As a designer Markham Roberts In his inspiring new book, he explains, Decorating NotesThere are thousands of moving parts that need to work together coherently to achieve a successful outcome. at The first book Addressing design fundamentals (although I will hardly categorize anything in his interiors as essential), he now exposes all of those aspects that help make his work memorable – from the search for the client’s deepest desires to the practical application of challenges and solutions, the decisive addition of layers and touch. The final thing is unexpected.
It is all these considerations that make Markham rooms stick with you, not just for their beauty and comfort but for their exceptional coexistence with the client, venue and authenticity. One of these projects has its own chapter – An Unusual House in Nantucket that you may have seen when it was published in Architectural Digest. The chapter titled Fate is not only insightful, but it is anecdotal and full of humor (be sure to check out “Markham’s Travel Needs” in the introduction). Knowing Markham and getting to know his “smart, funny, and naughty” client here on Nantucket, I am delighted to be able to share more about this very special island home including some unpublished photos and behind the scenes information!
Q: As I said in the introduction to your new book, decorating is a complex business and process and I can’t think of anything more complicated than decorating a large house from scratch on this tiny, often inaccessible island 30 miles from the sea. How many years and trips did this project cover?
MR: It was about a year and a half of work – on the fast track and I spent a lot of time there for the installation, which had to be done in several phases, given all the different vendors and the sheer amount of what would have to come in the house. I remember the first time I visited the site when I got on the ship, and it was in January of the year that there were ice waves on the shore. I don’t think I was much cooler than that day in a house that was an open construction site.
Q: Even though your client gave you the freedom to design everything, were you given any kind of direction to at least start the process?
MR: I knew it had to be a home for both the client and her extended family. We had to make it comfortable for everyone, logical and practical for different needs, and we had to deal with light and how it changes seasonally, the house is used more than just summer. We created summer and winter blankets, curtains and cushions to give home a different feel when the light changes with shorter days. This was very important to the client, but other than that, she didn’t provide much direction. I think she wanted to see what I was going to bring her out, and luckily we have similar tastes, so we were able to get to work quickly.
Q: It seems to me that this project was an act of elaborate acrobatics – how do you balance a very specific sense of place like Nantucket with a broader design scheme and keep what is essentially a beach house (albeit large) from becoming a formal salad decorating play?
MR: Through the client’s exceptional art and important collections of antiques and decorative arts, I carefully selected more informal materials and patterns and attempted to arrange the furniture in comfortable and less rigid ways – all to bring down any imagination that might easily take hold when dealing with property like this. The client has a great sense of humor and enjoys her family and friends, and it was important to her to make the house attractive.
Q: What is the key to incorporating so many Nantucket sets in a home (baskets, Sailor Valentines, bird sculptures, etc.) without looking contrived or anticipated?
MR: Things like that are undoubtedly charming, and the client had a lot of them, which I tried to use in different ways. For example, we had a number of complete sets of stacking baskets in Nantucket, which fit together like Russian dolls. We chose to hang the two antique sets that were set high in the entry hall on the walls as sculptural art, and use the newly made sets around the house as temporary storage and flower pots. The antique set is out of reach and thus protected, and the newest is within reach for use. We’ve used Valentines in the seas too – hard to resist, but they live in a granddaughter’s bedroom where they complement her pink and lavender scheme or have been used in bathrooms because they can’t get damaged by humidity.
Q: I can’t even imagine how you started sorting and choosing from the enormous groups of your client. How did it even start?
MR: That was the challenge this job faced, evaluating and finding a use for the client’s many things. We had to adjust the pieces and think of different ways of using things, so that they felt new to her and fit in this new home. Take the large group of carved waterfowl; Instead of displaying on tables and on bookshelves (which would have caused us to forgo books) we made special arches and hung them in groups on the walls in two areas, creating flock art and adding different visual interest to those rooms.
Q: What is the key to presenting these groups in a modest way so that they charm rather than flaunt them.
MR: I think it’s more about an overall concept than a conscious decision, which is that both the customer and the customer value the less formal things of a home like this. Neither of us is naturally attracted to luxurious or precious fabrics and trimming a lot. When making decisions like the use of different designs of wood panels as an architectural backdrop in many areas of the house, painted in a crisp white, we anchor their objects and accentuate them against a plain background, or at least look minimalist. Had we hung the important 18th-century Indian watercolors of birds of prey and Julia Condon’s colorful chakra palette collection in the entry hall, on the luxurious glazed plaster work walls, it would have made an entirely different feel – I think it’s not very welcoming.
Q: What are some of the key ingredients that helped you successfully navigate the line between highly sophisticated design, detailed design and minimalist style?
MR: Take dining room wall upholstery for example. I wanted to create the panel effect with the direction of the tactile lines, and although this is an incredibly complex and delicate task of arranging each strip perfectly, and working with the architectural design, I wanted to feel simplicity rather than be clear. Using mattress pads helped diminish any formal quality and seem less satisfying and keep the overall palate in the room dull or subdued, allowing the dramatic pieces in the room to really shine.
Q: There is a strong tradition and history for handicrafts on the island. How did you find so many people to work with locally?
MR: My client has been going to Nantucket for decades, and she already had a great affinity for local crafts so I was happy to learn from her experiences and her relationships. We worked with Hilary Anapole to weave custom rugs according to the great loom tradition and there was no time when I visited the beautiful John Sylvia store at the bottom of Main Street and I got nothing special.
Q: I’ve kept the entrance and halls clean and bright with white mills and a stylish neutral Bob Christian floor. What was this thought?
MR: The room is two storeys with a stairwell going down over it. It has high windows and has an interesting shape with ceiling lines. We wanted to play with the wood panels in their directions on different parts of the crisp white walls, and place the walls against the gorgeous Bob Christian floor. Both treatments were made to visually bring out all the different pieces in the room – the old English dining room table, Dutch mirrors, Indian watercolor, antique stacking baskets from Nantucket, provincial and painted bench stools, Julia Condon artwork, Chinese export and blue and white delft. There is a lot going on, so I wanted to balance that with the simplicity of the white walls.
Q: You’re known for your brilliant use of color and pattern and this house in particular has a bunch of both. Any advice on how to achieve the blend without making an amazing effect?
MR: Put it together and see how it works. If it looks bad, throw it away and try something else. And remember, things don’t have to match, and they probably shouldn’t. It’s fun to experiment with colors and play with pattern.
Q: Although the blue and white color scheme may seem an obvious choice for a Nantucket home, I have managed to soften any reference to it to feel appropriate but not overwhelming or obvious. Any advice?
MR: I don’t really think of this house as blue and white, but when I look at it, there are four rooms that basically have blue and white schemes. Here again, I never like things to match, and I think you should bring up the contrasts so things don’t get boring. One room has a burnt contrast of orange and pompey red, the other one has all the green, brown and gold colors for all the dulls hanging on the walls, the client’s bedroom features a lovely pink color, soft and bright alike a blue and white scheme.
Working with a client like this was smart and clever, who loved decor, had cool things, and most importantly, whoever wanted to indulge in my creativity was a great experience. I think the result is a home that fits perfectly with her, and that’s his success.
All photos by Nelson Hancock
Thank you Markham- It’s always a pleasure chatting with you and I hope to see you on the island soon!