Life’s a Beach and So You Decorate

BY Bill Walsh

My wife and I both grew up in Virginia horse country upbringings that largely shaped our sense of home décor. Furniture is dark usually pretty heavy. Walls can be dark too with the green that graces the cover of The Blood-Horse magazine serving as a default position should the imagination otherwise fail. Floors host Oriental rugs. If you partake of the horse sports as I did then everything else is taken care of from the art on the wall to the hunt-scene china in the cabinet to the Derby glasses on the bar.

Needless to say none of that qualifies as “beachy”’ which is the look for which we are now demonstrating the newcomers’ unbridled enthusiasm.

Beachy in a word? “Color ” interior designer Nancy Mullineaux says without hesitation. “Many of my clients have vacationed here and now have a second home here and they are done with the dark that characterizes their more traditional inland homes.

“Once we get to the beach we are looking at doing aquas on the walls yellows on the ceilings we’re doing hot pink for the daughter’s room” — things that many of these folks wouldn’t dream of doing in their homes away from the shore Mullineaux enthuses. Sea foam. Rose. Any color that is emblematic of the ocean of spring of fun. Think salt-water aquarium she says and all the color enclosed therein.

“There is something about the beach where people want to be more playful ” Mullineaux says. “They are tired of all that dark. I have a lot of fun doing these homes because of color color color; I love color.”

It is not beyond the pale to make every room of a beach home a different hue Mullineaux says and to paint ceilings that are “not necessarily the same color as the walls. And you can have so much fun with faux finishes.

“There are no limits and no rules which I happen to like ” she says.

No limits is perhaps comfortable for a professional designer with a sophisticated understanding of the color wheel but a bit scary for the rest of us.

“She really did put color in here she really did ” Sally Rhen says of her Porters Neck home for which Mullineaux did the interior design. “I was a little nervous when we went down [to her studio] and she had all these many many colors picked out. But the more she talked the better it got.”

Then the paint went on the walls and it really got better. The open great room and kitchen with breakfast nook on the ground floor are done in what Rhen describes as “apple green.” Mullineaux selected a faux finish for the dining room blending a variation of the dominating green with periwinkle. The bath off the hall between the dining room and great room plays off the periwinkle with “soulful blue ” a two-tone stripe of a deeper richer purple. The first-floor master bedroom and bath in contrast are a soothing tint with a soothing name: Intracoastal cream.

The apple green ends at the top of the stairs where a guest room and bath are painted a light aqua. That apple picks up again in the hallway leading to Bob Rhen’s home office done in teal. Mullineaux’s touch might best be seen looking from that office back down the hall toward the guest room and the stairs wherein one subtle pastel gives way to another each color serving to accentuate the next.

We painted the entrance and living room of our new home in a yellow so pale as to be advertised as a “barn owl white.” That came after two false starts one with taupe our old inland fallback the second with a yellow that was more screamy than beachy. We painted the guest room in a tint that looks light blue in some light light green in other a hue that we believed was the ultimate in beachiness but which is honestly taking some getting used to. The rest of the house remains building-contractor white while we ponder Mullineaux’s enthusiasm for color — and our next room.

Color may not be quite as prominent as texture in designer Tina Williamson’s oeuvre a direct result she says of having lived on or near the beach her entire life. Her work designing beachy interiors today remains strongly influenced by what beach cottages were in the beginning.

Back in the day “living on the beach was like living on the least attractive rural property there was ” she says with a laugh. “And so you had little houses made out of inexpensive building materials.” Like wood. My how times have changed.

“Wood on the walls wood on the floors ” Williamson says. “I have done this for years and many of my clients haven’t and sometimes they need to buy into the idea of paneling. But I can say with confidence that wood is very good at evoking a beach feel.”

Wood floors are beachy and if you select the right finish more beach-resistant Williamson says; when it comes to color on the floor less is more. “If you put a lot of color in the flooring you’re going to lose it in a short period of time with all this sand ” she says. “We have experimented over the past 25 years with pickling floors and things like that … it just doesn’t work. You’re better off staying close to the natural finish.”

Depending on what’s going on in the rest of the décor Williamson tends to favor organic rugs such as sisal and hemp.

I asked Williamson about floor cloths — painted canvas floor coverings — which strike me as beachy. “I have friends who paint those ” she says. “I’ve not picked up on it and I think it’s probably because we still look for something to wipe our feet on.

