At Ease on The Cliff -June 2018
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
You might think it’s easy for two people whose businesses involve designing and furnishing other people’s homes to design their own living space.
But when interior designer Jennifer Sell and her husband Francis Farrell decided to build a house, it took more than three years to complete. Settled in for several years now, it seems to have been worth the wait.
“We live easily in our home. We named the house ‘At Ease’ because that’s the way we feel
when we walk over the threshold,” Sell said. The home is located on Cliff Road where the surrounding properties were once part of the Westmoor Farm that preceded today’s Westmoor Club. In 1964 this part of the island was farmland, not the exclusive enclave it is today. Westmoor Farm was owned by Francis “Franny” and Barbara Holdgate, who raised their family there. Westmoor had horses and a riding stable, but in order to derive income in the off-season, the Holdgates also built a lodge for the sport of rabbit-hunting.
In 2004, Sell and Farrell acquired the “rabbit lodge,” as they still refer to it, with the intention of renovating it and turning it into their home.
“After considerable thought we concluded that it wasn’t economically feasible, so we downsized the structure, relocated it on the property, and renovated it into what is now our guest cottage,” Sell said.
For several years the couple lived in the cottage while making plans for what would ultimately become their modest, 2,700-square-foot, threebedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house.
Living in the cottage gave them the opportunity to study the property on which they would build their new home.
“We could observe the way the wind
blew, the position of natural light throughout the day, how rainwater and snow came and went. This is important information when siting any house,” Sell said.
Deliberate in all things, this couple incorporated their observations into a document that expressed their lifestyle and how they imagined living on the property. They also prepared a notebook containing inspiring photos of styles and details they liked. The notebook and document became excellent communication tools to share with their architect.
Sell graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in interior design and went on to study architecture and decorative arts at the Parsons School of Design in New York City
and Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. She has been an interior designer for more than 25 years and, as a longstanding member of the American Society of Interior Designers, she brought knowledge and experience to the project.
When it came to her own house, however, she admitted that designing other people’s homes is so much easier because the vast selection at every stage of the project has already been filtered by preferences and experiences.
“As a designer, it’s my responsibility to help create a home that is about them, not me, to reflect a sense of place appropriate to where they live, who they are and what fits their lifestyle. Experience has taught me the importance of asking the right questions to solve the puzzle,” she said.
To help edit the interior-design options for her own home, she found a unique approach: imagining her husband as her client.
Farrell owns The John Rugge Shop on India Street. Opened in 1951 by his mentor, John Rugge, the shop is filled with unique art, antiques and accessories, or as Farrell describes it, “things for the imaginary beach cottage.”
It is there that the couple met, became friends and ultimately married. Sell said she respects and is comfortable with Farrell’s style and taste, and they agree on their lifestyle, but of course had to compromise and meld their two visions and tastes into one, just like with all her clients.
When she began the project, Sell knew that her home should be practical, aesthetically pleasing and reflect the island. It also needed to work well with their lifestyle as a couple and provide a joyful space to share with others. With these goals in mind, the couple began working with architect Outerbridge Horsey Associates, based in Washington, D.C. Sell had worked with the firm on previous projects in Washington and Virginia, and appreciated its talent and unwavering “can-do” spirit.
“Building our house was a partnership with our builder, Eric Junghans, our architect, and ourselves. It was a good fit,” she said.
It was important that the house be adaptable to year-round living and comfortable in all seasons. For example, in winter the living room
should be cozy for reading by a fire, so they chose a Rumford-style fireplace, designed with a shallow depth that radiates more heat while still drafting well.
The paint colors and material selections were all inspired by a misty Nantucket day.
“Because the amount of living space we occupy in winter is less than in summer, we de-
signed a zoned HVAC system to isolate parts of the house in the colder months. When spring arrives, we expand. It’s a ritual,” Sell said.
What is unique about the house is that each primary block of the first floor – kitchen, living room, guest-bedroom wing – has its own foundation joined in a staggered fashion. This was done to increase southern exposure and to bring the outside in. As a result, the house has good circulation, abundant light and feels more spacious than its square-footage might imply.
It has a welcoming long center hallway with the guest wing to the right. There’s a bedroom and bath on the first floor, and a stairway to another bedroom above, completing this private wing where guests can come and go at will, without disturbing the activities in the rest of the house.
Straight ahead is the living room, an inviting space with a soaring ceiling and lots of windows. Beyond is a smaller hallway, surprisingly painted Nantucket red and decorated like a small sitting area. From here there’s another stairway to the left, leading to a large and luxurious master suite on the second floor.
To the right, the space opens up to a large, sunlit kitchen, dining area and an intimate seating space. French doors open onto a spacious deck surrounded by a magnificent garden and trees that provide total privacy.
In the summer the couple spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing food and drinks and spilling out onto the outdoor deck, lawn and garden that surrounds the back of the property.
“The kitchen is my favorite room,” Sell said. “It is the heart of our home. I sometimes work at the kitchen table, spreading out floor plans.”
She credits the architect for the beautifullyscaled rooms.
“We never feel like a room is too spacious when we are alone or too small when we have a gathering,” she said.
After careful consideration about a closed-off kitchen and formal dining room, they chose an open plan that encompasses a dining area to accommodate their casual lifestyle. They’ve come to appreciate the multi-purpose aspect of the room. The island acts as a buffet or a work surface and they can interact with others while making meals or have others join in the prep work.
The cabinets, chosen with care, look like furniture, and the overall color palette was influenced by the year-round colors in nature on the island: off-white and pale stone for the walls, cabinetry and floors. The old oak ceiling beams and the dark-stained finish for the wood island base infuse the space with warmth and character, much like a farmhouse kitchen.
During the design process, Sell and Farrell said they kept in mind the people with whom they most wanted to share their home. While growing up as the daughter of a career military officer and one of five children, Sell’s family moved frequently. Each new home brought a new set of geographical, cultural and historical experiences and taught her to be sensitive to places, surroundings and different lifestyles.
Unwittingly, she honed a skill for observation and with each move, she noted and admired her mother’s resourcefulness in creating functional as well as pleasing rooms in the new homes.
“Each room felt familiar because we had our cherished possessions, and thus memories with them,” she said.
This process of making a house a home is ingrained in her psyche and what ultimately drew her to study interior design. She knows that each homeowner has his or her unique attitude about what feels like “home” and she
said that her greatest pleasure is in helping them express this through interior design.
Sell feels that a good house design evolves. The couple buys things selectively and has furnished their home carefully, considering what is appropriate to Nantucket’s identity and its unique sense of place in the world.
“In our house, partially because Francis is a collector, things such as artwork and accessories often change,” she said.
Sometimes they find new things that they prefer to feature. Sometimes they become aware of a missing element, and that creates change. Sometimes even moving a few things around can give a new sense of space or interest.
“And sentimentality. As the years go by, the house seems to contain the love and good karma left behind by visits from family and friends,” Sell said.
Sell and Farrell feel that living on Nantucket is a blessing, and the aim of their home-building experience has been to embrace the island spirit and be reminded of it every day. ///
Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author of design and decorating books. She writes regularly for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and Nantucket Today.