Summer Real Estate


Beach homes have come a long way since the days of coral mirrors, sea shell frames and fish-shaped place mats. Whether it's a 10-room contemporary, a clapboard cottage or an ocean view apartment, today's chic coastal interiors exude elegance, comfort and low-maintenance with nary a cliche in sight. "I couldn't give a driftwood lamp away if my life depended upon it," sniffs Stephen Tomar of Tomar Lampert Associates, a leading design firm that caters to such clients as Barbra Streisand, Eddie Van Halen and John McEnroe.

"People want a more modern look at the beach," adds designer to the stars Waldo Fernandez. "Clean, simple lines and solid fabrics. Materials are also very important ... the contrast of metals, such as polished chrome, with white stucco creates a strong architectural effect which I believe is very representative of beach design today."

The first question on every interior designer's mind is: How does the space function? What's the purpose? Lifestyle dictates the design. Beach living is relaxed and informal, a place to distress and recharge. Anything that fades, breaks or needs special care doesn't belong. "It's not about living bigger; it's about living better," observes Tweak owner Tara Riceberg who travels nationwide providing style injections into homes and considers herself "the Botox to the interior designer's plastic surgery."

Because beach homes are typically smaller than city dwellings and tend to be jammed together, creating the illusion of space is critical. Top designers customize homes to their client's vision and unique lifestyle. "The idea that you can sell a house and expect that a room like the kitchen will work just right for the next person doesn't apply," says Troy Adams, whose Fusion Design philosophy -- which mixes influences from Asia, Europe and America -- recently won HGTV's "Designer Challenge" for his work on a Huntington Beach home.

Seamless integration of indoor and outdoor environments is key. Redesigning the layout to an open floor plan, where one room leads to another, creates the illusion that the interior and exterior are one space. Disappearing sliding doors, an outdoor fire pit and luxury grill help create an uninterrupted flow. Repeating a color, shape or pattern throughout the space helps marry the two areas, according to Stephanie Hobbs, who heads design firm Marmol Radziner's interior design department. She favors furniture in weave (sturdier than cane or wicker) or high-density plastic that can extend to outdoors. Meanwhile, outdoor textiles are becoming so "deliciously chic," she says, that they're suitable for indoor pillows or ottomans that can be used for additional seating.

"Now you see it, now you don't is a great way to approach design, especially in smaller quarters," says Adams, whose clients include Sela Ward, Eddie Murphy and Jewel. "Many of my clients may use their oven only once a week so I camouflage the appliances and highlight the beautiful furniture. The refrigerator, for example, is masked as a piece of high-end furniture in exotic wood. The kitchen then becomes a luxurious extension of living and dining areas." Breaking the kitchen into two separate spaces is a concept he calls "kitchen within a kitchen," while his BenchToilet hides the toilet with a multipurpose designer bench in exotic wood, providing a decorative solution to a typically unattractive fixture.

Stephen Tomar also creates decorative solutions to typically unattractive fixtures. To keep food warm for all-day grazing, for example, he builds chafing dishes into the counter top, which can be covered with granite or wood when not in use. "Clients typically don't bring their staff so food is served buffet style. It's all about ease and no drama."

In terms of colors, textures and resources, following cues from nature provide the inspiration. Natural and organic materials abound. A white, cream or some other serene color palette avoids competing with the views and lends a crisp, clean feel to the home. "The ocean's color changes depending on seasons, tides and time of day," says the Cuban-born Fernandez who has worked for everyone from Warren Beatty and Sean Connery to Jennifer Aniston, Goldie Hawn and Elizabeth Taylor. "These varied colors of the Pacific create a crisp contrast and an amazing complement to the white backdrop of the interior."

Further contrast comes via bright, bold colors making a splash in pillows, artwork and other accessories. The ubiquitous nautical blue of years past has given way to shades of green, brown, gray and even yellow.

Beach design, however, is more than a matter of aesthetics. The choice of materials makes the difference between a space that's seaworthy and one that's hung out to dry. Living at the beach inevitably results in bringing the outdoors in, literally, thanks to sand, water and salty air. The very same elements that draw folks to the beach in the first place wreak havoc inside and out. Anything that corrodes or oxidizes is off limits. That includes chrome, copper, brass and metal -- i.e., no recessed lighting. Stainless steel, lava stone and granite are favored for kitchens, white Carrara marble for baths, and honed Lagos azul or fossil stone for fireplaces.

Salt air and moisture speed up the aging process and deterioration of all woods. Mildew and mold can become another issue especially if the house is closed for the winter. "Even if teak and pine are used and even if they're well-maintained they deteriorate more quickly than typical installations," says Fernandez, who favors durable Brazilian Ipe wood for decks.

Forget the silk upholstery and instead opt for deep, cozy sofas slip covered in such materials as twill, denim or linen that can be thrown in the wash as needed. Fabrics should be light, natural and soft to the touch. Any fabric, however, is subject to sunburn. "People say they don't want window treatments. Wrong! Beach homes face west or southwest and get sun all year long so some diffusion of light is a must," says Tomar, who shuns tinted windows in favor of dual glass.

According to Espace Design's Adaline Fagan, "Wool drapes offer good diffusion but you must allow for four inches of shrinkage in the humidity. Everyone wants a natural look but sometimes it's better to fudge it a bit and throw in some polyester." She adds that sun-filled rooms can also benefit from materials (in most cases synthetic blends) that are fade-, water- and mold-resistant. Fagan's work on Richard Dean Anderson's beach-adjacent home graced the June 2009 cover of Architectural Digest.

Avoiding carpeting in favor of wood, cork, tile or bamboo flooring is recommended. "Bamboo is technically a grass so there's no problem when you walk on it with wet feet," says Adams, who maintains a showroom in the Pacific Design Center. These surfaces will not trap sand or dirt, and they're easy to sweep clean. Laying sea grass or other natural fiber rugs in heavy traffic areas, even over carpet, prevents debris from coming in and hides what does. "Natural fiber lets you take the spots out with shampoo," notes Tomar, who admonishes against rubber or foam padding because they will mildew.

Other practicalities are the wind and rain. Espace's Fagan uses double-vented fabric on patio umbrellas so the wind blows through not over, as well as button down patches which are "cleats in the stone flooring that you hook the drapery into."

And there's no skirting the dirty window issue which is as constant as the tide. Tomar recalls the butted glass fence along the beach side of Norton Simon's Malibu home. "The caretaker would start cleaning one side on Monday and by Friday he'd be finishing the other side. Back and forth it went."

Designers are also interested in embracing green living and supporting sustainability. Most integrate natural, Earth-friendly materials into their work. Ecological solutions include renewable resources, such as bamboo and cork flooring, formaldehyde-free countertops of basalt and lava stone, low-voltage lighting, reflective solar film on windows, energy efficient appliances, and veneers made from materials found in sustainable forests that meet LEED certification standards. Moves like these aren't just smart; they can save money -- a concern in these tumultuous times.

Despite the best advice from experts, the only person who can truly decide what makes a home comfortable, beautiful and livable is the one actually living there. Interiors should reflect its inhabitants rather than the latest and greatest design trends. "Many of us are so worried about what others think," observes style maven Riceberg. "The bottom line is if it feels right it is right."