“The floor mats are pretty and good to use in kitchens and baths but I don’t think of them as ‘coastal ’” she adds. “The same with wool rugs. Some of them may have tropical foliage woven into them and they’re pretty the design is tropical but they are not what I would have seen in a beach cottage 50 years ago. No one would have had a wool rug at the beach 50 years ago; it would have been eaten up by moths.”

We spent the better part of an entire day selecting the floor wood that replaced the wall-to-wall in our entrance hall and living room. Part of our indecision was in trying to convince ourselves that we could live with a lighter floor than those to which we were accustomed. A bigger part resided on the opposite end of the spectrum: Rosewood was on sale. In horse country we’d have bought the rosewood and been out the door in a heartbeat but this is the beach. We ended up with a nice safe oak finish. So much for pushing the envelope.

When we built a home in Richmond in the mid-1980s we put mini-blinds on most of the windows but chose vertical blinds free swinging at the bottom for the sliding glass doors off two basement rooms. They seemed as cool then as they seem dated in the home we bought here. Alas they grace every one of its doors and windows. It’s a shame since there is a nice view from every portal as is the case in many homes hereabouts.

Window treatments play a significant role in beachy interiors designer Barbara Buchanan says and there are loads of options — “Wood-woven shades with liners plantation shutters that open and close it could be wooden blinds it could be Roman shades made out of fabric ” she ticks off.

Take care in selecting from amongst them she cautions. For one “protecting fabric is a major issue at the beach ” Buchanan points out. “In working with fabrics you have to be very careful at the beach. In the sun silk for example is going to deteriorate very quickly. You also have to line your fabrics correctly. There are certain weights of lining that you need to be sure that you use on window treatments that are in a sunny window.”

And be careful that you don’t detract from the view of the sound or the ocean of the marina or fountain or garden by doing too much.

“You can actually take away from your view by using the wrong window treatment ” Buchanan counsels. “If you make your window treatment too busy that’s exactly what happens. When someone walks into the room they look at your window treatment not beyond it.”

If the view isn’t so great all bets are off and in fact the worse the view the more important the window treatment. The idea Buchanan says is to frame the less-than-stellar view in such a way that “the window treatment stands out so much that when you walk in the room that’s what you look at. In dealing with someone who does not have a good view I certainly want to make sure that they have beautiful fabric on their window. The worse your view the more important the window treatment so you don’t look beyond it.

“I love gardening ” Buchanan continues “and my advice to people who don’t have the pretty view out an important window is to do what you have to do to create a beautiful view possibly by planting flowers and putting in some shrubbery so that when you look out that window you have something nice to look at. The other thing is you can purchase furniture items that you can incorporate into a garden setting like beautiful benches or fountains.”

If we struggle with color and texture and atmosphere we are right at home with beachy furniture at least as far as the popular distressed look is concerned. Too bad that there’s more to it than that.

Beachy in a word? “Simplicity ” Leisure World Casual Furniture’s Trey Folchner says. “At the beach you are going to have two different types of homeowners — principal owners and second-home owners. The principal homeowners will dabble in a little bit more variety but your second-home owners want to deviate from what they have in Raleigh and Charlotte so they will go more with furniture that has a coastal appeal.”

The furniture in beach homes tends to be more simple more colorful and more distressed than might be the case back home. “You’re usually not coming down dressed to the T ” Folchner says. “You might not want furniture that is as pristine and delicate as you have at home. You come here to relax.

“Durability is important too ” he adds “because most people want to leave windows and doors open.”

A word of caution for other beach newbies: “Coastal” means different things to different people different places. What works in Miami Beach doesn’t necessarily work here.

North Carolina South Carolina are definitely still a little more reserved ” Folchner says. “Florida is going to be more tropical more Caribbean which some people in this area shy away from. I lived in Miami for a long time and I’d see something really trendy and cool really metro; it doesn’t work here. And the distressed look is more popular in the north in Nantucket where there is more of an English feel. And the West Coast is different too. They like the Mission look the blending of woods.”

There is more to learn about this beachy business: fabrics and textures art and lighting. A man’s dream should exceed his grasp the poet says. Too bad he glosses over what happens when man’s new-found knowledge exceeds his budget.