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House rules

A Rose Bay, N.S. home designer explains why imagination trumps money every time

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Photos: Bruce Murray

Rumour has it that somewhere beneath the deer pasture surrounding Mimi Findlay’s tumbledown, 250-year-old Cape Cod house near Lunenburg, N.S. lies a pot of gold. “More than one,” the self-employed home stylist laughs. Locals say an ancient miner buried nuggets here following the Great Gold Rush of 1861. “Maybe, I should get myself a metal detector.”

Or maybe not. After all, she says, money could violate everything she stands for, which is convenient since she doesn’t have any.

“I love the challenge of not being rich,” says the 67-year-old Ontario transplant, who spent nearly half her life here. She decorates homes, offices, and rentals under the name Rhubarb Home Design and styles photo shoots in Nova Scotia for national magazines like House & Home, Style at Home, Canadian Living, and Chatelaine. “It makes me think outside the box.”

Her point resonates as she prepares, as she does every year, to transform the interior of her 1,250-square-foot seaside abode from its current fall look into a celebration of seasonal splendour at practically no cost.

Her shingles may flap, her sills may rot, but nothing stops her from deploying the tchotchkes, throw pillows, wall hangings, and lampshades she lovingly collects here and there to honour the arrival of winter, Christmas, spring, summer, and autumn. She’s locally famous for it.

“A few weeks ago, a friend of mine dropped by,” Findlay says. “She pointed to a plastic goose I have out in the living room and blurted, ‘Hey, I’ve never seen that before.’ So I said, ‘Yes you have; I just don’t put everything back in the places they were.’ I mean, why would I? Every change in the season is a chance to see everything differently. That’s the whole point: Listen to your space, seize every opportunity, and have no paradigms.”

Zen trope or a sales pitch, you may call these: “Mimi’s House Rules for Better Living” or “Guidance Counselling for Your Home” or, if you like, “How Moxie Trumps Moola.” There is no book but, in a way, she’s been writing something like one for nearly 40 years.

Born and raised in Ontario, the daughter of a man who worked for the power company, she likes to say she’s lived in 35 houses and worked 35 jobs. In 1982, already a talented cook and practiced dabbler in the decorative arts, she settled in Halifax where she and a partner opened a shop selling gourmet pastas, sauces, salads, and kitchen utensils.

Almost overnight, Pastamimi became a hit with patrons and restaurant reviewers. Looking for further adventures, she launched a bed and breakfast and a restaurant, Mimi’s Ocean Grill, in Mahone Bay. These, too, were popular among guests and diners.

By the 1990s, Findlay’s reputation as hotelier, restaurateur, amateur chef, and self-taught interior designer was secure. Margaret Atwood publicly praised her. The late CBC announcer Alan Maitland bought a house near Lunenburg from her. Gourmet Magazine and Frommer’s Travel Guide suggested, not unreasonably, that she was a perpetual motion machine.

Still, she discovered, energy and enterprise are rarely fungible for long. Of the lessons she learned from entrepreneurship, cash flow management was the most visceral. To save the restaurant, she sold the B&B, where she lived. “I lost so much money,” she says. “I was working 18 hours a day and just sort of surfing on friends’ couches. It didn’t really matter to me where I lived.”

Then, in 1998, as she drove herself slowly mad at the Ocean Grill, she noticed a little white house across the small bay from her rented digs in Kingsburg, N.S. She was intrigued.

“It appeared to be on a cliff, always shining in the sun,” she recalls. “After a few months, I asked the next-door neighbour what it was. He told me about the Ovens Park Road, which I had never been on.”

Naturally, she investigated. “I poked around the place, looking in the windows, taking pictures. It was clearly in the throes of some sort of renovation. A lot of things had been done to it. It had new wiring and plumbing.”

In most other ways, though, it was in rough shape. “The toilet was right in the middle of the living room. The upstairs was sealed off. It had birds living in it. Apparently, the owners had run out of money. Boy… I knew what that was like!”

It was, in essence, love at first gasp. There was something about this old Cape Cod house that spoke to her. Something about history and continuity, about survival and resilience, about distinction and individuality. It also didn’t hurt that it was available and, compared with nearby listings, comparatively cheap.

Findlay and a friend (who’s still a silent minority partner in the property) made an offer and sealed the deal. Later, she closed the restaurant and sold its land.

Twenty-one years later, the toilet is in the bathroom and the birds have long since flown their second-floor coop, but the house retains much of its original quality: a certain ruinous vibe, a palpable grace under budgetary pressures. Findlay, herself, has used it as a palette for perfecting the art of home improvement with little or no money.

She has, for example, spent only $4,000 renovating the kitchen, which can accommodate full-course meals in a dining room that seats 10 or more. Throughout, opportunity-seizing and expectation-busting delights abound: a homemade shower box in the downstairs bathroom; an enormous, second-hand armoire in the tiny den that she scored as partial payment for a design gig; brilliant pigments on puny walls; and of course the seasonal baubles, trinkets, and curiosities from friends, rummage sales, and community chests that keep you smiling and thinking, as Findlay might say, “outside the box” all year round.

The character of the place spills into the ample yard where four sheds, which have also seen better days, sit precariously. There, Findlay does her best to give each structure a swatch of colour and a burst of defiant promise to “honour the seasons” without breaking the bank.

“If you have all the money in the world,” she says, “there are a thousand ways you can screw things up.” At least, that’s what she tells herself whenever she looks too closely down the garden path, past the sagging eves and weathered clapboard, to the spot where deer sleep at night.

There’s no point in digging for hidden treasure there, or anywhere else. She’s already found it.

How to break the rules

Refurbishing a modest home shouldn’t be an expensive misery. She’s the only person to win three Nova Scotia Home Design Awards, so Mimi Findlay’s tips are decidedly trustworthy.

On small spaces: Tiny rooms can make you want to keep the décor to a minimum. That’s fine, as long as you avoid making a petite space look empty. There’s nothing wrong with an oversized couch or a giant dresser if these are the right pieces. “Let imagination be your creative guide. Let the space, itself, give you the clues,” says Findlay.

On light and colour: Old houses tend to have dark, dingy spots. You might be tempted to paint everything white. But a nice, rich red can be a perfect accent for long, evening shadows.

On storing and showing: Findlay often styles the same décor pieces for different seasons. Her winter style may feature the same lamp as summer with a shade change. Similarly, keep the throw cushion; just cover it separately for each season.

East Coast Living