Classic-with-a-twist New England–style homes are the specialty of Nancy Leary, founder of Nancy Leary Design in Brandon, Vermont. With her background in architecture and hospitality design, she brings an understanding of how to create interiors that give dramatic architectural details top billing. And her sense of humor and whimsy are to thank for her ability to populate those rooms with a supporting cast of attention-grabbing patterns, textural details, and splashes of beautiful color.
Nancy sat down to talk about her inspirations and approach to design, plus give us a tour of this swoon-worthy Martha’s Vineyard home (by architect Patrick Ahern; photos by Greg Premru) that’s all about casual family-friendly living in a wonderfully upscale package.
Fresh American: What’s your earliest memory of being interested in design?
Nancy Leary: As a teenager I worked at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont as property mistress. All night sessions were spent building sets for the stage between each show. I learned about design and the practical side of building efficiently to get the project done in a small amount of time. Also, it was just really fun. It was there that I discovered a love for design from conception to execution.
FA: What has been the biggest change in your design approach or aesthetic over the years?
NL: Besides the design of the old entertainment centers and TV cabinets? [Laughs] Over the years, my approach to design has become more at ease and calm. Earlier in my career, I might have added more complexity. Now projects seem to have a better flow, as I focus on the both the aesthetics and the function of a home.
FA: What’s your greatest challenge as a designer?
NL: CAD (computer-aided design). I love drawing by hand on a drafting board. The process of creating by hand is thought-provoking, which, for me, leads to problem solving. 2016 is the year I will embrace CAD.
FA: Which design “rule” or idea do you refer back to over and over? Which have you tossed out?
NL: Other than a few on dimensions, like 4 feet is the perfect space between counters in a kitchen, I like to be a bit of a rule breaker.
FA: What are your go-to sources for inspiration?
NL: Houzz and Pinterest. And my library of design books. I love design books. I also like watching Downton Abbey for the sets and costumes, not the drab drama.
FA: Which design trend or idea are you loving right now?
NL: Modern farmhouse.
FA: Which designers or blogs can you not get enough of?
NL: Decor8, City Farmhouse, Dwell, Thistlewood Farms and Fresh American Style, of course.
FA: In your opinion, what’s one thing that will never go out of style?
NL: Materials from the earth—wool, jute, sisal, cotton, soapstone, slate, wood, metal. Combining these always leads to a warm, lasting design.
FA: What’s the one item in your home you couldn’t live without?
NL: The very large window in my bedroom. I love the air flowing in, seeing stars in the middle of the night and the horses out in the field in the morning.
FA: Tell us about this gorgeous home.
NL: It’s in Martha’s Vineyard, right on the dunes in front of the ocean. It was built in 2014 by a professional couple with four kids, ranging from 10 to 16. So they needed a home they could have fun in instead of saying no all the time.
FA: How did you choose the palette and patterns?
NL: We wanted the design to be soothing, but not muted, and neither masculine nor feminine. I also wanted to connect the house to the ocean and its surroundings. So we went with seaglass-y blues and greens for a calming, easy look that still has lots of visual interest. Because this family often has upwards of 20 people in the house, they wanted it to not show a lot of sand and dirt, and pattern is a great camouflage.
FA: The dining room is pretty fabulous. Walk us through the design.
NL: It opens to a second-floor deck with additional dining space and the most beautiful views. We wanted to be able to open the French doors and have this experience of moving from an inside dining room to an outside one. I chose the rug because the mossy color connects to the outdoors, and the pattern is great for hiding any sand or dirt that might get tracked in. I went with a large size so that when the table is full—it seats 10—everyone can push their chairs back and not go off the edge of the rug.
For the chairs, if they get messy, you don’t need to worry because the ikat pattern helps to camouflage it. We added linen curtains that go up to the ceiling. The dining room table was custom made in Vermont—it’s a little taller than usual, because the owners are tall. The chandelier is Ralph Lauren, with vintage lightbulbs.
FA: How about the living room?
NL: The house has two; this one is downstairs, right inside of pool. I chose a rug with a lot of movement in it so you couldn’t see any sand that might be tracked in from outside. It’s made of wool, and because of the lanolin in the fiber, it doesn’t absorb a lot of stain. The sofa fabric is also highly cleanable. The chairs have a medallion print that works really nicely with the geometrics on some of the pillows and the stripe on the sofa. I tried to mix geometrics with curves to make it feel welcoming.
I tried to create a lot of storage opportunities so they can keep blankets, pillows, or books nearby. This is the case with the trunk and the shelves under the window seat. I also tried to sneak in as many places for people to sleep as possible. That window seat can fit a child as a bed, and both sofas pull out.
FA: Speaking of napping spots, the sleeping porch is amazing!
NL: That’s my favorite room in this house. It has a twin-size bed with ropes suspended from the ceiling, so you can actually make it up like a regular bed and sleep out there at night. I added an indoor/outdoor rug and a couple of rocking chairs with a side table. It’s a little room and very simple in design, but it’s such a peaceful place. You can curl up and read a book or play a game of chess, or fall asleep listening to the ocean.