An Act of Faith

A couple puts their trust in their designer, who responds by giving their gracious nineteenth-century home an interior as fresh as the Nantucket sea air outside its windows.

Text by Jaci Conry Photography by Michael Partenio Produced by Stacy Kunstel

The first thing interior designer Charlotte Barnes learned about this project was that her clients wanted an almost impossibly quick turnaround. It was January and the homeowners had just bought a gracious, four-story sea captain’s house on Nantucket that they wanted redecorated, top-to-bottom, by Memorial Day. “The 6,200-square-foot house was literally a blank canvas. Totally empty, it needed everything,” says Barnes.

An ambitious timeframe, to be sure, but Barnes was up to the challenge. She already had a keen sense of the clients’ taste, having worked closely with them on two other homes.

The deadline precluded time for a lot of meetings to discuss furniture selections and color choices. “I said to the homeowners, ‘You’re going to have to go with the flow,’ ” recalls Barnes. As it turned out, that was just fine with them.

“We knew that Charlotte ‘got’ us,” says the husband “We had faith that she would deliver a finished product that was an expression of who we are. We told her to just take it and run with it.”

Removed from the bustle of cobbled Main Street but a mere stroll from town and with views of Nantucket Harbor, the house was built in 1830 at the height of the island’s prosperous whaling era. “It’s a very special, almost majestic place,” says the husband, who was drawn to the home’s soaring ceilings, elongated windows that usher in plenty of natural light, elaborate moldings and detailed woodwork. “The house was built during a time of incredible affluence. You can’t build the history that’s there.”

He and his wife felt strongly that any changes to the home respect its origins. At the same time, they wanted the interiors to reflect their own modern style of living.

For decades, the house had been used as an inn and the previous owners had undertaken a renovation in 2003 to convert it back to a single-family residence. Nantucket-based builder John Newman spearheaded the project back then, and the current owners tapped him to oversee the work done this time around. Construction was minimal: Newman added a new bathroom to the third story, where the couple’s four sons, ages nineteen to twenty-three, bunk when they’re home, and built a large deck off of the main level. Other than that, changes were primarily cosmetic and Barnes’s domain. “Charlotte,” says Newman, “absolutely transformed the whole house.”

Barnes began the transformation by repainting all the interior walls and their ample trim work. “It was an incredibly complicated and time-consuming job to strip and repaint the whole house,” says Barnes, who was awed by the precision of Nantucket painter Youcef Benhamida and his team.

For the living area, Barnes selected a range of Farrow & Ball paints in hues that echo the blues, grays and sands of the seaside locale. She gave bedrooms a richer, warmer feel, as in the master bedroom where she chose a terracotta tone for the walls to complement a chair upholstered in a coral and lime-green damask that she fell in love with at first sight.

“The homeowners really have an eye for modern design, but they are also quite traditional,” says Barnes, so she furnished the house with pieces that represent an array of styles. In the living room, a Crate & Barrel sofa with a 1950s vibe sits next to an artistic Edwina Hunt lamp, a sea-grass rug underfoot gives modern appeal to the historic wide-plank floors and an antique whitewashed bamboo column acts as a display table. In the adjacent dining room, the traditional birds-eye–maple table is paired with midcentury chairs still sheathed in their original buttery-yellow leather. The sideboard is another Crate & Barrel piece. “I feel you can really buy things almost anywhere,” says Barnes. “If you choose well, you can mix Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn items with old antiques and midcentury pieces.”

Taking cues from the setting, Barnes infused the decor with abundant nautical flair. “It’s such an eclectic mixture. We used anchors, old bamboo and rattan accents,” she says. “We shopped locally for some items, while other stuff came from flea markets.”

She came across one of her favorite finds, an immense blue lobster that now hangs above the kitchen fireplace, at the Brimfield Antique Show. The discovery of a tarnished copper ship’s light led to the creation of a collection of old beacons, including one that guided an America’s Cup winner long ago. Displayed in the study, the collection is a personal favorite of the husband, an avid sailor.

Artwork was acquired more deliberately, including the eight-foot-tall lighthouse by Regina Williams on the living room wall. Barnes found the piece, along with others for the house, through Canadian art dealer Julie Reid. “It arrived in two parts. Up close, it’s the most beautiful oil painting you can imagine,” says Barnes. “It makes quite an impression.”

Astonishingly, all of the stately house’s original interior window shutters, which fold back into the moldings, remained intact. “Not only are the shutters wonderful and unique, they were a saving grace for us because having them meant we did not have to make one curtain for the whole house, which saved a ton of time,” says Barnes, who collaborated with Newman to have them restored to reflect their nineteenth-century luster.

Barnes turned to Quadrille for all the home’s fabrics, working closely with the company’s owner, John Knott, who happens to be a dear friend. The patterns, all exuding a casual elegance, complement each other to promote an easy flow from room to room.

The family arrived on Memorial Day weekend to find that Barnes’s team had installed all the furnishings, hung the towels in the bathrooms and even unpacked their clothing. Barnes had briefed her clients occasionally about her decorating decisions, but they confess they really had no idea what to expect when they walked through the front door. “It was a surprise—an extremely pleasant surprise,” says the husband. No surprise, at all, however, that their faith in their designer was so well placed. •

Interior design: Charlotte Barnes, Charlotte Barnes Interior Design & Decoration
Builder: John Newman

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