled a fresh start. For Ray Frizzell of Ray Frizzell Design, their trusted interior consultant and friend, it was a challenge to create a modern space in a Victorian box. The moving van arrived nearly empty, bringing only a set of eight red parsons chairs, a massive custom-made carpet (that would be cut into smaller pieces for the upstairs bedrooms) and an extensive art collection.
Art—along with golf, cooking and entertaining—are shared passions for the couple who both work for CBC Television. Catherine is a producer for the network’s flagship newscast The National and Edward is the digital content manager.
“I found it very freeing to let go of stuff we had forever and never used,” says Catherine, a self-confessed homebody. She sits with her legs tucked under her on a sofa on the back deck. With space at a premium inside, the back deck extends the living space just off the kitchen in warmer weather.
Sometimes her job calls her away to faraway places at a moment’s notice, so she appreciates her time at home, surrounded by her family (the twenty-something children have boomeranged back home for the time being) and beautiful things—make that beautiful and functional things. “Because the house is tiny, everything has to have a function,” Catherine says. “If you couldn’t sit on it, sleep in it or store something in it, it was gone.”
Often pieces have two purposes: like the bed in the middle bedroom, which aside from a cowhide chair, is the only piece of furniture in the room. Made by the Italian company Calligaris (available through Statement on Agricola Street in Halifax), the fully upholstered bed easily flips open to store extra bedding and blankets.
Built-ins, designed by Frizzell and constructed by Genuine Kitchens in Dartmouth, cover one entire wall of the room, keeping clothing for two busy professionals tidy and out of sight. “When I go to bed at night, I fall in love with my bedroom all over again,” says Catherine. “I feel like I’m in a cocoon.”
The key to decorating a small house, says Frizzell, is to maintain simplicity and provide a flow from room to room, “so that you can look from one room to the next and feel connected.” The rooms upstairs, for example, look like they belong together because of the contemporary furnishings set against rustic spruce floors, the area carpets with the same distinctive spiral motif and the heavy striped chenille drapes at the windows.
Downstairs, light neutral walls, textured ivory drapes and bare floors are constants from room to room. And in each room, there’s a dash of red for a little bit of spice: the red chairs in the dining room; the upholstered bench in the front hallway; and the red patterned pillows on the grey tuxedo sofa in the living room.
There is no clutter. Kitchen countertops are gleaming and free of appliances. There are no surfaces to collect the detritus of daily life. The black marble fireplace mantels in the living and dining rooms are graced with spare, artful arrangements.
“There can’t be a lot of extras because of the art,” says Edward. “In this house, there is more art than furniture and each piece needs to breathe, and have the space to be considered.”
Art takes centre stage in every room, from the commanding Gerald Ferguson canvas in the front hall and the monumental David Askevold photograph in the dining room. Both late artists were influential teachers at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) as the art college gained international recognition in the 1970s.
In the kitchen, a small acrylic resin sculpture by Halifax emerging artist Jessica Korderas has a place of honour under the window; it’s like a three-dimensional short film, capturing scenes of strangers’ lives through the windows of an apartment building. “I feel like I see something new in it every time I look at it,” says Edward. “And I look at it often.”
Their collection also includes paintings by P.E.I.’s Brian Burke and New Brunswick artists Raymond Martin, Roméo Savoie and Jack Bishop; favourite Halifax galleries for browsing include Gallery Page and Strange, Studio 21 Fine Art and Secord Gallery.
The home reflects the owners’ engagement as serious art collectors, but that doesn’t mean Frizzell couldn’t have fun with the décor. There’s a sense of whimsy in the pink Louis XV chair that sits like an exclamation mark in the living room. And those red parsons chairs stacked on shelves flanking both sides of the fireplace when they’re not in use.
Also in the dining room is a slick black lacquer table that Frizzell designed and had custom built by Genuine Kitchens; it sits dark and shining like an inverted U over a rustic sideboard, an unexpected touch that brings a 200-year-old piece of well-worn Canadiana into the here and now.
“And come see this,” says Catherine, leading the way to the downstairs powder room, with its black and silver wallpaper, mod chandelier and mirror-faced vanity. It’s so over-the-top ’70s discotheque that you almost expect to bump into Andy Warhol on his way out. “Isn’t it a treasure?” she asks, clearly delighted. “Like a jewel box.”
“You’ve got to have fun if you’re going to bring sharp, edgy modern things into a 1890s Victorian box with crooked walls and slanting floors,” says Frizzell. “When you’ve got a piece like that pink chair, for example, what it declares is that this place isn’t uptight. Catherine and Edward are cool [and] definitely not too serious.”
So, do they now have the perfect house? Catherine doesn’t hesitate with her answer. “Yes! I love this house,” she says. “I love opening the front door and arriving home. I love that we live in every room. I love to cook in that gorgeous kitchen. I love that I light the candles and we sit down to dinner in the dining room every night and catch up with each other.”
Edward is not nearly as definitive. “Have you seen Ray’s house?” he asks. “I think I’m actually having a kind of a mid-century, Mad Men jag. Even when you’re happy with what you have, I don’t think you ever stop looking.”