When Twinkle and Whistle interior designer Nelly Reffet and her partner Sam Desmaris decided to rent this beach shack in Watermans Bay, it wasn’t just their friends who thought they were a bit nuts – the little girl living next door thought they were too.
Nelly says the weatherboard house was not only dark, depressing and shabby, it had also been painted a mish-mash of garish colours, with almost every room a different colour – some featuring four or five vivid hues. “I still think we were completely nuts when we decided to move into that house,” she laughs. “In the words of our eight-year-old neighbor, “I think the people who lived there before were smoking lots of drugs.” Gold!”
This house caught my eye immediately and when I found out more about it, I was even more intrigued. It’s warm, eclectic, airy and stylish yet still completely comfortable and liveable. And not only did Nelly and Sam renovate and decorate this place on a shoestring, with lots of Gumtree, IKEA, roadside and market finds (yay!) but I also find it lovely that it is a rental,. On top of that, they have managed to turn what was an incredibly ugly beach shack into a beautiful home that could easily have fallen from the pages of a magazine - and all on a tight budget!
Nelly and Sam moved into this beach shack in May 2009, and now live with their adorable baby daughter Rose (as well as their spoilt cats). Back then, Sam, a graphic designer, had just moved to Australia whilst Nelly, who works in finances as well as interior design and is originally from the south of France, was living in a beautiful Mt Lawley apartment. She loved it, but Sam had a passion for the ocean and had always wanted to live by the beach, and Nelly decided to give the apartment up. That’s love!
“I decided to find a house, with an outdoor area, by the beach,” she says. “We came across this one. It ticked all the boxes of my “essential" list - it was one street back from the ocean, a bus stop with regular connections to the nearby train station was just at the front, it was on a fairly large block, the kitchen was not horrendous, it had painted floorboards everywhere and we could afford the rent! When we visited the house, I remember seeing its potential and telling my partner, “If you don't mind spending the next few weekends with a roller and some paint, I'm in.” He didn't mind. He didn't know what he got himself into!”
Nelly says the house had the weirdest layout they had ever seen . “Pretty much each room but the bathroom had two doors, connecting the room to two other rooms,” she said. “You could almost go around the house from room to room.”
As well as a sleepout (like my house!) the home had a tiny lounge with a fireplace, an adjacent L-shaped room Nelly and Sam decided to use as an extension of the lounge, a study, laundry, and a long, narrow kitchen with a small dining area. There was one bedroom and another long, narrow room. “It was supposed to be another bedroom but it never had any direct light and had such a poor insulation that even our cats caught a cold by staying there once,” says Nelly.
The house's age is unknown – my own guess is 1920s or 30s (from the leadlight windows and doors) and the building is full weatherboard. “It’s cold as as in winter and hot as in summer,” says Nelly. “Gotta love the shack! The only brickwork is the fireplace at the centre of the house.”
Its mix of decorative details sits in striking contrast against the inexpensive weatherboard construction - definitely one-of-a-kind. “It’s funny though how they mixed such shabby material with Art Deco windows, cornices etc,” says Nelly. “I think they actually built the house entirely with salvaged material. But it gives it character!”
And let’s not forget the garish colour palette. “In the living area we had a mix of dusty pink, bright purple, olive green – all in glossy finish – and suede-texture mauve,” says Nelly. “The ceiling was painted a faded mustardy yellow. The windowsills, door frames, ceiling cornices and skirting were a glossy maroon. And the list goes on.” It’s enough to make you run screaming to neutrals.
Now one of the things that I liked so much about this place is that Nelly and Sam didn’t shy away from making over the house. In Europe and the U.S it seems quite commonplace to make cosmetic changes to the house you rent but here in Australia making cosmetic changes to your rental is not done too often. The common attitude is usually, “Why would I put money into someone else’s house?” and yes, I certainly understand where people are coming from on that front.
But Nelly has a very different attitude and I love it.
