Behind a rambling wood fence along the southwest coast of Jamaica, Sally Henzell lives in an orchid-colored concrete cottage with her three dogs and an assortment of lizards. When she folds back the cedar shutters, most of the wall that separates house from sea vanishes. Six teardrop-shaped clerestory windows crafted of plywood and plastic sheeting bring in more sky.
Sally, a self-described “writer, artist, poet, photographer, designer, and builder” designed and built the house in 2007, creating more windows as she went. Now it’s so open to the elements that the sea is her wallpaper; the surf, her soundtrack. “People ask if it keeps me awake at night, but it doesn’t,” says Sally. “I was born in Jamaica. This is the beach I bathed on as an infant.”
She calls the bungalow “Bohemia,” a name that’s more than apt. Since the day she was born, the 74-year-old has led a grand bohemian existence. Her parents were English eccentrics who met on the island in 1937 and decided to stay forever. And eventually, so did she.
Here, the main living floor is a 30- by 30-foot vaulted room, where the ceiling is the color of the sea. A wishbone railing and a salt-worn wall of cedar shutters form a breezy barrier between the 30- by 30-foot cottage’s great room and the wide-open surf of Frenchman’s Bay. A pair of striped sofas (sans traditional legs) face each other near the center in front of the foldaway wall. Sally saw a similar set of floor cushions in a magazine and gave the picture to one of her favorite local craftspeople to copy.
“We have a wonderful upholstery man called Bleach, and out of his tiny workshop and his old sewing machine come the best pieces,” she says. Two built-in twin beds line a corner beneath top-hinge louvered shutters, which send ocean breezes through the cleverly designed sleeping corner.
Sally’s bed is along the white-paneled back wall of the cottage, under a cloud of fiery orange mosquito netting. Sally finished the pine bed with a pickled stain, and then added a bedspread she bought at a Brazilian crafts market. The painting on the lower right is by her 14-year-old grandson.
In both rooms, photographs, framed drawings, and paintings abound. Many were given to Sally by artist friends. She once paid a visit, for instance, to the late Carl Abrahams, a well-known Jamaican painter, and noticed a pen-and-ink sketch lying on his bed; it was a head in profile superimposed on a scrawled grocery list. “He said I could have it,” says Sally, who matted and framed it, and hung it on the wall. “It’s my prized possession.”
Here, Sally had a dumbwaiter crafted from a fishing reel. “A genius local guy built it. It goes from the kitchen straight into my bedroom—hopefully bearing a bottle of Champagne!”
Downstairs, her 5- by 10-foot kitchen is enclosed, but the rest of the ground floor is an open expanse with stained concrete flooring and a collection of furniture that changes configuration regularly. “I do a lot of my living and most of my entertaining downstairs,” says Sally. “We are in the driest part of the island, so when hard rains drench the floor, we’re grateful for it and just slosh around barefoot, dinner party and all.” Secondhand finds, like a painted pedestal table and mismatched chairs, outfit the open-air dining porch.
Along with seeking simplicity, Sally wanted to build the home as economically as possible. “Money has never been important in my family,” she says. “We never had much of it growing up. My instinct is to do everything in the least expensive way.”
But thrift begets its own poetry. Sally’s exuberant sense of style comes through in the way she dresses a bed: a pink Indian-print cotton bedspread, orange patchwork pillows, and a draping of sheer red cloth. It’s in the vivid, mottled way she paints an outdoor utility sink (blue-green on the inside and yellow-green on the outside). Next to it, lavender shutters are edged in purple and sponged in red.
In the kitchen, pine cabinets built by a local craftsman have tin doors made from roofing metal; punched nail holes form freehand letters. “P is for pots and pans; G is for garbage,” she says, and laughs. “There’s one with B for brooms, but there aren’t any brooms in it!” Above the tiny stove, a shuttered window opens to a view of the sea.
“I think if I were plopped down in the middle of a big city with everything at my disposal, I wouldn’t know what to do. Here, I use what I have. I collect things and eventually I put them together,” Sally says. Even the ideas themselves originate off the grid: Her friends, she adds, occasionally ask if she looks to popular design Web sites such as Pinterest and Houzz for inspiration. “And I think, ‘Why would I do that?’” she says. “I have too many ideas of my own.”