This Designer Turned a Former Fisherman's Shack Into a Nantucket Gem

"It was like pulling a rabbit out of a hat," Kevin Isbell says of the tight timeline.

Kevin Isbell living room
Don Freeman

Kathleen Hackett: You turned a former fisherman’s shack — the previous incarnation featured a brown kitchen and floors the color of pancake makeup —into the quintessential Nantucket cottage in just three weeks. How did you accomplish this feat?

Kevin Isbell: It really was like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The family bought the house on Memorial Day, closed on the 5th of July, and wanted it ready before August. I started with a collection of needlepoint pillows made by the owner’s mother, who had recently passed away. She also left her daughter enough furniture to fill the basement of her Connecticut home. I drew on those pieces and filled in the gaps with vintage furniture and antiques. I made use of websites like Chairish, eBay, and Etsy to source artwork and accessories. It helped that these are longtime clients who say yes quite readily.

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When faced with Nantucket ferry schedules and freight fees, most people would have relied on “optimism and white paint,” like Elsie de Wolfe.

Optimism, yes; white paint, not necessarily. It’s easy to resort to white, but the approach can fail miserably if not done properly. Rooms need an anchor and that all-important tension. That’s what brings a space to life. Here, I opted for cobalt-blue floors, which nod to nautical without screaming it too loudly.

Yet I see quite a few seaside references — a porthole mirror, some wicker pieces, framed sailor portraits, anchor lights, and ship paintings.

But no lobster-trap coffee table! Seriously, those maritime elements are merely part of a global mix, which is entirely appropriate given that the island is a former whaling capital and once hosted ships from all over the world. Asian, English, and African furniture would have arrived here from overseas and made its way into homes that were originally built for sea captains and their families.

What other strategies did you use to meet that oh-so-tight deadline?

Architecturally, the 1880s house is a bit wonky, but there was neither the time nor the inclination to knock down walls. We removed a few sagging bookcases. One of the most significant changes was simply a reassignment of rooms: There was a large dining room that no longer made sense in a home of this modest size. And the original living room had very little wall space, making it hard to arrange a conversation area. So I flopped the two rooms. What is now the dining room has a table for four, with stools tucked under the console to seat an extra two people in a pinch.

You like a swagged light.

I had better! The house is more than 100 years old, which means the only electrical sources are outlets in the walls. There was no time to wire the ceilings for pendants, so I used lots of extension cords and chains. I screwed hooks into the ceiling to position lights overhead. Hanging the lights also draws the eye up to the ceiling, which makes the rooms — most of which are less than seven feet tall — appear loftier than they are.

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Did the scale of the house present other challenges?

We had to hoist furniture through the second-floor windows, because the stairway is not standard width. But I was determined not to crush the soul of the house by modernizing it too much, not even by widening the doors. I didn’t remove the bedroom sink, known as a ’Sconset sink — it’s named for the village where this house is located. There is no television. The windows have bamboo shades that require tying off on a cleat — no remote control in this cottage! And on the first floor, we left the Rube Goldberg–like pulley system that turns on the hall light on the second floor — there is no light switch.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Just one thing. Against the kitchen’s original brown-wood walls, the stove looked bright white. But when we painted the walls white, the stove’s color took on a butter-yellow cast. I desperately wanted to swap it out, but this was Nantucket, where replacing it required advance ordering and ferry logistics. I had to live with it — and guess what? No one died!

Lack of resources has saved many a historic home from unsavory renovations. Was the lack of time here more of a curse or a blessing?

The latter! For a detail-oriented person like me, having to figure things out quickly was an excellent exercise in trusting my instincts.

See more photos of this stunning redesign:

This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of CQ.

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