TRANSFORMATIONS: Island Cottage — The ‘More’ of ‘Less’
We’re lucky to live in the summer epicenter of the arts. To make a life here in the Berkshires includes counting down the days I can skip from live dance performance to film, and yet…
All winter I’ve anticipated spending my first spring days in an old island cottage we purchased last year, and I am feeling things about scale I don’t normally feel, given my profession as an interior designer.
Although brand new to us, the cottage was originally built in the 1880s and wears the additions and renovations of the years between. It overflows with funky authenticity, simplicity and downright charm. Sufficient sized rooms each have their own roof, and those are stitched together in an organic patchwork of volumes across the west facing hilltop overlooking the Atlantic. What appears to be a haphazard design from the outside lives most sensibly from within.
The small spaces are just big enough. The ceilings are lower than we’re used to; the ever-present wind skips off the rooflines in search of higher structures to disturb. When I look at the Block Island landscape, which I have painted for over 20 years, I see that the height of the house mimics the wind-sheared vegetation all around it. Nothing here grows very tall. In 1880, folks were not building their homes for self-expression or self-definition, and their simple dwellings hug the hillsides. Farmers and fishermen in those days lived their lives within nature, the seasons, their community and their means. These things informed their building practices.
But can we live with the old ways? Will we fit? With our kids nearing the marrying age and all our creative equipment? And if we make any changes to this cottage, will I loose what I fell in love with? Before we ever stayed overnight in our new/old cottage, I measured the existing conditions, and imagined small expansions to “nudge” a few of the rooms out for more elbowroom … maybe with closets. But that was before we spent our first week there.
Our family is at a tender moment: two still-married, able-bodied parents of two young adult/working daughters who are sometimes available to get together with us to re-form the nucleus. This moment will not last long. After spending a few wonderful days together in the cottage, getting acquainted and saying ‘how-do-you-do?’ — the house imprinted itself upon us. We found our quad often gathered within the same small room because, well, all the rooms are small. They are also cozy, and just about right for everything we need to do or accomplish, like togetherness.
Light and air pours into every room from at least two exposures. The sun’s arc across the sky lives in patterns of yellow light on every dresser top or floor, stating the time of day as plainly as a digital clock. It is fantastic to be inside here, even on a perfect outside day. One small bedroom is so gloriously sunny that our girls decided to sleep in there together, in side-by-side twins, which they have not done for years.
I watched us interact, and I am taking it in: Small scale promotes less cell phone conversations and more group decision-making, like which 1990’s videotape to watch on the VCR. Except for the view, nothing about the house is “fabulous,” or modern, or state of the art. We control nothing remotely with our phones. There is nary a DVD or CD player to be found, no surround sound, no dock for the iPods. Internet is sketchy. Air conditioning has not been invented yet in our cottage, and dresser-top fans are used only on the hottest nights. There is the ocean to cool off in, after all, and it really works.
In 1880, the rooms in winter were heated with a fireplace and water was brought in from a well pump. For the other necessities of human life, there was the outhouse. Now there’s a washer and dryer! Flushing toilets! And hot water showers — one inside and one out! How we have appreciated these simple luxuries during our first stay. I washed our dishes by hand, and felt the evening slow up a bit. I swept the floor, without an effective vacuum on hand, and without using a single kilowatt. It took less than an hour to sweep up the whole house and do a pretty good job.
We want to be careful with our improvement choices. Can we insert a few comforts or add a little space without disturbing the best of what time can teach us? “Pay attention; take it slowly,” I hear in my mind’s ear. There’s more to know, I am learning, about a scale that delivers less.
It’s interesting to be an interior designer entering into the same evaluation process my clients are facing when they come through my studio door for the first time, looking for design help with their “new” Berkshire cottages. I am at the very beginning, reviewing my “Before” photos, and feeling my way forward. This dwelling will introduce us to new ways of sorting ourselves as a family; best to make no assumptions, especially those based on how we’ve lived before … in other dwellings. We’ll take an inventory, inside and out, and learn how to live ‘more’ within the boundaries of “less.”
Karen Beckwith is the principal of Karen Beckwith Creative, an interior design consultancy based in Lenox, serving the East Coast from Western MA with interior design, color, and custom textiles/sewing.
Special thanks to Elisabeth Holmes, interning with The Edge from the John Dewey Academy, for her help in preparing this article for publication.