Tour This Cedar-Shingled Stunner of a Beach House
"There was no question, this was the keeper,” says Robin Johnson, who with her husband, Erik, has lived in a dozen or more beach houses on New Jersey’s Long Beach Island. Erik has been building homes on the island for 31 years, and from time to time, the couple would move into his spec homes before they sold. “When we found this lot, though, we knew this one would be different. The view is spectacular—a long beach view of Long Beach Island,” Robin says, pointing to Atlantic City, barely visible 20 miles down the stretch. “It’s like moving art—a vista of colorful umbrellas and surfers that’s constantly changing. We couldn’t replicate this anywhere else.”
Situated along a cut, or turn, in front of a jetty at the surfers’ beach, the lot allowed the Johnsons to orient their 3,000-square-foot, cedar-shingled home toward the island’s south end. Capitalizing on that dynamic view drove the home’s design. “We knew we wanted a significant amount of glass, and that typically translates into a more modern house,” says Robin. A tiny “viewfinder cottage” (a vernacular style that resembles a vintage pop-up viewfinder camera, with a shed-style roof and windows across the top) had previously occupied the lot and offered further inspiration. “All the surfers knew that house and loved its unusual style, so we basically built a ‘viewfinder’ on steroids,” she adds.
A central great room overlooks the sea via a 13-foot wall of windows. New York–based design firm Tilton Fenwick painted the walls and ceiling White Opulence by Benjamin Moore and outfitted the living area with a custom sectional and a 1950s-inspired end table finished in gesso, which is a thin matte paint.
Architect Jay Madden worked with the Johnsons to refine the design, with four bedrooms and an inverted floor plan. “Robin was definitely the creative force in this project, and Erik, as you’d expect from a builder, was the expediter. Together they just went for it,” says Madden, who amplified the “ghost” of the lot’s original house to make it more functional and used tinted, energy-saving windows to maximize views while minimizing solar impact.
Though this was the “keeper,” it was also a departure for the Johnsons. “Erik had never built anything modern like this. He was a bit daunted,” says Robin. “I was skeptical at first,” Erik says. “I love this house now, but it was so different from anything I’d ever built before that I wasn’t sure it would work. But it really does—even better than I thought.” And though thrilled for the opportunity to downsize and streamline (“do I really need five colanders?” she asks), Robin was admittedly out of her wheelhouse in terms of decor. The couple raised their two sons for 22 years in a Toms River residence, a large, traditional home with a formal dining room and living room. “Or as we called it, ‘the report card room’—the only time we went in was to discuss bad grades,” Robin says with a laugh. For an A-plus this go-round, they wanted every space to be more open, inviting, and functional, so they enlisted designers Anne Maxwell Foster and Suysel dePedro Cunningham of New York–based firm Tilton Fenwick to furnish the interiors. “I figured, this is our dream house, so let’s hire the dream team,” Robin says.
A mod maple daybed and a beach painting the owners received as a gift anchor the nursery, a fun landing pad for the Johnsons’ grandson, Charlie. The mattress is covered in fabric from Tilton Fenwick’s Duralee line; the lamp is by Christopher Spitzmiller.
Foster and Cunningham took color cues from the center-stage view. “We borrowed right from the ocean. We don’t like matchy-matchy, but there’s no avoiding all that blue, so we made it as seamless as possible,” says Foster. For the large living room sectional, for example, they chose a seaworthy Dutch blue fabric from their Duralee textile collection and painted the mod base of the custom dining room table in a similar shade. Suede cushions on the midcentury-modern kitchen stools echo that slate-ocean hue, creating soft ripples of blue across the three combined living spaces. Creamy white walls and ceilings set a clean, sleek tone, while Australian cypress wood floors add honeyed warmth and natural beauty.
Layered rugs, including a small vintage shag, and a rattan swivel chair help define the great room’s seating area. The coffee table is vintage and covered in snakeskin. “We spotted it in an antiques market in L.A.” says Foster. “We were drawn to it because it’s so unexpected in a beach house.”
“Natural textures and materials strike a great balance between contemporary and classic, especially when homeowners lean more traditional in their tastes,” Cunningham says. To add dimension, they wrapped the kitchen in pecky cypress using wood Erik had salvaged from an old LBI hotel. Its chevron pattern (also on the sectional upholstery) leans modern, while a whitewash stain gives the indigenous wood a beachy lightness. Open shelving allows the wood to shine, and makes the kitchen ceiling—only eight feet before sloping upward to 13 feet in the living room—feel higher. The Hershey’s Kiss–shaped gilded pendant fixtures by Aerin Lauder add sculptural punch. “We love the look of mixing and layering metals, like the gold against the polished-chrome faucets,” says Foster.
Pecky cypress paneling creates a warm, earthy backdrop for the kitchen’s lively metallic mix: chrome Bertoia stools, a stainless steel range hood and backsplash, and a pair of gilt pendants. The countertops are Caesarstone.
Cool and Casual
Nothing is “too fancy or too fussy,” adds Cunningham. In other words, the spaces needed to be easy enough for the Johnsons’ toddler grandson, Charlie, to kick around in (he lives two blocks away), and for friends to gather. So natural materials, like rattan chairs and an oversize woven pendant in the dining room, and wicker swivel chairs in the living room, help ground the airy, light-filled living space without detracting from the view. “The ocean is the real star of the room,” Cunningham says.
In this coral guest bedroom, the designers covered the walls in a Rebecca Atwood wallpaper and punched up the palette with ikat drapery and box spring fabric by Duralee. The rattan bed is from Anthropologie.
Compromise Is Key
This dream house did require a bit of fine-tuning. (Translation: there were some differences in opinion.) Robin won the “front deck or no front deck” battle. “Why clutter the view?” the victor asks. Erik doesn’t contest the point today; their side sundeck works just as well, he says, and an outdoor shower off the master bath feels like a bigger win. “Six months out of the year, I use it every day,” he says.
Take the Leap
The couple wholeheartedly agree that building a “keeper” house of their own was well worth the wait. Sure, going modern was a stretch, as was finally taking the leap to move to the beach full-time. “But at this point of our lives we were ready to take some risks,” says Robin, who only regrets not doing it sooner. “Why not?”
The Johnsons’ home faces the south end of Long Beach Island, a slim, 18-mile barrier island off the southern coast of New Jersey. Wooden footpaths and sand fencing are common along the beaches, helping to stabilize the dunes against erosion.