Clean & Classical by the Sea
When you first enter the Old Saybrook beach house of Farmington-based interior designer Jean Poulin and her husband, Marcel, you don’t even notice the decor. As you stand inside the foyer, your eye is drawn past the kitchen, across the living room and straight out to sea.
“I did everything so nothing would block the view,” says Poulin, gesturing to the large windows that frame Long Island Sound. It is a view that stretches all the way to the horizon and makes you feel, especially in the upstairs rooms, as if you were aboard ship far out on the ocean.
Only when you’ve had enough of the hypnotic scenery do your eyes turn to the interior, and there you begin to notice her masterful design, one that maximizes the view and does everything imaginable to make a modest-sized house appear larger.
“The house is small,” Poulin says. Built in 1934, the two-story, three-bedroom cottage measures roughly 1,800 square feet. “It’s not a lot of space,” she admits. The original floor plan included a kitchen, small living room, dining room and bathroom with shower on the first floor, three bedrooms and two baths on the second.
The first thing the Poulins did after purchasing the property in 2004 was reconfigure the interior. Working with Lyme-based architect Brooke Girty and Burlington-based builder Gil Lavoie, they did extensive remodeling, shaving bits of space here to enlarge something there, creating closets and shelves where there had been none, and relocating or installing new windows to open the view.
“When we bought the house, there were walls with sliding glass doors so you didn’t see the water,” Poulin says. The sliders led onto an enclosed porch. The remodel created an addition where the porch had been, and the space became part of the expanded living room. In place of the sliders, show-stopping picture windows and doors were installed.
The side views were also remedied. Many of the original windows afforded generous views of the neighbors’ homes, which sit snugly on either side of the Poulins’. “You could be in your pajamas having coffee in the morning and wave to the neighbors,” Poulin recalls. Her solution, upstairs and down, was to install plantation shutters. Painted a crisp white, they allow in breeze and light while affording the owners as much privacy as they choose. Upstairs, bedroom windows were similarly repositioned. Gone are the intimate views of the neighbors’ houses. Instead, the portals open to the sea.
Views maximized, Poulin turned her attention to expanding the sense of space. Her work began at the front door. “There was no entryway,” she explains, noting that the original front door was flanked on one side by the refrigerator. By reconfiguring the kitchen, she was able to create a small foyer—“I wanted a more formal entry,” she says. The space encompasses the original downstairs bath, where the shower was eliminated to create a closet. “I don’t need a shower downstairs, but you have to have a storage closet,” Poulin says. The foyer functions as a place to pause and shed your coat before moving inside. It also sets the tone for the gracious style of living evident throughout the home.
In the kitchen, Poulin managed to carve out a pantry, creating storage space and room for a washer and dryer. The custom cabinets were built by Hanford Cabinet & Woodworking of Old Saybrook. She enlisted another craftsman to add millwork in the form of a rope detail—a subtle nautical motif that recurs elsewhere—under the crown molding. Brass pendant lamps from Connecticut Lighting in Hartford reinforce the nautical theme, their warm glow evoking the polished fixtures on sea vessels. A farmhouse sink and granite countertops complete the stylish, functional setup.
The kitchen opens directly onto the living room, which Poulin divided into two distinct sitting areas. Custom couches in both are covered in a sandy beige fabric, while armchairs are upholstered in fabrics showcasing Poulin’s favorite color, coral. “Most people want a beach house done in blue and white, but this is my house, so I thought I should do what I wanted,” she says. All the pieces were chosen for scale as well as style so none obstructs the view. Poulin arranged the furniture in layouts that promote conversation and easy traffic flow. On a shelf nearest the kitchen, a flat-screen television sits unobtrusively on a shelf. “My husband is a big sportsperson and loves to watch golf on weekends. I created this space so he and the guys can watch TV,” Poulin says. “I designed the other side for me and my friends, so that we have a place to talk.”
From the ladies’ side of the living room, it is a few steps to the dining room, where a large round table surrounded by six vintage Baker chairs anchors the space. Seashell forms adorn the fireplace surround, and inlaid at the center of the table is a compass design, which matches one embedded in the stairway landing.
On the second floor, Poulin stayed true to her goal of making the most of the setting. Three airy, uncluttered bedrooms are painted in pastels from Farrow & Ball. The rooms are spare but luxurious, furnished with gilt mirrors, painted and antique dressers, and deluxe bedding by Pratesi, E. Braun, Scandia Down, Matouk and custom suppliers. Soothing and restful, the rooms are suffused with ocean light and even seem to drift gently with the lullaby sound of the waves. The master bath, gleaming with white tile and wainscoting, was created out of space borrowed from one of the other bedrooms.
Not until you’ve seen the whole house do you begin to appreciate Poulin’s many space-saving details. In the kitchen, she created room for an island by moving the fireplace wall back six inches. The granite-topped island has a curved edge to facilitate passage into the living room. The curve makes the space feel “less confining,” she says. “It gives you a nice hallway.”
Upstairs along the passage connecting the master bedroom and bath, Poulin carved out open shelves where she stores her linens. (The shelves curve inward so they don’t impinge on the space.) In one bedroom, an added bay window houses a window seat.
Throughout the house, the plantation shutters take up less room than most fabric window treatments would. For carpeting in the living and dining rooms, Poulin chose matching area rugs. The uniform sand color unifies the layout, making the whole feel larger.
Renovating and decorating the house took four years, and serves as a good showcase for Poulin’s talent. The self-trained designer, who ended a corporate career in 2001 to indulge her passion for interior design, mixes the traditional English and French furniture that she loves with “found” objects and what can only be called improvisations. On one wall in the dining room hang four panels that appear to be still-life paintings. “I love still-lifes, but I couldn’t find what I wanted,” she explains. Instead, she found four placemats with still-life renderings of fruit and wine and had them framed. On the mantel in the dining room sits a single conch shell. “It was given to my mother by her brother,” she says.
Poulin’s design is reinforced throughout by quality materials and finishings. “I used the best,” she says. New pieces from Pearson and Louis J. Solomon and custom-made pieces blend seamlessly with acquisitions from local consignment shops and antiques dealers. Among her favorite haunts are Old Village Antiques in Avon, The Source in Westbrook, Antiques Ltd. in Stonington and Design Source CT in Hartford. Bath fixtures are from Klaff’s, Plimpton & Hills and Avon Plumbing, while lighting fixtures are from Connecticut Lighting and Restoration Lighting Gallery in Hartford.
In making design decisions, Poulin says she invariably trusts her eye—even if it goes against established wisdom. “I mix nickel and brass—you’re not supposed to, but I do,” she says, pointing to the kitchen’s polished nickel drawer pulls and faucet fixtures with brass lamps suspended above them. Similarly, she wallpapered much of the first floor with a grass-textured paper the color of golden straw. “They advise you not to use wallpaper by the beach because moisture will make it peel, but I find there are some wallpapers, like the ones from Phillip Jeffries, that you can use. Grass cloth is wonderful by the water.”
If Poulin has a design philosophy, it is that every project is unique. “I don’t repeat my work,” she says. Her ideas for any space spring from the space itself, the setting and the lifestyle of the owners.
In her lovely pearl of a seaside home, the results speak for themselves. “I’m really happy with how it came out,” she says. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”