In a seaside getaway on the Massachusetts coast, Los Angeles designer Frances Merrill transmutes Yankee style with her signature chromatic élan
On her first visit to what would eventually become a beguiling and much-loved gathering spot for a host of family members and friends, Katie Jordan couldn’t actually get inside. It was November, and the house—which had been built in 1912 and never winterized—was boarded up. Nonetheless, as she and a friend wandered its autumnal grounds, the conviction grew that she’d at long last found exactly what she was looking for.
“The whole ocean side is all these incredible rocks, and then the harbor is just to your right,” she explains. Standing sentinel at the edge of a weathered granite promontory on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, the dwelling overlooks both a bustling fishing port and a stretch of scenic coast. The glorious view loses none of its romance even at night, when the distant lights of Boston often glimmer bewitchingly across the dark waters.
“I was looking for an older home that nobody had ruined,” Jordan continues, and this particular structure—once she was able to enter—proved perfect for her and her son. It was one of two houses that belonged to the local yacht club, and after being sold in 1951 it had passed down in the same family ever since. With no notable additions and only minor changes having been made through the decades, it remained a pristine specimen of a modest New England seaside cottage.
So the task became one of equipping her prize with the amenities modern life requires (heat, for one) without erasing the home’s period charm. For assistance, it was only natural to recruit AD100 laureate Frances Merrill of Reath Design in Los Angeles, who had already partnered happily with Jordan on her full-time residence in California (AD, February 2020).
Merrill understood her brief immediately. Rather than trying to carve the interior into a more contemporary layout, she and Jordan opted to keep much of its old-style configuration of smaller rooms—all the better to provide a wealth of intimate nooks and corners where lucky occupants can simply enjoy hanging out. There’s a table for cards and games, quiet places to sit with a laptop, a snug den that shelters a U-shaped sectional ideal for movie watching on the occasional rainy day. Comfy rockers and wicker sofas line the wraparound porch, marvelous perches for contemplating the ever-changing nautical panorama. “We just wanted it to feel easy and comfortable,” Merrill says.
No Reath Design project, of course, would be complete without a zestful dose of pattern and bold (yet carefully calibrated) color to kick it into high gear—and this one doesn’t disappoint in either respect.
Whereas Jordan’s West Coast home is dressed in a rich mélange of wood paneling, saturated hues, and dense figuration, her summer abode wears its sophisticated style a bit more lightly. With a few decided exceptions, such as the brilliantly purple third-floor “girls’ room,” walls and floors are kept light and relatively neutral; the spaces’ dynamism comes by way of their color-blocked contents. Door and window casings, for instance, glow in tones of rose or cornflower blue, and a fiery vermillion Chambers stove presides over the kitchen.
Fabrics and wallpapers are chockablock with designs any Yankee great-grandmother would recognize—tattersalls and other plaids, small-scale florals, quilted motifs—but amped up with an extra jolt of energy. Quirky hooked rugs abound. The furnishings are eclectic but on point in that “acquired over generations” kind of way. Vintage and flea-market finds rub shoulders with the occasional piece from a more recent era: Consider the inlaid kitchen table and its sunny attendant ring of Bruno Rey chairs.
Some of the choicer treasures came from antiques dealer Andrew Spindler’s shop in the nearby town of Essex. Spindler, in fact, quickly fell into place as unofficial godfather for the project, not only suggesting a contractor for the job but also clueing the group in to vibe-appropriate local makers like the Folly Cove Designers, a mid-20th-century cooperative of women whose jaunty hand-printed fabrics remain in high demand. He also introduced Jordan and Merrill to Beauport, the sublimely idiosyncratic warm-weather retreat of Henry Davis Sleeper, a seminal figure among designers in the US—and it’s hard not to sense a certain kinship between the two homes.
“It’s always scary when you renovate a house,” Jordan muses. “Things can go wrong so quickly; you can really ruin it.” Ruination was never a worry in the present case, though. “There was a joyousness to all of these people collaborating and figuring things out that I think you feel in the house,” says Merrill. “It was all people who got what needed to happen. Everything felt very much meant to be.”
—Published in the January 2023 issue of Architectural Digest
West Meets East
California beach house style finds a home on Cape Cod
Something about this particular stretch of coastline caught Liz’s fancy. A dedicated runner, she had passed by it almost every morning for years as she traveled her usual route. “There are about ten houses on the little portion of beach,” she says, “and I ran always hoping that maybe, someday, I could find a house there.”
