Mellow Yellow

Richard Leo Johnson
Inspired by childhood memories of summering on the Georgia coast, one interior designer created a tribute to the breezy style of old-fashioned island living.

Unlike today's larger, upscale houses, the original Tybee Island homes were very basic. "Nobody spent a dollar on their beach houses," Michael says. Yet, for him, these quaint, camplike dwellings had the kind of style money just can't buy.

Fueled by his nostalgia for an unpretentious way of living, Michael began renovating the house he named Yellow Cottage. To take it back to its original bones, he had to undo previous owners' "improvements." First, he removed wall-to-wall carpeting and five layers of linoleum to expose the original pine flooring. He tore out drywall to reveal original beaded board, and he replaced paneling that had been removed.

Then he painted the walls in what he calls "colors that feel like the water and the beach": pale blues and greens, sandy yellows, and sparkling whites. Damaged floors received fresh white paint. Together, the soft palette creates an airiness throughout the rooms.

When it was time to furnish the house, Michael set about re-creating the mix-and-match, hand-me-down style that characterized Tybee beach homes. "I come from a family of collectors," he proudly says, citing a grandmother with a great eye for country antiques and parents who are interior decorators and antiques dealers. Several family heirlooms serve as charming focal points in first-floor rooms. Among them is his grandmother's pie safe, which Michael helped refinish as a boy.

Other finds display the same second-hand warmth. In the kitchen, the large enameled sink, bought at a salvage store, looks original to the cottage. "People always say, 'It's great that you kept that sink,' " Michael relays, laughing. Green glassware, aqua-tinted pottery pitchers, and green-enameled metal tables from his mother's childhood home add cool shades of sea glass to the buttery room.

To contrast the farmhouse style, he mixed in antique Chippendale-style chairs and a bench from a British railway station. This combination of formal and relaxed elements defines the cottage's look. "Putting a 50-cent thing next to a $500 piece--that's one of the ways I like to decorate," Michael explains.

In the living room, a $14.95 map of Tybee Island seems just as appropriate as old wicker and antique English bamboo pieces. The natural bamboo and a Parisian Art Deco leather-clad chair offer warm brown notes that contrast with the room's overall white scheme. A long sofa upholstered in a duo of plaid and solid fabrics beckons family and friends to the sitting area.

Brightly colored tiki lights and a dry bar fashioned from a Hoosier cabinet--originally used for storing meal and grain--give the screened side porch a festive air. Ideally positioned to catch sea breezes, the outdoor living and dining space serves gatherings that last long into night. "We eat supper out here most evenings," says Michael.

The Yellow Cottage, built before the advent of air-conditioning, was designed to make the most of mild winds wafting across the island. Cross-ventilation cools the second floor's five bedrooms, office, and sleeping porch. High ceilings allow hot air to rise, while a central hall pulls cooler air in through a door that opens onto the front porch. Each room has several windows that invite breezes to sweep across the beds, aided by the blades of whirring ceiling fans.

Bedrooms boast antique beds that are tall enough to require a running jump. One, a Colonial-era plantation bed, is painted a faded shade of haint blue--a color reputed to ward off evil spirits. A curlicued iron bed swathed in mosquito netting provides a dream nest in a serene blue bedroom. In the most masculine space, a spool bed creates a knobby silhouette.

For Michael, the home's cheerful colors, unpretentious furnishings, and gently aged patinas serve as talismans, invoking the nearly bygone days of simple summer living on Tybee Island. While neighboring cottages have been replaced with modern villas five times their size, this house stands as a quiet reminder of old island style--a mood as comfortable and comforting today as it was a hundred years ago.

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