COTTEKILL, N.Y. — Five years ago, on a very long train ride from Ulan Bator in Mongolia to Beijing, Kat O’Sullivan and Mason Brown took out a notebook and made a list of all the things their dream house should have. On a recent afternoon here, Ms. O’Sullivan, an artist who makes colorful patchwork sweaters out of other sweaters she finds at thrift stores and then sells them through Etsy, and Mr. Brown, who works part-time for a publisher and plays in a band, dug out the list and read it to a curious visitor.
“Black light room: got that,” said Ms. O’Sullivan, 38. “Floor-to-ceiling map: check.”
Mr. Brown, 35, added: “Vines growing indoors: check and check.”
Ms. O’Sullivan went on: “Outdoor pet turtle: got that. Victrola: got that. Circus tent — hey, we have two of them.”
The wish list, filling several pages and exceedingly whimsical, also specified a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary on a pedestal; one hole of mini golf; a swirly barbershop pole; a flokati rug; several swings, including the porch, Tarzan and “Mod bubble” varieties; lots of furniture with carved animal feet; gold mirrors; a big banquet table; an aquarium; and a secret passageway.
Ms. O’Sullivan paused at one of the entries, and her round, sunny face, framed by a tangle of upswept blond dreadlocks tied with a red scarf, grew momentarily cloudy. “A washer and dryer: so humble,” she said, before adding with a sigh, “We still don’t have it.”
What kind of home has two circus tents and vines growing indoors, but no washer and dryer?
That would be Calico, the Catskills fixer-upper that Ms. O’Sullivan and Mr. Brown bought for a little more than $200,000 and have spent the last five years turning into a bohemian refuge from what she calls “the trauma” of living in a rundown Brooklyn apartment, or a series of them, while trying to eke out a living as an artist in the city.
The rooms reflect an artist’s creative use of materials and colors. A kitchen countertop is surfaced not in tile or granite but pennies. Modular drawers from the ’70s that hold sewing supplies are painted the bright yellow of the smiley-face pop icon. A shrine was built to display a $200 toaster — her sole yuppie luxury, Ms. O’Sullivan says.
There’s also a downstairs room with a curiously domed ceiling, a ballroom in miniature where the couple stage fog-and-laser dance parties, a clearing in the woods where they have hosted two weddings, and a second piece of land they bought just down the road with a swimming hole on it.
“It’s nice to become the camp or bed-and-breakfast for all of our poor friends,” Ms. O’Sullivan said.
The house sits on 16 acres of forestland, along a two-lane country road. But you can’t miss it driving by. The exterior is painted every color of the Day-Glo rainbow, in vertical and horizontal stripes. A local publication dubbed the couple’s style “Candyland Revival.”
“It took $1,000 worth of paint” to do the house, Ms. O’Sullivan said. “When I walked out of the paint store, they lined up and clapped.”
She recalled the day that she and Mr. Brown finished painting and walked down the road to get some perspective on their handiwork. A truck drove by and its driver saw them looking at Calico and braked.
“He was, like, ‘Pretty psychedelic, right? I’m glad I don’t live on this street,’ ” Ms. O’Sullivan said. “Like he was trying to share this moment of disgust with us. I thought, ‘I’m glad you don’t live on this street, too.’ ”
With its acreage, its water feature (a mucky pond, complete with turtles) and its location along a bus line so city friends can visit, the house checked off several things on the couple’s wish list. “Enough that we overlooked the part about it being practically condemned,” Ms. O’Sullivan said.
“It was this rotten old house,” she said. “Anyone else would have torn it down. But we were like: ‘We can paint it. It’s going to be so cute.’ ”
Ms. O’Sullivan, who grew up on Long Island, bought an old school bus when she was in her teens, painted it Merry Pranksters style and drove it to California, where she used it as a dorm room while attending the University of California, Santa Cruz. Later, when she wasn’t traveling the world, which she did for nine months of the year, she lived in another school bus in the East Village, where she would sell her sweaters. (Both buses now sit in the yard.)