She and her husband Richard had already made perfectly pleasant digs for themselves and their children, about a mile away in the same picturesque town on Cape Cod’s eastern edge. But the prospect of a truly waterfront location—with nothing obstructing sightlines straight out into the Atlantic—beckoned.
Eventually a home on the coveted street came up for sale—but concerns about coastal erosion convinced the couple to withdraw their bid. Then they heard through a college friend who lived across the way that a second property, next door to the first, would soon be coming onto the market. This time they pounced.
The lot now firmly in their grasp, Liz and Richard initially planned a quick, cosmetic update to the 1970s-era structure already in place. It soon became clear, however, that a great deal of work would be needed, and at best they would still end up with a clutch of indifferent, low-ceilinged spaces—certainly not a result worthy of the glorious site.
Enter architect Kent Duckham, interior designer Lindsay Bentis, builder Steven Overstreet, Paul Reidt from the custom cabinetry firm Kochman Reidt + Haigh, and landscape architect Stephanie Hubbard. This team had worked harmoniously with the family before—in fact, Liz had been Bentis’s very first client, and the two had since collaborated on several additional projects. So the couple decided to bring the group in as a unit and start over from scratch.
Duckham jumped straight into organizing things on the fairly narrow parcel of land. “We were basically stretching the original footprint,” he says, ending up with “two main bodies, front and back, with a linking entry piece where the house steps in and the materials change. The little projecting canopies over the windows give a more 3D mass to it, while protecting the windows from light.” Although the overall effect of the building is contemporary, it “isn’t entirely modern,” he avers. “It has a bit of the Cape vernacular, with the details reduced down to their raw essence.”
Detailing in the home’s interiors was likewise kept unfussy, with no ceiling moldings and a plain half-inch reveal used to delineate baseboards and door and window casings. The principal rooms are oriented toward the ocean-facing end of the house—and the scenic panorama framed by a sliding glass window-wall.
In evolving their vision for the project, Bentis and the homeowners were inspired by the bright openness of beachfront houses in southern California, particularly Malibu, working to reinterpret those models in a way that would seem authentic when translated to the very different topography of the Northeast.
Rather than pops of brighter color, textures come to the fore in creating visual interest against a background of sand, stone, and driftwood hues. “The lines are clean, but the materials used are earthier,” according to Bentis, intended to evoke an organic feel. Even the tile in the kitchen and baths was chosen for its distinct variations in shade and surface finish: “We wanted it to be like a watercolor painting,” she says.
An imposingly sculptural stair flows up through the vertical core of the house, capped by a roof-ridge skylight that spans the entire length of the upper hall and sheds illumination deep into the interior spaces. Bentis worked with artist Carolina Sardi to devise a subtle installation of metal disks—white on white—that dapples one wall with slowly shifting shadows as the sun moves throughout the day.
Built-in storage cabinets in almost every room, all sheathed in the same custom-finished West African tay wood, also make a significant contribution to the home’s Zen atmosphere. Lighting fixtures are simple but striking, furniture is low-slung, and fabrics and floor coverings alike are designed to stand up to water and hide footprints and sand.
Outside, the same kind of quiet diversity pervades the landscape. Rough is played against smooth; sheltered nooks coexist with broad vistas. A rectangular pergola accommodates comfortable seating perfect for relaxation. Native plantings and restored coastal meadows alternate with stone walls, bluestone plank paving, and boardwalks that crisscross the property. There are both open and covered porches facing the ocean, an outdoor kitchen, a grand outdoor living room complete with massive stone fireplace, and more, all geared toward maximizing enjoyment of the spectacular setting. “The spaces transition from one to the other,” says Hubbard. “Turn the corner, discover something new.”
In the end, the home’s most notable characteristic is its exquisitely unified vibe, both indoors and out. Everything feels cohesive, even while there is much variety in the areas meant for different purposes. The members of the design and construction team attribute the project’s success to the openness of their interactions. As Duckham puts it, “It’s a treat to work in that kind of collaborative effort with everybody at that level. No ego clashes—everybody was just building on ideas, just going with it.”
As for the owners, they’re equally delighted on a day-to-day basis. “I love walking around the place and just looking at it,” says Liz. “It’s like a work of art. Everyone gave it their best, and that’s reflected in how it turned out.”
