Sconset Style

Interior designer Donna Elle refreshes a charming 17th-century honeymooner’s cottage in Nantucket’s famous fishing village.

by Jennifer Sperry

Photographs by Matt Kisiday 

Styling by Karin Lidbeck-Brent

For Donna Elle, interior design is so much more than just bureaus and paint colors. The design veteran, who established herself on Nantucket during the ’70s, has developed a unique approach over the years that is more wholistic, more spiritually nourishing than focusing on just the building blocks of color, texture, and form.

“Design is really about a whole person—how you want to feel when you step inside,” explains Elle. “Your home is an extension of your personal life. It’s where you go to feel comforted and safe, to recharge and perhaps even heal. It needs to feel congruent with your inner journey.”

Elle uses this same wholistic approach, whether working on a new Shingle Style build or a historic renovation on Nantucket, Cape Cod, and beyond. At the outset, she asks her clients how they want to feel when they step inside their homes, and she uses their answers as a litmus test while executing the design.

When she asked Michele and Jeff, owners of a charming, shingled cottage in Sconset, what they envisioned for their historic gem, their request for a timeless, evocative interior became the designer’s starting point.

Dating back to the 17th century, the shingled cottage is one of the village’s oldest homes. It had already been renovated by its previous owners. However, the new stewards—professed lovers of old homes—wanted to finesse and personalize the interior.

“This is a historic fishing village on the island’s eastern tip,” describes Michele. “Originally, the indigenous people fished and scavenged for beached whales here; then the settlers arrived and did the same. As industry in Nantucket Town increased,” she continues, “fishermen started to escape by bringing their families here for the summer. They started building simple shacks, which ultimately formed a village.”

Elle, along with her daughter, Katie Williams, a senior designer at Donna Elle Design, used this rich history for inspiration. The design duo wanted to keep that sense of history alive while at the same time developing an approachable interior for modern living and entertaining.

“To know Sconset Village is to understand this home,” says Williams, who joined her mother’s firm seven years ago. “We envisioned a fishing captain departing his boat, welcomed home by his wife and children in their quaint and humble fishing cabin,” she reveals. “This history made Sconset what it is today: charming and idyllic. But what I love about this cottage is that, once you step inside, you leave the bustle behind and enter a magical, hidden hideaway.”

During the last renovation, the structure was raised and a full lower level added, increasing the cottage’s livable space by one-third. Thanks to this expansion, the layout packs a lot into a modest, neighbor-surrounded envelope.

Michele and Jeff spend a lot of time in their kitchen, which Michele describes as “wonderful and cozy, especially with the fireplace giving off heat on cooler days.” Elle polished the cook area with a backsplash of handmade Morrocan “Zellige” tile by Zia Tile. The undulating turquoise-greens on the clay squares complement the cabinetry’s distressed hunter green. At the dining table, two Palecek armchairs invite post-meal lingering.

Another favorite hangout is the living room, carved into three distinct relaxation destinations. Jeff’s go-to is the more formal central seating area, with a veneered burled maple coffee table prefacing a purposefully deep and comfortable sofa by Lee Jofa. The second resting spot is an antique Swedish desk in the Gustavian style.   

The living room’s third destination, a built-in day bed, is where Michele often starts the day with her laptop and coffee. “This is a custom, multifunctional reading nook,” describes Elle. “We added a sconce for task lighting and a privacy curtain on the window. Here, Michele can slide the window open and dream away.”

Yet another seating vignette, with two chairs upholstered in a Rogers & Goffigon fabric (“Lagoon” colorway), beckons in the nearby cocktail lounge. “This was previously a dining room and is now more of a pass-through space,” notes Michele. Osborne & Little drapes boast Persian motifs, with a dappled effect that recreates the handmade beauty of oriental rugs. This fabric is printed on a luxurious chenille with a horizontal strié.

Visitors have a choice between two guest bedrooms: one on the ground floor and another in a loft space. Kids (and sometimes adults) prefer the lower level’s third bedroom option with custom bunk beds. “Donna designed the bunks to mimic a ship’s berth,” says Michele. “They have full mattresses and everyone who stays here loves them.”

Meanwhile, the clients retreat to their primary suite, also in the lower level. The cognac painted concrete floors (with radiant heat) inspired the fruitwood finish of the custom king-size canopy bed. Blush-colored walls catch the morning light while the swirling, wave-like, apricot-rose Victoria Larsen wallcovering forms an energetic, romantic accent wall.

Faux painted accents by decorative painter, teacher, and islander Mary Emery further refine the cottage’s color story. For the stairwell, where the clients’ artwork is illuminated by gallery lighting, Emery’s striated paint application mimics the texture of grasscloth. She also customized the kitchen vent hood with a motif drawn from the pattern on the cocktail lounge’s drapes.

Ultimately, the clients appreciated Elle’s personal and professional relationship with the island and knew she would hold the history of their home in high regard. The finished cottage is visually sensual, evocative of place, and infused with artistic detail. Now, when Michele and Jeff step inside, they feel all the right feelings.

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