Ten years is a long time to search for a house. But every year for a decade, the would-be owners of this 1873 shingle-style cottage on Nantucket kept their eyes peeled and their ears open, hoping to trade annual summer rentals for a salty place of their own. Then it happened: An historic charmer popped up on the market. “They thought it felt like a little jewel—great light and two gardens, and just a short walk to the beach,” says designer Lee Ann Thornton, whom the owners hired to update the interiors for their family of four. Long, narrow common areas, tiny bedrooms, and a tired combo of dark green paint and yellowed pine floors left plenty of room for improvement. A petite lot made a full expansion out of the question, which meant Thornton had to work within the existing walls of the centuries-old house. Here, the Connecticut-based designer shares her tips for pulling off a top-to-bottom, inside-and-out transformation without breaking out the wrecking ball.
A brave, brilliant finish brings an historic entry into the 21st century. Thornton lacquered the ceiling in a custom cantaloupe shade, and paired it with a handful of neutral accents to temper the sheen. Painted beadboard wainscot, driftwood-finish floors, and a Dutch door painted a pretty mineral hue “really sing against the bright ceiling,” notes Thornton, who papered the walls in a sea urchin pattern for an extra bit of texture.
Because there wasn’t room for both a laid-back, beachy breakfast nook and a formal dining room, the open area off the kitchen is designed to be both. The cerused-ash table and washed-wood chairs, for instance, are easygoing and mellow, but their sabered legs dial up the sophistication even as they call to mind the sea’s smooth swells. The banquette is from the designer’s own collection, and helps orient the dining room to the French doors and the entertaining area outside. “I love to use a banquette when I can,” says Thornton. “It’s so much more comfortable, and you can squeeze more people on it!” Patterned cocoa linen upholstery and chic black piping make for a perch that’s comfy enough for morning coffee and swank enough for a dinner party with friends.
Design: Lee Ann Thornton; Photo: James Ransom; Styling: Emily Rickard
French doors open from the dining room onto the porch, so there was already a smart setup in place for indoors-out dining. “The two areas coexist so well,” says Thornton of the nook tucked between the wings of the cottage. She added two L-shaped, built-in benches in the corners for extra party seating and afternoon reading, plus a trellis for shade. “It’s the perfect backdrop for the flowers that bloom so beautifully there.” A pair of mod iron sconces and two large, movable lanterns keep the space feeling cozy even after the sun goes down. “The resulting ambient light is charming, especially when you add candles,” Thornton says.
“When I think of Nantucket, I think of being in a cozy sweater on a chilly morning and stretching out on the beach during the day,” says Thornton. That spirit inspired her to pair cozier, softer materials (like cashmere pillows and a quilted floral pattern on the base of the sectional) with beachy bamboo wallpaper and a natural rattan coffee table in the living room. “It’s incredibly serene, but it’s also comfy,” notes the designer. To bring depth and color into the light-filled corner, she upholstered the sectional cushions with a mod striped fabric in soft blues, a subtle nod to the sea just two blocks away.
Thornton took advantage of an off-center fireplace (which is original to the house) to create a second sitting area near the corner of the living room. “This is a great space for the owners or guests to plop down, cocktail in hand, and have a conversation by the fire,” she says. A new natural stone surround syncs with the lines and hues of the room’s textured wallpaper and a pair of sconces with bleached raffia shades. The daybed, from Thornton’s own collection, is upholstered in the same melon fabric she used on throw pillows in the adjacent sitting area, which creates a visual connection between the two spaces.
“The owners’ teenage daughters needed to share a room that was very, very small,” says Thornton of the narrow upstairs quarters that measures just 12 by 20 feet. “A pair of twin beds jutting out from the wall wasn’t going to work in here—they wouldn’t have room to move!” So she centered built-in bunks along one of the longer walls, and then added corner reading nooks on either side with Bahamian blue brushed-cotton cushions. “It wasn’t just about carving out room for the girls to sleep,” Thornton says. “I wanted to give each of them a little retreat, a place to sit and read.”
There wasn’t space for a mudroom in the main entrance, so Thornton crafted a creative—and super practical—workaround. With a handful of brass anchor hooks, beachy accessories, and a wavy rattan chair from a local shop, she created an open-air storage area for towels, beach bags, and flip-flops. “We wanted to create a space where you could kick off your shoes after the beach without dumping them, or a lot of sand, in the foyer,” says the designer. “You can drop your beach gear there and then grab it on your way out the door to the beach the next morning.”