—Published in the August-September 2022 issue of Ocean Home
It’s a Wrap
Playful slipcovers add a note of whimsy to antiques dealer Bill Gardner’s Houston home
A friend calls it “the microwave towers,” says Houston antiques dealer Bill Gardner about the stark, three-story white stucco development he calls home. Close your eyes briefly as you enter, though, and be amazed: you’d never guess that such textured, welcoming rooms—chockablock with pedigreed European furniture and accessories—would be tucked within so contemporary a shell.
Despite an absence of architectural moldings and interior doors, the dwelling’s atmosphere is warm, almost Mediterranean. Mushroom and sienna tones dominate, sparked by expanses of golden yellow draperies, the occasional indigo or celadon-blue accent, and floors painted a wonderful terra-cotta-ish red-orange. That color palette, and the white-painted steel windows, are more likely to put the viewer in mind of a coastal town in 1930s Italy than a rapidly modernizing neighborhood in a major American city.
A top-to-bottom renovation Gardner finished in 2016 established many of the home’s overall design parameters. Nevertheless, the itch to tweak persisted, including a growing feeling that “it was time to do something a little more lighthearted,” he reports. So changes, some of them lighthearted indeed, have now been made.
Many beloved pieces remain from the previous scheme, such as an eighteenth-century Murano chandelier. But the living and dining areas have switched places (the latter now grounded with traditional English rush matting, a more down-home sibling to the formal rug that delineates the living room), and various items of furniture have shifted from one location to another. The most immediately noticeable aspect of the redo, however, is undoubtedly the jaunty striped slipcovers Gardner and his crack upholsterer Manuel Ruiperez devised to transform the space’s coterie of formerly chaste Swedish chairs and settees.
It was a common Nordic practice that provided Gardner’s inspiration. “You see it there in the summer: slipcovers go on the furniture once the weather begins to turn.” His own new creations, though, are far from the usual tailored bags made to be tossed over a couch. Instead, an ingenious arrangement of separate sections covers the seat, cushion, and back of each chair, leaving the carving and patina on its wooden frame exposed. Attached by tabs and adorned with sculpted skirts, these constructions seem less like protection and more like haute couture.
“Usually the ones you’d see in palaces in Sweden are cut, and they almost just drop over the seat. We went to the trouble to do a kick pleat at the corners and in the centers, which gives them a little bit of dimension,” he says. “I’ve got a collection of screenshots of Italian slipcovers from the ’30s or ’40s into the ’60s. Some of the ideas came from that, that are a little bit more fanciful.”
The pink-and-white fabric employed is an Italian textile Gardner first bought years ago in Paris, originally intended for making dish towels. “I found out that I could get yardage of it,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t this be a kick?’” Quirky, yes, but—as it turns out—another nod to history. “That’s usually what Swedish slipcovers were done in, was a stripe. I just wanted to do something a little bit off-key, and yet actually it’s very traditional,” he concludes. (The upholsterer, it might be noted, is not a fan. “He hates the fabric so much,” confides Gardner. “It’s the hardest thing to work with, the way it’s woven on the bias.”)
Using slipcovers also means that the new decor isn’t permanent. “This was a way to change it up without destroying the previous upholstery, which is mostly silk velvet, Fortuny, or leather.” The covers will probably come off in the winter.
Gardner’s professional eye is equally apparent in the assemblies of decorative objects that punctuate the residence and contribute to its powerful appeal. “I tend to build collections of things,” he says with some understatement. “There’s a big collection of English and some French creamware, all white, and a collection of Japanese Imari ware.” Perhaps most prominent are dozens of examples of vintage Mexican tourist pottery covering an entire eighteen-foot-long wall in the kitchen. “Back then you paid a quarter or fifty cents or a dollar for a piece,” he observes wryly. “That’s not the way it works anymore.”
Most recently Gardner has begun to purchase work by the contemporary Los Angeles–based ceramic artist Eric Roinestad. Most of the larger pieces on the center table in the living room are Roinestad’s, and the harmonies they make with the older beauties surrounding them (including a plaster model for a Lalique vase) are obvious.
Unlike many dealers in the antiques trade, Gardner isn’t the sort who uses his personal space as a temporary stop for inventory between acquisition and sale; the items he truly loves to live with come in and then remain. But continuity doesn’t have to mean stagnation. Between sensitive periodic rearranging and, now, a re-dressing in puckish pink and white, his home promises to stay forever fresh.