“When we first moved in, we put a condition to our lease that we could pretty much do any improvement we wanted to the house. The owner didn't care. For him, this house was to be bulldozed anyway one day. After her first home inspection, the property manager gave us the non-official title of "best tenants ever".”
When they moved out in January 2011, the owner called Nelly and Sam directly and thanked them for the changes made to his property.
“I believe in good real estate karma: if you treat a house well, you gain respect from the owners and they treat you well in return,” says Nelly. “It's particularly important in today's rental market where many owners are tempted by the quick easy buck and think of not keeping tenants for long so they can increase the rent substantially with a new lease. It's a little less tempting, I guess, when you have excellent tenants in place who give value to your house in addition to paying the rent!” And so Sam and Nelly were happy to put some work into this place.
I might write a blog about houses but I don’t think have any real talent for interior design and styling myself. So I am always fascinated by those who do and how they do it.
Nelly says when she works, she walks into a house to first get a feel for the space. “I don't really look in details at its structure, how light bounces in it or anything like this,” she says. “It might sound a little mystical but I just sense the house, I let the space tell me a story. Some places shout at me (it was the case for this one) and I visualise immediately how the space will look after. Some others are more discreet, more ordinary, and I need a little more time.”
Rather than a style, it’s an atmosphere that she perceives and she uses this as her creative board. She never told herself that this house would be decorated as the beach shack it was. “But as soon as I walked in, I knew that this house was meant to feel bright and relaxing, super casual but full of charm,” she says. “Colours, textures and layout were defined almost immediately as a result of the atmosphere I wanted to give.”
Finding the sort of pieces she wanted took longer. “As we were on a super-tight budget, we couldn't just walk into a store and buy whatever we wanted or needed,” says Nelly. “Instead I let things come to me. I walked into Target one day and the bedset you can see on the bedroom picture literally fell off the shelves onto my feet - and it was 50 percent off!”
I’m always impressed by those people who manage to create a gorgeous home on a shoestring – and decorating on a budget is precisely Nelly’s forte. “It's probably what set me apart from most competitors - I work mainly with people who don't have extraordinary houses and unlimited resources, to say the least,” she says. “Most of my clients have an average income and live in typical suburban houses. And I actually love that. A beautiful space is not a privilege reserved to the very wealthy and that's what my business is all about.”
I asked if she would give Modaokon some tips for styling a gorgeous home on a budget.
She says firstly you need to have a strong vision of the finished feel, but don’t worry too much about details at this stage. “Then start browsing Gumtree, eBay, Salvos, markets. Don't have prejudices against anything or anywhere. Yes, sometimes you can find something gorgeous at Target or even at Kmart. Yes that shabby chair you got from your grandmother looks quite terrible as is, but what about if you painted it a bright blue and use it as side table? Be creative, be bold, have fun. And never underestimate the power of online shopping!”
Nelly and Sam have since left their beach shack to move to an old cottage in Guildford to be closer to the city, where Nelly works every day. But she says they will always fondly remember their time in the beach shack. “I loved that house!” says Nelly. “I still look at those pictures and remember how happy walking into this little house made me feel. The light and the overall feel was just magical. No matter how hard the day at work was, as soon as I got home I felt I was on holidays. Bliss.”
interior stylist Nelly Reffet, her partner Sam Desmaris and their adorable daughter Rose, who is almost one, and their two cats. You can check out the Twinkle and Whistle
An old rental weatherboard surfer’s shack, age of building unknown (my guess is 1920s or 30s!)
Weatherboard walls, painted jarrah floors, brick fireplace, leadlight windows and doors, a sunroom, study, recycled materials
A street back from the beach in Watermans Bay, Western Australia
THE INTERIOR STYLIST
Nelly herself – funny that! Under her business Twinkle and Whistle, Nelly works on everything from purchase assistance to small room revamps to full renovations, and specialises in creating gorgeous interiors on a budget. You can her at or check out her awesome
The talented Heather Robbins of . Check out her website or her