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Design Ideas
Rustic Cottage Style with an Edge
Dress your home in rustic cottage style this spring.
Designer Ally Whalen’s creative spirit won’t let her keep her rustic cottage style the same throughout the year, so she approaches each season as an opportunity to make a fashion statement in her home. In fact, she’s transformed her home at least seven times. The location of the house was perfect. The tree-lined cul-de-sac would... Keep Scrolling
Written by Meryl Schoenbaum
Photography by Bret Gum
Styling by Jickie Torres


Designer Ally Whalen’s creative spirit won’t let her keep her rustic cottage style the same throughout the year, so she approaches each season as an opportunity to make a fashion statement in her home. In fact, she’s transformed her home at least seven times.

Front fascade of a home. Was old red brick, now painted light cream and the black shades also painted a light color with mature trees growing the back yard and showing over the top of the second story.
TRANSFORMED EXTERIOR. Ally’s least favorite part of the home was its original façade of red brick with black shutters. She had it painted white with taupe shutters for a bright, fresh update. The large tree is an Autumn Blaze maple, and the bush is a Japanese maple. On the right is a cherry tree.

The location of the house was perfect. The tree-lined cul-de-sac would be a safe place for the children to play with the other kids in the neighborhood, it was close to the highway for Ally’s work commute and the beautiful backyard with a creek running through it was very private.

Foyer of the home, looking towards the front door, there is a styled bench under the banister and the stairs leader up to the second floor of the home.
STAIRS AND STRIPES. The entry hall sports gray and white stripes that Ally painted on the staircase wall. “This area shows the combination of rustic and cottage elements,” she says. The bench works well near the front door for convenience and because Ally wanted something in front of the wall. Ally made the pillows for it. She painted the handrail black for a high-contrast punch.

But, although the house was well-maintained and Ally liked the floor plan, she “hated” the red-brick exterior, heavy red draperies and tile flooring. And the plain interior would not stay that way for long: She immediately painted the yellow living-room walls a steel-gray blue and built an addition to enlarge the home.

Spacious living room with light gray/beige walls, wicker and wooden rustic furniture accent pieces and pops of blue in pillows and throws.
GATHERING PLACE. The living room showcases the natural elements that the designer likes to add to a space, such as bamboo Roman shades and wicker chairs. “Any room benefits from a piece of wicker,” Ally says. She keeps all her big pieces neutral, then adds a pop of color with pillows and throws to make the room cozy. Ally says you should never be afraid to add anything blue to a room—it looks fresh for spring and enhances wood tones. Ally anchored the room with a neutral area rug. Her tip for rugs is to layer them: Make sure the bottom rug is very thin, and layer a plusher rug on top of it.

While Ally liked the design of the kitchen’s simple Shaker-style cabinets, she painted over the dark-stained finish herself—which was not an easy task back in 2007. “It wasn’t as easy then as it is now to paint cabinets. I had to scrape, sand, prime and add a top coat to them,” she says.

Looking over the upholstered bar stools and kitchen island at the freshly painted light and bright kitchen cabinets and appliances.
KITCHEN CLEANUP. Ally undertook a major project by painting the previously stained kitchen cabinets herself, long before painting cabinets was in style. It required sanding them down with liquid sand, and layers of primer, paint and a top coat. “It’s much easier now,” she says. The wood on the island and the quartz countertop were added. She replaced the furniture feet on the island for extra height and added style. Ally put glass in the cabinet doors to the right for an open look in the small kitchen.

Another household task that required intensive work was removing the floor tiles to install hardwood floors. “We tackled the floors ourselves; it took my husband five days to remove the tiles,” Ally says. “Next time I will hire someone to do that.”

A view from the kitchen looking over the farmhouse trellis table and into the large room addition with a vaulted ceiling and freshly installed stone fireplace.
DARK AND LIGHT. This view of the dining room looking into the family room highlights the dark-walnut hickory flooring, which was originally tile. Ally had a wall that had two windows and a door to the porch knocked down to create a huge opening into the addition for an open, airy feeling.

Ally calls her home’s décor “rustic-cottage chic.” She achieved the look by combining rustic cottage style furniture with soft fabrics and natural elements. “To recreate the look, furnish the room with wood, but don’t overdo it,” she says.

A view of the eclectic dining table set with a wicker chair, three dark wooden chairs and a light colored zebra printed upholstered bench for seating.
A LA CARTE DINING. This dining area between the kitchen and living room follows Ally’s design philosophy of decorating in unexpected ways. She doesn’t like to match elements, so here she mixed it up with an upholstered bench on one side, mismatched chairs and a wicker end chair. She reupholstered the tag-sale bench with indoor/outdoor fabric, which is great for durability with kids. The lighting fixture was a find at the Habitat ReStore. For the small space Ally wanted simple lighting that was in proportion to the room.

