7 Charming Carolina Cottages
1. Retro Figure Eight Island Retreat
A collection of seashells in faded shades of purple, blue, pink, cream, and tan was like a fresh-off-the-beach mood board for interior designer Barrie Benson. "My client dumped the shells into my hands and said, "I want the home to look like this,"" she recalls of the early inspiration for a two-story house on Figure Eight Island, a barrier island off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina.
The owners also wanted their new home to blend with its neighbors, says Benson. Much of the island's development dates to the 1970s—and bears the trademarks of its principle creative force of the era, architect Ligon Flynn—and the owners opted to borrow from these influences.
"Vaulted ceilings, central breezeways, and bleached wood details are all classic Flynn elements," says Wilmington-based architect Michael Ross Kersting, who worked with his clients, a Charlotte-based couple with three children, to blend these with more contemporary details. Here, Benson and Kersting share their design secrets for giving a brand new beach house true throwback character.
Pastel throw pillows bring the vintage sectional up to coastal code for a past-meets-present vibe that’s anything but outdated. The subtle metal finishes on the coffee and console tables add just the right touch of glam.
Idea Spotlight: Make every seat the best in the house. The turquoise club chairs from vanCollier swivel to face the incredible ocean views afforded by the oversized windows.
Midcentury-Inspired Breakfast Nook
The breakfast room is a swell salute to the curvy forms of the late midcentury: A half moon–shaped tufted banquette and a custom oak table with a Saarinen tulip base sync well with Hans Wegner chairs painted light aqua. Rounded 1960s-inspired sconces and a watercolor collage series by North Carolina artist Selena Beaudry stand out against a neutral grasscloth wallcovering.
Glam Master Bedroom
Groovy hues, like this regal purple, are a throwback must-have in any retro beach house. In the master bedroom, for instance, Benson used a lavender arrowroot wallcovering by Phillip Jeffries and lilac, patterned draperies to help contrast—and in turn highlight—the view. The bed is vintage rattan, and the mirrored-top nightstand is Benson's design. "The Greek key detailing is a subtle nod to the 1960s," she says.
Cozy, Comfortable Porch
"I wanted the porch to be mostly neutral, and then add pops of color with trendy throw pillows, to keep the focus on the view," says Benson. The neutral porch also helps the new house blend in with the island's original homes. After three years of exposure to sunshine and salty breezes drifting over the dunes, the decks and shingles have begun to gray, much like the home's '70s neighbors. "Every time we arrive, it looks different," says the owner. "It just fits in so well with the island we love."
2. Bold Wrightsville Beach Family Getaway
Over the course of a decade, this getaway on the marsh in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, had seen it all: kids growing up, graduating, moving away, getting married, having kids of their own. But while things changed and evolved for the family who lived there, the house stayed the same. "They bought it completely furnished 10 years ago, and they never touched a thing," says interior designer Liz Carroll, whom the homeowners brought on board to oversee a remodel after a simple consultation led to something else entirely.
"I went over to help them pick a color for the new hardwood floors they wanted to install," she says. "But by the end of the walk-through, we had decided to start over from scratch." So out went aged teal carpeting and dark green walls; in their place, Carroll installed warm hardwoods and paired crisp whites with bright hues for a fresh, modern look. Here's how color can bring a past-its-prime home back to prominence.
Serene Living Room
Carroll didn't have to look far to find the color inspiration that would define the living room; she just had to glance out the windows. "When the marsh is in season, you get a bright hit of green where the grass meets the water," she says, "and when the sun sets, the sky turns pretty shades of lavender." To keep things from getting too overwhelming, though, she made sure to ground the space with soothing neutrals. The walls, for instance, are painted Soft Chamois and the ceiling is painted Decorator's White, both by Benjamin Moore.
Fresh, Airy Kitchen
While the kitchen's former white porcelain backsplash was still in good shape, it looked dull and lackluster when paired with white cabinets, so Carroll replaced it with light blue glass subway tile for some much-needed contrast and a bit of sparkle. "Everything looks a lot cleaner and fresher," she says, "and we didn't have to spend much!" The Maison Midi also contributes to the fresh, casual-chic bistro vibes of the kitchen.
Outside-the-Box Guest Room
The unexpected color combinations in the guest room's charming Katie Ridder wallpaper inspired Carroll to think outside the box. She borrowed the poppy red color from the tiny flag atop the illustrated ships and used it for the Greek key motif on the pillows and custom twin headboards, and again for the wide trim on the curtains, for a fresh take on red-white-and-blue nautical style.
Bright, Fun Guest Room
When Carroll laid eyes on a bolt of look-at-me, indoor/outdoor Trina Turk fabric, she didn't think twice about using it to upholster the guest room's custom headboard; she knew the fun, bold print was exactly what the homeowners had in mind. "The fabric became the jumping-off point," she says. "It informed everything else in the room." White linens and a sleek nightstand from Bunaglow 5 are a crisp counterpoint to the groovy patterns and lend a cool sophistication to the guest room.
