Patrick J. Hamilton: New England Summer Style

June 7, 2011

Photo by Brian Vanden Brink, from New England Home. Click to see more.

As a Miami boy, I’m no stranger to beach life. I’ve had South Florida sand in my suit for as long as I can remember. But college years in Rhode Island introduced me to New England’s take on beach life. Even though I went back home to Miami every summer (with its non-stop air conditioning and almost-as-eternal hurricane season), my RISD years gave me an introductory course in the celebratory, seasonal and fleeting nature of New England summers…and all the elements of style that bring it to life, indoors and out.

Jamestown, Rhode Island; photo by Marc Langlois

When I think of New England summer style, I think of Shingle-style homes surrounded by sea-spray–tolerant gardens, docks and piers, nautical art, beadboard, clam bakes and palettes of cottage whites, lobster reds and blueberry pie. I think of vintage pond yachts and sailor’s valentines, and doors thrown open wide to air out a home that sat patiently, pipes drained and white sheets making friendly ghosts of living room furniture, awaiting the happy return of its barefoot summer residents.

A vintage floor, white-painted cabinets, beadboard ceiling, nautically inspired fixtures and cotton throw rugs make this kitchen, to this Florida boy, quintessentially New England and eternally summer. Photo by Sam Gray, from New England Home. Click to see more.

Confession: my exposure to New England style has come in part from Pottery Barn and J. Crew catalogs, re-runs of Wings and the July issue of Martha Stewart Living. But in my defense, as an adult I’ve had more chances to catch first-hand glimpses of how New England welcomes the warmth of summer: a delightfully civilized weekend in Newport around the green grass courts and old-school, preppy-chic style of the Tennis Hall of Fame, and a late-season escape to P-town, when deeply tanned skin, end-of-season sales and cooler nights signaled the quiet winding down of the summer’s party.

I’ve also come to know many who make the beaches and lakeshores of New England their long-weekend, summer or year-round homes, and the style of it all (enviously glimpsed on Facebook posts, Foursquare check-ins and Flickr accounts) has bolstered my appreciation. So, fantasy or reality, firsthand or as a voyeur, when it comes to summer style, boy do I love how you New Englanders (lobster) roll!

My outsider Southern viewpoint might seem suspiciously cliché, so I turned to some of those more well-rooted friends to help get to what New England summer style is really all about. “It’s all about bringing the outdoors inside,†says P-town craftsman and carpenter Kevin Duthie. “Once the warm weather hits, the windows stay open and are framed by flower boxes and potted flowering plants. Artwork includes paintings and drawings often depicting the Cape’s natural landscape, and there is always some beach glass, or driftwood or shells, adorning an inside table or an outdoor deck.†Okay, maybe my view isn’t so cliché after all!

Even in this picture-perfect New England interior the outdoors comes in, as Kevin Duthie notes, with a refreshing seascape in a driftwood frame, a sea-and-sky, blue-and-white palette, casual painted-wood finishes, garden ceramics and a chunk of coral. Photo by Sam Gray, from New England Home. Click to see more.

But my stylish friend and New England ex-pat Dianna Braginton-Smith thinks the true New England summer experience runs a bit deeper than mere style cues, and notes that it’s usually more well-loved than picture perfect. “Authentic New England style means Yankee…and Yankee dictates that a certain level of borderline shabbiness abounds, driven by thrift, practicality and ingenuity,†she says. “A Cape Cod home or cottage, if owned by authentic Cape Codders (several generations deep, birth certificate from a Wellfleet or Truro hospital) is a well-worn, practical place, adhering strictly to the mantra ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’ Mended braided rugs, dog-eared books and back issues of Readers Digest abound.†Dianna also notes that it’s often a house trend that separates the local from the visitor. “Entry to a true Cape Cod home is always ’round the back, usually via the kitchen,†Dianna adds. “You can always tell the ‘wash-ashores’ (tourists) because they try the front door first, which is inevitably locked and sometimes even blocked by an urn with cheerful–but cautionary–potted petunias.â€

Catalogs and magazines have long fueled my New England summer fantasy, like this room vignette from Wisteria. But even fantasy rooms offer cues to the real-life look of New England summer: a casual assembly of various styles, wicker, cotton rugs, painted floors, unadorned windows and sea- and shore-inspired accessories. Photo courtesy of Wisteria

For chic New Englander and talented interior designer Marc Langlois, it’s more about lake than beach, but lots of that Yankee authenticity Dianna notes find its way to Marc’s cottage backdoor, too. “The lake house is the place where all the castaway furniture ends up, a mish-mash of styles,†says Marc. “Everything from an Adirondack chair to a lumpy parlor sofa covered in a floral slipcover, painted floors worn down by years of bare feet running across them. Early evenings sitting on the back porch shelling fresh pea pods, looking forward to falling asleep with a blanket, windows wide open, listening to the crickets. No air conditioning, just the breeze from an old fan.†Okay, I’m in. Any room on the sleeping porch, Marc?

To me, New England should be the official location of summer holidays and long weekends. I guess the seasonal nature of summer itself makes it such a party for New Englanders, and the deep roots of many residents make it all quintessentially American. Photo by Marc Langlois

So how do you bring a dash of all this Yankee summer ease into your home?

I’d do it with painted wood finishes, like the Tango Cottage Coffee Table from Ethan Allen.

Ethan Allen’s Tango Cottage Coffee Table

Accessories like Crate & Barrel’s America’s Cup Pond Yacht, and Seashell Gravel piled into the base of a hurricane lantern. Painted wicker (perhaps a rescue from a thrift store or consignment shop, in true Yankee spirit).

Crate & Barrel’s America’s Cup Pond Yacht. The real deal is usually available on eBay.

Crate & Barrel Seashell Gravel

VivaTerra’s 7 Seas Shower Curtain or Uncommon Goods’ Spinnaker Sail Shower Curtain, both made from genuine recycled sails, are a way to bring some Yankee ingenuity and seaside style into your home. But consider them as curtains for a summer porch, or crisp sheets as part of a seasonal bedroom makeover.

VivaTerra’s 7 Seas Shower Curtain

Uncommon Goods’ Spinnaker Sail Shower Curtain

Thick towels, in navy and white stripes. And a cachepot full of bright red geraniums, dotted with shells from summers past (or at least the appearance thereof, with Pottery Barn’s Richard Taylor Shell Cachepot).

Pottery Barn’s Richard Taylor Shell Cachepot

And there’s always room for some whimsy… like Wisteria’s French Garden Audouin’s Gull…

Wisteria’s French Garden Audouin’s Gull

…or Crate & Barrel’s Harbor Shell Bucket for your littlest clam diggers.

Crate & Barrel’s Harbor Shell Bucket

Remember, a little of any thematic design goes a long way, and you want authentic summer style, not seafood restaurant kitsch.

What defines New England summer style to you? And how do you bring the look home?

From this Miami boy, to my friends lucky enough to call New England their summer home, I bid you smooth sailing! Maybe I’ll see you on the beach–if Marc can get me off his sleeping porch!

–Patrick J. Hamilton
Patrick J. Hamilton is an interior designer, stylist, humorist, activist and interiors writer based in New York City, were he writes his interiors blog AskPatrick. He was the winner of Apartment Therapy’s first annual “Smallest Coolest†Apartment Contest, and has been featured on HGTV,, in major shelter magazines and on various design Web sites. Patrick is currently battling a Facebook addiction.

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