But it wasn’t her gypsy spirit or intrepid attitude that led her and Mr. Brown to take on the gut renovation of the Calico, she said: “We were so stupid. They call people like us ‘citiots.’ ”
In 2009, Ms. O’Sullivan and Mr. Brown were sharing a loft in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with four other roommates. As struggling creatives in a punishing real estate market, they realized they would eventually be pushed farther into the outer boroughs. The couple had just visited Mongolia and, like many soul-searching urbanites, were convinced they had found a solution. One word: yurt.
“They were so beautifully engineered for this simple, comfortable life,” Ms. O’Sullivan said. “We were like, ‘We should get a piece of land — — ’ ”
Mr. Brown completed her thought: “All we need is a couple of acres and a yurt!”
They drew a circle on a map, agreeing to look anywhere within two hours’ distance of the city. They ended up in Cottekill by chance; an Etsy customer of Ms. O’Sullivan’s (her nom de commerce is Katwise) had lost a glove and asked to have another one made. The customer lived in nearby High Falls, N.Y., and Ms. O’Sullivan thought the name sounded pretty. They asked about the area, and became convinced after a scouting visit.
The house that best met their wants and their limited budget was patchy white on the outside and gloomy inside, its floors covered in seven layers of dirty linoleum. The seller, a woman who had lived there 60 years, was barricaded into a corner of the kitchen. The place was a wreck, officially: A local organization that gives financial aid to supplement first-time home buyers’ mortgages refused Ms. O’Sullivan and Mr. Brown after their inspector deemed the house not worth repairing.
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The judgment didn’t dissuade them.
“We were still too naïve at that point,” Ms. O’Sullivan said.
Mr. Brown recalled his can-do thinking, in a tone that suggested self-mockery: “I can swing a hammer. C’mon, this all started with a yurt. The house is a bonus.”
They took up residence that October, just in time for winter. In place of proper insulation, they found old newspapers stuffed inside the walls. “The New York Times from 1931 doesn’t have a very high R-value, apparently,” Ms. O’Sullivan deadpanned. “That first winter was so brutal and cold.”
But amid the gloom was a bright spot. Ms. O’Sullivan’s sweaters were suddenly selling out; whatever she made and posted to her Etsy shop immediately found a buyer. She sewed furiously over the next few years, pouring the profits into a new foundation, a new well and septic system, a new roof and an overhaul of the plumbing and electrical systems.
“I call it the house that sweaters built,” she said. “If it weren’t for that, we’d still be in a tent in the living room. We would have died from consumption two winters ago.”
Despite the extensive work they either did themselves or oversaw, Ms. O’Sullivan doesn’t consider herself a Ms. Fix-it. “I paint and I staple and I glue,” she said. “And I delegate.”
Her approach to home repair and decorating are the same: cover the ceilings and walls with vibrant silks and fabrics that she bought in India and other countries she has visited. Another favorite technique is to amass a collection of something kitschy or offbeat and repeat it across a wall, as she did with papier-mâché masks she had brought back from Ecuador.
On New Year’s Eve, people burn effigies of the politicians, she said, explaining that it took several trips to the country to collect enough masks to fill a vestibule.
As for Mr. Brown, while his partner’s design aesthetic “is much stronger than mine,” he said, he did co-opt one room to create a Victorian gentleman’s library. The room contains vintage globes and two items on the wish list: a Victrola (his grandfather’s) and a secret compartment (behind the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves).
Surprisingly, the couple’s upstairs bedroom, which they have dubbed the Sky Lounge, is as airy and minimal as a yoga studio. A plant or two and a view of the pond from a large window serve as the only visual distractions. “I try not to even bring my computer in here,” Ms. O’Sullivan said. “This is an escape.”
The same could be said of Calico. Leaving the city worked out. The social isolation they both feared didn’t happen. “Almost every single day, people visit here,” especially in summer, Ms. O’Sullivan said.
And after five long years of renovating, they are settling into the rhythms of country life. The couple’s conversations no longer begin with the what-if fantasy, “If the house burned down ... ” and end with “I’d never do this again.”
“A lot of conversations started with, ‘If the house burned down,’” Ms. O’Sullivan said. “It was like being shackled with this enormous responsibility that we had to renegotiate our whole lives around.”
But now, she added, “It’s at the point where if the house burned down, I’d build it back, exactly like it is.”