“Don’t panel the walls with wood—you need to mix it with soft accessories like draperies, pillows and upholstered pieces.” Most of the furniture is from Ally’s own furniture line, Simplicity, manufactured in North Carolina.

The dining table laid out with crisp and clean white dishes. Forks, bowls and sparkling water are set out with some fresh oranges on display for color and coziness.
RUSTIC-COTTAGE TABLESCAPE. The dining-room table is adorned with vibrant citrus colors for spring combined with natural elements. The table runner picks up the gray in the room.

I always have fresh flowers; they lift your spirit when you’re at the end of winter/borderline spring.

Her line features tailored and slipcovered sofas, chairs and sectionals available at her shop, Simplicity Interiors. The most popular furnishings at her store include unique pillows, accessories, lamps, mirrors and artwork. “People like the casual, personal vibe of coming into a shop that’s not a big-box store,” she says.

Bring in Spring

Looking for some easy, inexpensive design elements to bring the freshness of spring indoors to create a rustic cottage style? “Switch out throw pillows on sofas, chairs and beds; paint the walls a lighter white, gray or ‘greige.’ Choose colors that are on the warmer side,” Ally says.

White room with blue accents, this room addition has gorgeous ceiling beams as well as a freshly updated rug and fresh throw pillows to compliment the beautiful white furniture.
CLASSIC COLORS. This seating area features two white-slipcovered chairs from Ally’s furniture line. She made many of the pillows herself. Her mother taught her how to craft pillows when she was a teenager. The bamboo table adds Ally’s signature natural touch.

“Rugs can be changed to freshen up a space, and I always have fresh flowers; they lift your spirit when you’re at the end of winter/borderline spring. Billowy draperies and ample lighting with table lamps also lighten and brighten your home.”

image if a light and beauty looking bed with a wooden nightstand next to it .
RUSTIC RETREAT. The master bedroom features one of Ally’s favorite pieces: a custom-made, rustic-cottage headboard that she painted with a white stain. All her bedding is white; she loves anything in white for cottages and for the spring—even though she has kids and a puppy—because her furniture line is slipcovered and washable. It comes off in pieces, so, for instance, if an arm piece gets dirty, you can just take it off and wash it.

Ally turned her house into a home with heirlooms, photographs and mementos. “I like pictures, but just the right amount: a small collage on the wall or a picture on an end table,” she says. “Display little things from your past or that were passed down to you. I have sentimental pieces from my grandmother, such as a little dish I put my rings in.”

Light and bright bedroom with glossy white painted frames decorating the wall behind the headboard, with a wooden vintage dress from next to the bed.
GRAY GLAMOUR. The chandelier adds an element of elegance and gives the room the touch of sparkle she was looking for. “If you have random old mirrors or accessories, just spray the frames with a high-gloss white paint to make them look fresh,” she says. Ally majored in apparel design, so it was natural for her to put a dress form next to the bed with a scarf around it for added style. She chose the area rug because she liked the gray pop of color that picked up the gray on the walls and duvet. Ally suggests designing a room by adding the unexpected, such as mixing the shapes of mirrors in a wall grouping.

If you have random old mirrors or accessories, just spray the frames with a high-gloss white paint to make them look fresh

Light colored dresser against a white wall. stopped with a vase of white hydrangeas, an old window and washboard and a straw hat on top.
COZY GUESTROOM. The mint-green bachelor’s chest in the guestroom was a found piece. Ally painted it three times and changed the hardware. She finds such pieces in thrift shops like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, Goodwill and tag sales. The old window frame was one she had already. The vintage washboard was purchased at a flea market.

Ally’s favorite room in her home is the addition, with its vaulted ceiling and fireplace. “It’s so cozy. Everyone who comes over says, ‘I could live here.’” Happily for Ally Whalen, she does.

A full vertical view of the room addition's pitched ceiling with exposed beams and dramatic stone fireplace.
WARM UP THE FIREPLACE. The family room was an addition to the house. Ally went to a stone yard that had a remnants section, and handpicked each stone to use on the front of the fireplace, mixing and matching them. After they were placed, she layered stain on with a dry rag to warm it up and add more interest. She found the mantel, made of reclaimed wood, at an antiques shop. The spindle-trimmed chair is from Ally’s furniture line. The paint on the walls is the same color as the ceiling, and Ally used a watered-down version around the window trim to let the outside view in and look seamless.

Want to see more rustic cottage style looks? Check out this rustic beach cottage!

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