Artistic License

October 28, 2014

A couple with a penchant for collecting decorate their Maine house with results that are unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and wonderfully personal.

Text by Megan Fulweiler    Photography by Trent Bell    Produced by Karin Lidbeck Brent

There have been no official studies, but there just might be something magical in Maine’s drinking water. Visitors—young and old—fall in love with the place and return again and again like migrating ospreys. More than a few take up permanent residence. True, the coast is breathtaking and picture-postcard villages appear one after another, but there must also be a subtle spell at work to charm so many so completely.

Take photographer James Geras and Daniel Tousignant, a painter who is also widely recognized for his glass and ceramics. Owners of a successful San Francisco gallery bearing their names, the two bought an eighteenth-century center-chimney cape on five acres in pretty Lincoln County seven years ago. Besotted with the structure, they snatched it up without even investigating all the rooms. “They were just too crowded,” recalls Tousignant.

Since then, while they’ve been zipping between coasts revamping their northern getaway, they’ve only become more enamored with the state. They recently purchased a carriage house in nearby ­Wiscasset to recast as a second personality-filled gallery they’ll call Sheepscot Hill.

Their enthusiasm for the countryside results in scores of visitors, too. And, like everyone else, guests always seem reluctant to leave. Of course, that’s not surprising, given that it’s Maine and that the owners have forged a welcoming, wonderful nest chock-full of visual treats. Tousignant is a full-tilt collector, buying not just one object at a time, but sometimes whole collections of catchy items. “I find beauty in lots of things people throw away,” he says.

The living room, where Tousignant has painted an appealing tree-dotted mural in the style of early-American muralist Rufus Porter, is a fine example of his brio. A basket of antique light bulbs, treasured for their unusual shapes, sits on the hearth. Just above, a marble collection fills a favorite brass scale (just one of many scales the two collect). Old German sandstone building blocks fashion a quirky skyline along the mantel in front of an engaging study of a Civil War soldier. “I bought it at a country auction thinking I’d use the canvas for a painting,” says Tousignant. “I didn’t find the portrait till I’d hosed off the dirt.”

Country auctions and barn sales are familiar stomping grounds for the owners, who relied primarily on their creativity when it came to updating their old home. Simple steps like the removal of light-blocking trees and the addition of a modern bay window made a huge impact. Still more dynamic was the opening of the house to its fabulous surroundings. The men plugged in two sets of French doors—one off the kitchen, the other off the family room—giving access to a generous deck. “We have so many theater friends. We light up the deck and put on impromptu singing and dancing shows like South Pacific,” Tousignant, who’s also always on the lookout for costumes, explains with delight.

Smartly demolishing a wall between the keeping room and a small utility area allowed the men to merge the two and devise an airy kitchen with a charming fireplace-lit dining area. Affordable Ikea cabinets provide storage, while paneling (crafted from wood salvaged from remapping the upstairs) ties the fresh space to the past. Four-inch-thick pine counters with a live edge—crafted by Eben Lovejoy of Dry Kye Rustic Furniture in Waterville, Maine—give witness to the owners’ goal of making the house functional and stylish.

Hefty exposed beams that once hid under contemporary ceilings are the most prominent reminders of the building’s age. Conscientious about reusing materials, the men saved everything they could, like the doors and pine floors that, along with the couple’s art and mementos, add to the cozy ambience. Many of the latter perch on shelves in the library, along with globes, rare antique books, and baskets.

The dining room has its own signature displays: antique wood planes in one spot, drills in another. Floating above the solid mahogany table with its decoratively painted top a chandelier festooned with handblown glass orbs by Kevin Grady injects a playful note. Guests line up on Amish-style wood benches for dinner, and watch the light flicker like fireflies through a centerpiece of handblown vases harvested from a local shop.

The family room serves as entertainment central in spirit as well as design. The intimate space, with its relaxed furnishings and rustic stump tables (cut by Lovejoy from a downed tree), inspires gatherings year-round. Among the treasures lodged here are a cache of antique musical instruments, an antique player piano, and a Karaoke machine. The bar sports a fridge, and there’s a vintage-looking TV (actually a midcentury case sheltering a new model) for movie watching.

The screened porch’s lure is irresistible, at least until temperatures plummet. Night or day, the owners and whoever is about convene around the shapely driftwood table. At their feet lies an antique Bakhtiari rug. And there’s another collection on parade to boost interest as well. This time, it’s a bevy of portly vintage stoneware crock jugs.

In yesterday’s world, the home’s second level was an Alice-in-Wonderland warren of tiny rooms with head-bumping ceilings. “James refused to come up the stairs,” remembers Tousignant. To remedy the situation, the men removed the walls and forged one large master bedroom with sitting and dressing areas instead. Old wheel forms from Elmer’s Barn in Coopersville, Maine, juxtaposed with a pair of modern sculptures make an arresting composition to wake up to every morning.

“I guess you could describe our approach as artistic with an eclectic vibe,” Tousignant says, far too modestly considering the home’s appealing chemistry. The warm and personal decor speaks to the couple’s aesthetic. Heaven knows it gets people’s attention almost as much as the flag Tousignant painted on the old barn. Spy that and you’d be right in thinking some very talented people live here. •

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