My Croatian grandfather built my family’s holiday house himself almost 50 years ago. The original one-room bungalow was extended little by little as the family grew and we now stay in what was once the old car garage, built at the end of the land. It had a shower room and tiny kitchenette in one corner but it was home to spiders and old, dusty furniture. A couple of years ago my mother gave my brother and I the challenge (all be it a very pleasant one) of transforming it into a space that is a joy to stay in for our families.
There is very little to buy on the island itself and choice is limited on the mainland near us too, so make do and mend and recycling have played a large part on how we have approached the transformation. People keep their furniture and pass it on, so there are no flea markets or junk shops and we have had to be inventive. I thought I would share some photos I took this summer as it shows how you can decorate when choice is limited and you are on a small budget. It combines all of my loves – homemade, upcycled, vintage finds, family art and found treasures – alongside new items carefully selected from supermarkets, DIY stores and the high street.
My grandparents used these slatted chairs and table for as long as I can remember and we sat around it for dinner when I was little. I discovered this summer that they were originally salvaged by my grandfather in the 1960s from a restaurant of a friend on the island who was throwing them out. The friend’s granddaughter is a friend of mine from the island who also returns each summer and our children now play together. We screwed the rickety old chairs back together and painted them in a pale greeny-grey eau de nil, I love the colour and have painted any available furniture the same shade. This is so it all mixes and matches and means we can move things around to suit our needs. The panel on the wall is driftwood, fished out of the sea while out on a walk. I let it dry out, painted it with white emulsion paint and hung it on the wall to add some texture and character. I draped it with fairy lights which look beautiful at night. I love their twinkle in the evening and how the slats mirror the table below it.
I brought this simple porcelain table light over from England after I found it in the B&Q sale. Pebbles from the beach, succulents from the garden and other little objects all make it feel like home.
The sofa-bed above is a relic from the past but with no easy way of replacing it, I simply covered it with a large piece of cheap canvas and tucked in the sides, although I have been meaning to buy upholstery pins to keep the fabric in place.The cushions are variations of ones that I made in The Homemade Home. They are simple envelope style covers in complementary, natural shades of linen and hessian with buttons and ribbon as decoration. I took measurements of the old cushion pads one year and then made covers back at home before returning. The grain sacks were car boot sale buys and the linen beach bag is from Zara Home that I took out with me in my luggage.
To make cushions and lavender bags like these see the projects in my book, which have step-by-step instructions and illustrations.
The main room above used to be the car garage and the room through the door is the old water cistern. As there was no mains water, all the houses had huge concrete boxes to store rain water collected over winter which would then supply you with water over the summer months. When the house was connected to the new water supply, the old water tank became unnecessary so we knocked through and made a new room with a terrace. My brother and husband white-washed throughout and we had the floor inside and out tiled in basic pale grey.
These heart-shaped stones are made from discarded porous building blocks that had washed to shore, shaped into hearts by my children and husband by rubbing them on the rocks. The small white one is a cuttle fish bone and fashioned in the same way. I painted this cheap, pine drawer unit the same green and added a handle that I had bought in Anthrolopolgie in London and brought over with me, along with one of my car boot sale purchases – an old clock face! The branch is from the garden and I made little beads from air-drying clay to hang from the branches.
This is a variation of the wired button vases project from The Homemade Home that I made from an old jar whilst I was out there.
Above is a display that we love. My little boy found an old bird’s nest that had fallen out of a tree (no eggs or birds in sight). We put it in a bowl and he ran to the beach and found three little, smooth pebbles that look like eggs! The green objects below are sea urchin skeletons, so fragile and delicate in colour, that my family found whilst snorkelling.
The kitchen area is old and minimal (we hope to replace it next year when a new Ikea opens in Zagreb) and there is a large shelving unit that we moved to divide it from the bedroom area in the main room. As our choice was limited and things were going to be on display I chose simple, classic, neutral items that would all sit together and blend with the overall room. Plain white china, clear glasses, kilner jars, stainless steel and natural wood utensils. We got them all on day trips to the mainland by just being selective from the local big supermarkets and home stores like Konzum, Pevec and Baumax. The vintage metal milk pail was my grandmother’s.
Making displays from simple everyday items means you know where things are. I chose nice bottles and packaging and we found simple pine wood boxes which are perfect for storing art materials and other things. The vintage enamel jug and mug are more finds from my grandmother.
For the new terrace we managed to find some contemporary wooden furniture in a DIY store that we liked and that was really good value. I bought the vintage-look graphic towels from H&M Home and took them over. You can also see walls made by my grandfather from the hundreds of rocks that were cleared from the ground before it could be used. This is common here and the island is covered in these rock walls that help divide the plots of land.
In the bedroom area the mosquito net works on a practical level, stopping the mozzies from nibbling us while we sleep, but also acts as a soft curtain around the bed helping divide it from the main living area. I found the linen throw, printed with an old drawing of a ship, in Anthropologie and couldn’t resist it.
We have struggled to find wardrobes, so this year we simply put a broom handle on the wall to hang clothes. Two of my favourite handbags are in this shot, both by Ally Capellino that I bought at her fabulous sample sales. The Standard Goods bag is used for storage and was bought from H&M Home. The little vintage donkey was given to my daughter by a kind lady at a little bric-a-brac market in Zadar last year when she showed a penchant for it.
This collection of books and tins all came from my grandmother’s apartment in Zagreb, that my mother found when she was tidying up there. There were some very old sweets still in the tin! The tube at the back is my mother’s old kaleidoscope from when she was a child and the little clock is one that sat upon her desk when she was studying.
This old cabinet was found discarded on the side of the road, fixed up by husband and given a lick of paint in my favourite colour and decorated with plastic vintage characters and wind up children’s torches (the penguin and ladybird). I made the banner hanging on the wall to decorate the children’s room with a nautical theme. The base fabric is linen and the shapes had fusible web ironed on to the reverse of the fabric and were then cut out and ironed into place.
The evening activity usually involves a stroll around the town harbour eating ice creams from the best ice cream parlour in the world – well according to my children it is! They love to collect the paper umbrellas and flowers and display them in their bedroom.
The old garage is now a sweet little place to stay but it will take a few more years to make it our own, little by little each summer. But that is part of the fun and it is now enjoyed by three generations of my family. I think my grandfather would love what we have done and love that the place he created for his family to enjoy is loved and enjoyed by his great-grandchildren too. It’s a true homemade holiday home.
Sania Pell is a freelance interior stylist, art/creative director and consultant based in London. She is a Contributing Stylist at Elle Decoration magazine, with whom she has worked for over 20 years, and is well known for bringing a unique aspect to photographic shoots for national publications, leading international brands and retailers as well as style consultancy for architects and property developers. She is the author of best-selling book The Homemade Home and The Homemade Home for Children. A trained, former textile designer, Sania is also involved in many multi-disciplinary creative projects.
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