A Newport Cottage Designed by J. Randall Powers
August 20, 2020
Text by Clinton Smith Photography by Michael Partenio Produced by Stacy Kunstel
For the celebrated designer J. Randall Powers, the opportunity to decorate one of Newport’s iconic nineteenth-century summer cottages, lovingly referred to as Edgehill, was a thrill in itself. But the fact that the property came with such an architectural pedigree was the icing on the cake. After all, the notable residence was originally designed by the legendary McKim, Mead and White architectural firm (think Boston Public Library), and the park-like grounds were devised by Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York City’s Central Park fame). Decorative moldings and elaborate fireplaces, as well as perfectly placed windows to take in the surrounding vistas, afforded Powers a beautiful architectural envelope.
Working on the home’s interior was a years-long collaboration with his clients. The wife, with whom Powers has partnered time and again, wanted everything executed at a certain level, so there was no rush or cutting corners to meet a set deadline. As a result, no detail was overlooked.
“We took the time to think about what needed to be done, and made it right the first time,” says Powers, who collaborated on the project with his firm’s managing partner and senior designer, Christopher R. Alexander. A painstaking, albeit sensitive, renovation has updated the house for the twenty-first century, while retaining all the charm and character of its historic pedigree. While some designers are hired for a signature style, Powers is known for his deft hand in toggling between high-rise penthouses, fine city residences, and country estates. In this case, as with other projects, his longtime clients insisted on originality and something purely unique that would suit the home’s history and its location along the storied Rhode Island coast.
“This is a nineteenth-century house that has lived many lives,” says Powers. “When you walk into a house like this, there’s a romance already.”
Powers built upon that sense of romance with his timeless design scheme, mixing the best of old and new. He has known his clients to be kindred spirits in their shared passion for beautiful things. Both husband and wife come from families where connoisseurship is embedded in their DNA, so Powers had carte blanche in selecting key antiques and other furnishings from their expansive collection, including original designs by twentieth-century master decorator William “Billy” Haines. Mixing pieces from disparate eras and styles in a way that seems totally effortless was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. A spirited palette of reds, yellows, and blues is the common thread that weaves everything together. It’s a contemporary take on an all-American color scheme: strong, but not overpowering; timeless, yet of the moment.
“My client has a keen eye for color,” says Powers of the wife and her penchant for particular hues. Here, it was the perfect shade of red. “She does not like blue-red or yellow-red or orange-red. It has to be that tomato-soup red.” The color is echoed throughout—sometimes in strong doses; other times, as a whisper. The riotous mix of geometric patterns with florals and stripes, along with animal prints, was also a departure for Powers, but he used them with aplomb, creating a strong color story without allowing it to overpower the space. As a result, the patchwork of rooms filled with luxurious wallpapers and iconic fabric prints feels new and fresh.
The interiors honor the home’s celebrated location in this historic seaside town but are not beholden to it. The timeless spaces are beautifully crafted, and appear to have evolved over the years, but aren’t, in Powers’s words, “too scrubbed up.”
“A true designer decorates for the client, and that’s one of the reasons my firm has had longevity over a twenty-plus-year career,” says Powers. “As designers, we don’t decorate for ourselves.”
Interior design: J. Randall Powers, Christopher R. Alexander, J. Randall Powers Interior Decorators
Renovation: B.R. Arnold Construction
Landscape design: Brigid Finn Fine Gardening, DaPonte’s Landscaping Services, Tupelo Design Studios