How a Smart Interior Design Saved This House

By Arlene Hirst / Published by Dwell
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An intervention from a clever interior designer spares an old beach house on Fire Island, New York, from demolition.

About five years ago, a young New York City couple—she’s a real estate executive, he’s a bond trader—decided that they wanted a beach house on Fire Island, a narrow spit of land off the southern coast of Long Island where he had spent his childhood summers. They found an architecturally undistinguished wooden cabin that was built sometime in the 1950s and whose greatest asset was its location high above the oceanfront. It measured only 1,400 square feet, which didn’t seem adequate for a couple with two young sons. They bought it with the idea of making radical changes and, if necessary, tearing it down and replacing it. 

The steps lead to a roof deck, where the owners can enjoy sweeping views of the ocean.

The steps lead to a roof deck, where the owners can enjoy sweeping views of the ocean.

Photo: Lucas Allen

It was a major project, but the couple didn’t have to waste time finding someone they trusted to take it on. The wife had become good friends with Alexandra Angle at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and they had remained close after graduation. Angle had gone on to become a successful interior designer, and the couple had happily hired her to design their homes in Manhattan and upstate New York. Asking her to transform their Fire Island home was a no-brainer. 

The couple bought the house in February 2010. They asked Angle to make it livable for the summer so they could take advantage of the upcoming beach season, after which, they thought, they would take the next step: a complete renovation or a teardown. But the next step never came. The family was so delighted with Angle’s transformations that they gave their old house an indefinite reprieve.

A Potence wall lamp by Jean Prouvé and a Dioscuri table lamp by Michele De Lucchi for Artemide illuminate the living area, which includes a Wire Base Elliptical Table by Charles and Ray Eames. 

A Potence wall lamp by Jean Prouvé and a Dioscuri table lamp by Michele De Lucchi for Artemide illuminate the living area, which includes a Wire Base Elliptical Table by Charles and Ray Eames. 

Photo: Lucas Allen

To get the house ready for summer in just three months—and to avoid spending a lot of money on what was supposed to be a temporary fix—proved a challenge. "Everything was just really basic," Angle says. "They wanted it really relaxed, relatively easy, and somewhat low-key."

Angle used color as her not-so-secret weapon, employing it strategically on her canvas of white walls and ceilings, employing a sunny-bright palette that turned the once-drab dwelling into a visual feast. Her inspiration came from the colorful kāhili feather standards that she saw on a visit to the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

The wood screen concealing the outdoor shower was painted yellow and white, matching the color scheme in the guest bathroom.

The wood screen concealing the outdoor shower was painted yellow and white, matching the color scheme in the guest bathroom.

Photo: Lucas Allen

The main living area has floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a sweeping ocean view. Angle refreshed the built-in banquettes around the room’s perimeter with fabric from Liberty, buying rolls of extra yardage knowing that beach houses get a lot of wear and tear and that the cushions would eventually need to be re-covered.

Alexandra Angle transformed a beachside cabin into a colorful retreat for a college friend and her family. The living area features a PP130 Circle Chair by Hans Wegner and a Shaker wood stove by Antonio Citterio with Toan Nguyen for Wittus. A Tropicalia Cocoon hanging chair by Patricia Urquiola complements the fabric from Liberty that Angle used for the cushions on the built-in banquette.  

Alexandra Angle transformed a beachside cabin into a colorful retreat for a college friend and her family. The living area features a PP130 Circle Chair by Hans Wegner and a Shaker wood stove by Antonio Citterio with Toan Nguyen for Wittus. A Tropicalia Cocoon hanging chair by Patricia Urquiola complements the fabric from Liberty that Angle used for the cushions on the built-in banquette.  

Photo: Lucas Allen

The piano, a leftover from the home’s previous owners, got a fresh face when Angle had it painted white, flanking it with chairs from Källemo and a Flos floor lamp that echoes the lines of the chairs. A medicine chest that hangs over the piano is actually a bar—a custom version of one that Angle designed and produces. A wood-burning stove by Antonio Citterio with Toan Nguyen is essential for chilly, rainy days, and a Tropicalia Cocoon swinging nest chair by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso adds a whimsical twist. "The kids love it," Angle says.

The kitchen required no extensive intervention; Angle simply removed all the cabinet doors and painted the interiors a startling red, and replaced the refrigerator, stove, and countertop. She chose linoleum from Armstrong for the floors throughout the home—a practical and inexpensive choice for a beach house. In the kitchen, the tiles are installed in an orange-and-white striped pattern. 

In the kitchen, Angle removed the cabinet doors and applied a coat of Poppy Red paint by Benjamin Moore, and put down a striped linoleum floor to brighten the space.

In the kitchen, Angle removed the cabinet doors and applied a coat of Poppy Red paint by Benjamin Moore, and put down a striped linoleum floor to brighten the space.

Photo: Lucas Allen

The dining area, a contrast in all white, is furnished with Bertoia chairs surrounding a Kartell table. A print by the Dutch photographer Leo de Goede is the only art on the wall. 

A Single Octopus chandelier by Autoban hangs above a Four dining table by Ferruccio Laviani for Kartell and a set of side chairs by Harry Bertoia for Knoll.

A Single Octopus chandelier by Autoban hangs above a Four dining table by Ferruccio Laviani for Kartell and a set of side chairs by Harry Bertoia for Knoll.

Photo: Lucas Allen

The color story continues in the dark hall, which Angle brightened by painting the doors leading to each of the four bedrooms a shade that coordinates with the palette of the room beyond. The bedrooms are all simply furnished and are mostly white, with vibrant linens, accessories, and lighting adding dashes of color here and there. The boys share one room for sleep and one for play.

he boys’ playroom is outfitted with a Uten.Silo wall organizer by Dorothee Becker for Vitra and a pair of May Day lamps by Konstantin Grcic for Flos that dangle from a set of Peace hooks by Louise Hederström for Maze.

he boys’ playroom is outfitted with a Uten.Silo wall organizer by Dorothee Becker for Vitra and a pair of May Day lamps by Konstantin Grcic for Flos that dangle from a set of Peace hooks by Louise Hederström for Maze.

Photo: Lucas Allen

The bathrooms, their age showing in decrepit fixtures and rusty water stains, needed the most work. Angle kept the existing plumbing but moved walls and had new fixtures installed. Both bathrooms now have boldly striped linoleum floors. 

In the guest bathroom, a set of Senegalese nesting baskets mirrors the yellow-and-white pattern on the linoleum floor.

In the guest bathroom, a set of Senegalese nesting baskets mirrors the yellow-and-white pattern on the linoleum floor.

Photo: Lucas Allen

The family loves their beach retreat, and it shows; the house looks as good as it did when Angle finished it five years ago. An overhaul may have been the original plan, but it doesn’t seem to be in its future.

Fire Island Beach House Floor Plan

Fire Island Beach House Floor Plan

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Arlene Hirst

@arlene_hirst

Deputy director of design at Metropolitan Home magazine until it closed in 2009, Arlene Hirst is now a freelance journalist. Her byline appears frequently in New York Times Magazine as well as Surface, Modern, and Interior Design magazines and Elle Decor Italia.

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