3. Tiny Bald Head Island Beach House
There's something alluring about a cozy beach cottage. James and Joelle Clark had "small" in mind when they were looking for a vacation home on Bald Head Island. So when they came across a 1,150-square-foot bungalow just steps from the beach on the North Carolina barrier island, they saw past its abundant imperfections (water damage; a tiny, dated kitchen; and an inefficient floor plan) and purchased it just weeks later. "The house needed serious work, but it was the right size," says Joelle. "We didn't want a huge house with unused space that would require lots of upkeep." Now, thanks to help from architect Jason Bigelow and designers Lili O'Brien and Leigh Anne Muse, the house is cheerful, family friendly, and efficient. Here's how they took the house from dark and dated to bright and airy.
Open Living Spaces
Crafty Butler's Pantry
Creative Bunk Room
An oddly positioned closet made furnishing the children's room a challenge. So Lili and Leigh Anne installed four hanging bunks (made of teak, suspended from the ceiling with cable, and bolted to the wall for extra security) that fit perfectly into the unusual space while still providing room for play. "Our small house is full of suprises, like the suspended bunks, which never get old," says Joelle. "Details like that make living here fun."
4. Breezy Bald Head Island Cottage
Steve and Drew Ann Cook have always loved the water: He spent summers exploring the Chesapeake Bay by motorboat, while she grew up sailing those same waters. Once they had a family of their own, they built a vacation home near Ocean City, Maryland, but had to battle beach traffic to get to the surf. Then a boating-magazine article about Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where you get around on golf carts, enticed them to visit for a weekend with son Halsey and daughter Stephanie. Smitten with the simplicity and surprised by the convenience of car-free life, they purchased a lot on a spit of land between the harbor and Cape Fear River, with access to the beach on one side and boat traffic on the other. They turned to Charlotte, North Carolina-based architect Ruard Veltman to design a house that not only maximized both views, but also sheltered them from the coastal elements.
Traditional Carolina beach bungalow elements—high ceilings, French doors topped with transom windows, long eaves—raise the house's energy efficiency by bringing in more natural light and keeping things cool with coastal breezes and shade.
Living Room Sanctuary
A high, truss-supported cathedral ceiling keeps the living room cooler by allowing ocean breezes, welcomed in by the room's French doors, to flush out hot air. Using reclaimed pasture fencing as floorboards was a low-impact (and lower-cost) way to add character to the new space.
Muted Master Bedroom
French doors in the master bedroom, the only bedroom on the second floor, increase cross-ventilation in the house's living spaces.
5. Stars and Stripes Southport Cottage
Sure, they're charming, but old houses have a lot more to offer than just good looks. Architect Jason Bigelow of Southport, North Carolina, understands this better than most. In 2007, he designed a compact, two-bedroom family home with an efficient layout modeled after the breezy, built-to-last captains' cottages that dot Southport's historic district. He borrowed the cottages' long, skinny floor plan—devised for cross breezes and streaming light—and fused it with the aesthetic of the modern Carolina vacation homes he designs for a living.
Jason and his wife, Kelsey especially loved the captain's cottage design for its spacious front room that serves many purposes—in this case, as a large-as-possible gathering area for the couple and daughters Lizzy and Lula Sava. "We liked the thought of having living, cooking, and dining spaces all within conversation distance. It made more sense than cutting up the house into multiple rooms," says Jason.
With Jason responsible for the space-saving architecture, Kelsey, an art director and designer, took charge of the decor. She wove the couple's two favorite looks—country and modern—with beachy woods and white walls. To keep costs in check and the interior meaningful, most of their furniture was built by friends or refurbished by family. The hanging chair on the porch was found on the side of the road and given a makeover by Kelsey's father.
The Bigelows were careful to make sure the items they bought, such as the rolling John Boos kitchen island and IKEA kitchen cabinets, were economical and durable. A family friend built the mahogany kitchen table.
Breezy Blue Resting Nook
For the interior's colors, Kelsey let a vintage Mississippi map—found by the couple at a Jackson antiques mall—pave the way. "The faded nautical blues and funky greens were exactly the coastal color palette we were looking for," says Kelsey. It now proudly hangs above a chair in the family room, a reminder of the town where she and Jason met. "We moved from Mississippi right after Hurricane Katrina," he adds, "so I also wanted a plan that would enable our house to function if we ever lost power due to a storm."
Put all these elements together—a small but weather-efficient floor plan with an inside that's minimally sleek and meaningfully homey—and you'll get exactly what the Bigelows wanted. "I'm a big fan of keeping the old traditions of design alive," says Jason. "This is a house that lets us live large and smart in a small package, and that's the best part."
