Cottage Living -June 2009

What makes a little cottage so appealing?

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

When I drive from my house to visit my mom on Upper Main Street I cut through from Pleasant to Vestal by the Maria Mitchell Association and then across on Bloom Street. When the weather is nice, my mother and I walk along these streets and take our time looking at the houses we’ve come to know.

We used to take note of the row of small houses along Vestal Street and comment on how charming they were, nestled between the larger neighborhood structures. Then we watched them disappear, one by one, replaced by newer, bigger homes five or six times their size. It makes me sad because I think the character of the island depends on these little homes. These particular houses weren’t historic and had nothing particularly outstanding about them beyond their smallness.

But they represented something. They were built by and for island residents at a time when some people, those who lived in them, didn’t require, or didn’t desire, or couldn’t afford, anything larger. These houses all over the island contribute to its diversity and with the changes that have come about in our country over the last two years, perhaps it is time, once again, to think small, and think about the positive attributes living in small houses, what some would call cottages, have to offer.

For many years, new house-building on the island has grown to the point where bigger seems to mean better and a 3,000-square-foot house is the norm. But there are still many small houses on the island, some historic, some of no particular character beyond their smallness. Who among us doesn’t stop to admire a small house at the end of a little lane or stuck between a pair of three-story townhouses? We wonder what it’s like inside and how people live in small rooms. The little whale cottages in Sconset provide endless fascination for tourists who visit the island, and they remain a symbol of quaintness and charm.

What makes a little cottage so appealing?

A house is more than square footage, and a not-so-big house is one that can be infused with special details and designed to accommodate the lifestyle of its occupants. Neither size nor volume has anything to do with style and comfort. In fact, interior designer Jean Doyen de Montaillou says about his guest house on Union Street, “Decorating a little cottage can be liberating. You don’t have to take it so seriously. You can have fun with it.”

Many people who live in small spaces have become masters at finding storage space and organizing their possessions, and ruthless about getting rid of what doesn’t belong and making every single item count. But Doyen de Montaillou goes a bit further when he says, “You can’t overdo it. A cottage can take a lot of accessories because what you are trying to do is make it as visually interesting and physically comfortable as possible.”

A small cottage, in fact, is the perfect blank canvas for an elegant approach to decorating because it is so unexpected. In most very large homes, a substantial percentage of space is rarely used. And if you pare down the quantity of space you need, you can put more of your money into giving the house character. Spaciousness isn’t always conducive to comfort. The trick is to combine the beauty of the big house with the efficiency of the small one.

Doyen de Montaillou’s little cottage on Union Street was originally built circa 1950s. It belonged to the DuBock family and remained unchanged for almost 50 years. The rooms are small, ceilings are low, and a narrow, frighteningly-steep staircase leads to a second floor where one must duck down to enter the bedrooms on either side of the tiny hallway at the top. The kitchen is of ample size but has a cottage feeling and opens to a dining/sitting area. No granite-top counters or Sub-Zero refrigerators here, and this is what makes it so charming.

Doyen de Montaillou saw it as a decorating challenge. He and his life partner Michael Kovner own a townhouse across the street but needed a cottage for the many guests they entertain during the summer season. Located directly across the street, this little house was the perfect solution.

The only major work they did was to install central air-conditioning, a new pebble driveway and a bit of landscaping. The interior rooms, however, were broken up into basically two apartments so Doyen de Montaillou created his office in the back apartment where there is an open-bar-style kitchen, a small bathroom and a delightful bedroom under the eaves upstairs. The back door leads out to a private garden area where he can also meet with clients in a casual setting.

“Nothing in the house is precious or overly expensive,” he says. “In fact, most of the furnishings came from Rafael Osona’s auctions on the island as well as yard-sale finds that I painted or had re-covered.” The first decision was to paint the living room, dining, sitting and kitchen areas in a hydrangea-blue color. When decorating a small space, using one color throughout unifies the rooms and makes them flow from one to the other and seem less chopped up.

“Blue and white is so quintessentially Nantucket style,” Doyen de Montaillou says, “that it was the right choice.” The color he chose is a perfect match with the hydrangeas that grow all over the island. Purchased at Marine Home Center, it is one of Benjamin Moore’s historical antique colors. The front hallway and the only downstairs bedroom were painted off-white to create separation from the rest of the cottage. All the window and wall moldings were given a fresh coat of semi-gloss white paint.

A cottage should be maintenance-free and toward that end Doyen de Montaillou used Sunbrella fabric on the upholstered furniture because it is stain-resistant. Toile curtains are ready-mades from Country Curtains and create a pattern that is reflected in the use of accessories such as plates, lamps and stools (all inexpensive and easily replaced should a guest accidentally break something).

“It’s the look I was after,” Doyen de Montaillou says, “but I also think a cottage should have an air of elegance.” This is found in the sumptuous club chairs and graceful lines of the love seat as well as the attention to detail like the needlepoint pillows, an antique trunk and side chair. When you mix in a few good pieces like an antique or two, it elevates the overall feeling. This is not, after, all a beach cottage, but an in-town home nestled among grander abodes.

“I used lots of silver and mirrors for light and sparkle,” Doyen de Montaillou says. “I found gold-framed mirrors and painted them silver because gold is a bit heavy and too formal, while silver is more youthful. Also, if you notice, I used oversized mirrors and placed them in the middle of the living-room walls so the room seems larger. The original hardwood floors were refinished and remain bare, allowing the soft patina of the wood to become an integral part of the design.”

Leslie Linsley is the author of many books on home style and American crafts. Her most recent is “Nantucket, Island Living” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) with photographs by Terry Pommett. Her column “Home Style” appears regularly in The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.