6. Classic Contemporary Figure Eight Island Cottage
Watching the sun set on the marshes of Figure Eight Island is a little like peeking over the shoulder of an artist at work: First, the bright, unblemished blue of the sky deepens for a suitably moody canvas, and then the real show begins, welcoming wild streaks of coral, pink, and purple. It was this riotous act of color and composition that inspired designer Lindsay Henderson when she was tasked with dreaming up the interiors for a new family retreat for Steve and Jackie Bell. "The sunsets here are so amazing," says Henderson. "I just incorporated some of the same shades in softer hues and carried that throughout the house for a seamless, magical experience."
Longtime lovers of traditional design, the Bells decided to take a leap of faith when they first met with the late architect Ligon Flynn. "We knew we wanted something different," says Jackie. "It was paramount for us to live simply at the beach, without all the extra trappings or upkeep. Ligon dreamed up something more contemporary for us and sited it perfectly for the views." The effect is a house that is streamlined without being too sleek, and cool but not cold. Most importantly, it's exactly what the homeowners had in mind: no muss, no fuss.
Modern Dining Room
Without skipping a beat, Henderson then took the laid-back, carefree vocabulary of the architecture and translated it into each space, expertly outfitting the residence with furniture that has lines complementing the home's modern influence without being a complete departure from a more traditional look. The dining room is a prime example: The simple, clean construction of the custom tabletop is underscored by a fanciful peekaboo pedestal below, while the irreverent, freewheeling brushstrokes of the modern artwork by Kate Long Stevenson form a stark contrast to the super structured, refined silhouettes of the coral chairs. "It was about finding that sweet spot," says Henderson.
Sophisticated Living Room
The adjoining living room, too, was a delicate balancing act. The Bells wanted the living room, which is open to the dining area, to be sophisticated enough for post--dinner party mingling, but not completely out of touch with the home's family-friendly vibe. "We have nine grandchildren ranging in age from 9 months to 20 years," says Jackie, "so we needed the house to be fun and easy." To accommodate the Bells' requirements, Henderson chose deep-seated sofas that are as comfortable as their silhouettes are beautiful, opting to stay away from stark white in favor of soft, delicate shades of blue and rose.
Contemporary finishes, like streamlined hardware, subway tile backsplash, and marble countertops allow the limey marsh views to take center stage.
Soothing Blue Master Bedroom
A natural palette with splashes of turquoise and texture turns this master bedroom into a soothing sanctuary. The canopy bed also works to elevate the space.
7. Beachy Bald Head Island Cottage
She called it The Blue Pearl. The lonely cottage that rose from the beach grass on the banks of Bald Head Island was painted a delicate shade of sea foam blue, and it had been a must-see on Tiffany McWhorter's jogging route for years. "I was in love," she says. "It was sitting there sad and vacant, but I knew it had so much potential. It was one of those things I always thought I'd only dream about owning."
Fortunately, some dreams do come true. After the four-bedroom house sat untouched on the market for years, the list price came down—and Tiffany and her husband, Fred, a home remodeler, were first in line to buy it. "We knew that it needed to be totally renovated on the inside," says Tiffany, who runs a home decor shop on the island. "But that's what attracted us to it. We could start from scratch and turn it into an incredible home for our family."
The couple tackled the project together, starting with the home's dark Ponderosa pine--clad shell. "It looked like an old hunting lodge inside," says Fred. Adds Tiffany, "I don't think anything had been updated since the '80s, but the structure wasn't necessarily in bad shape." So, rather than stripping the walls and ceilings completely, they opted to cover them with glossy white paint, ridding the home of its cave-like feel and instantly brightening the rooms. To make the interiors more beach-friendly, Fred replaced wall-to-wall carpeting with oak floors washed in a weathered gray.
Glitzy Cottage Kitchen
"Our world centers around cooking," says Tiffany. "If we're not outside, we're usually in the kitchen, so we needed enough room to work." To increase square footage without taking away from the living and dining rooms, the McWhorters took down an exterior wall and borrowed space from a screened-in porch. The kitchen was completely gutted of its dark-pine cabinetry, replaced with modern materials like a granite-topped island, stainless steel countertops and appliances, and a mosaic backsplash. "We chose a shimmery white tile because it reminded me of the pearly shells we pick up at the beach," says Tiffany.
Treasured Dining Room
Jars filled with those pearly shells are one of many beachy items that Tiffany used to decorate the interiors—in fact, the style of the home was directed by one sea-inspired piece in particular: a glass-and-seashell chandelier she had specially made by North Carolina artist Louise Gaskill for the dining room. "I asked the artist to use vintage blue glass to bring in the colors of the ocean," she says. "Then I planned the subtle blue and green accents throughout the rest of the home around that piece." Shades of sea foam, teal, and blue punctuate the living areas—from a pair of glass table lamps to a collection of vibrant tableware in the dining room display cabinet. "I kept the decor simple but comfortable," says Tiffany. "I didn't want any one element to take away from the views. What's important is what's out those windows."
Shiplap walls paired with rustic furnishings and white linens give the guest room cozy cottage vibes, while accents in bright hues remind visitors the beach is right outside.