An island house interprets old Nantucket in a new way.

By Laurel Kornhiser | Photography by Wendy Mills Photography

When Donna Elle’s clients fell in love with a home nearing completion on Nantucket, they were planning on using their own decorator for the interiors but were looking for a local designer to help with a few furnishings. After soliciting proposals and interviewing four local firms, they chose Elle: “They loved my color aesthetic,” she says. “They liked the sophistication of my colors and the way I picked up on nuances of the flooring and wall trim.”


The furnishings hold their own visual weight with strong lines like these dark beaded frames on living room chairs.

Though initially her clients were looking for limited help, Elle became integral to the whole project, being involved in everything from furnishings and lighting to the finishes on walls, trim, floors, stair parts and exposed trusses. Her directive was simple: “They wanted me to interpret old Nantucket in a new way, without relying on a blue and yellow color palette.” Nantucket has, of course, very strict architectural codes, which give the island its distinctive, unified character, so the challenge becomes creating an interior that respects the context but answers to 21st-century sensibilities. “From the outside, this home looks very natural and traditional, but inside, it is anything but traditional. It gives way to a whole new lifestyle of cooking, entertaining and family,” Elle says.

The interior architecture has traditional elements, like the prominent exposed trusses that march across the peaked ceiling of the great room and the reclaimed oak loft doors that slide to enclose a first-floor office, but the soaring ceilings, open floor plan, sheet metal fireplace, cabled staircase railings, furnishings and contemporary light fixtures add a decidedly modern flair.

While many designers of second homes look to their clients’ primary home for clues to their likes and personality, Elle prefers to keep her perspective fresh and evolving. In their new space, the owners along with Elle participate in a process of interpretation, selection, reaction, translation, and through this, Elle comes to understand them and refines and focuses the choices. “I can see who the client is in a third dimension,” she says. “It’s almost like the client comes home and is looking at him- or herself in a mirror. It is authentic.”

The floors were the foundation of the project. When a mishap with the original floors during construction required that they be replaced, Elle went to her flooring expert, Chris Yates, of East Wood Trading Company, and chose white oak. It was in choosing a finish for the floors that Elle began to gather crucial insights into her clients’ tastes, which would then inform the home’s palette. “I saw them gravitate towards ethereal, foggy-like layers that weren’t pure and saturated, and with that, I then picked a round of colors—cloudy, foggy, sea pearlesque.”


Three glass globe chandeliers hang above the Macauba marble kitchen island.

Once both the floor and truss colors were determined, it was time to select the lighting fixtures for four prominent locations. A mixture of black iron and oil-rubbed bronze, the geometric living room chandelier “plays softly off the trusses, which are hard and linear,” Elle explains. Long and linear itself, the dining room table is illuminated by a half dozen bulbs suspended in a rectangular glass case outlined in black-finished iron.

“It’s perpendicular in relation to the trusses,” Elle says, “so it exudes style without being interrogating.”

The consummate light fixtures are the three globes suspended from the trusses over the white Macauba marble kitchen island, their round shape contrasting with the sharp angles of the trusses and complementing the soft black leather mounds of the island stool cushions. One other major fixture, in the upper hallway, is what Elle calls “a rhapsody of glass and metal, a circular orb of glass globes on a 24-inch canopy base.” This piece adds instant elegance and drama to the space’s white cottage-style tongue and groove walls.

Given the prominence of the trusses, it was important that the furnishings hold their own visual weight, and they do so with strong lines and textural variety, from the dark beaded frames of the living room armchairs to the rattan and seagrass dining chairs. The variety of textiles—linen, wool, leather, even acrylic that is comfortable yet cleanable—adds even more visual interest. The jacquard silk and cotton fabric from Anna French used for the master bedroom headboard instills instant tranquility and contributes to what Elle calls the room’s “glamour.” A bit more exotic is the blue and beige peacock duvet by Serena and Lily in the guest room. The duvet, along with the inlaid capiz shell side tables from Made Goods, the leaf print cushion on the wicker chair and the light fixture—a globe sprouting glass flowers that acts like a piece of jewelry for the room—creates a space that feels like a paradisiacal garden bower.

he upstairs bar area, with its view of the ocean, offers seagrass chairs around a wood-topped, rope-entwined coffee table.

The upstairs bar area, with its view of the ocean, offers seagrass chairs around a wood-topped, rope-entwined coffee table.

Further enhancing the feeling of being in paradise is the upstairs bar area, with its view of the ocean. Here, Elle’s clients and their guests can lounge in seagrass chairs with cushions finished in a Jim Thompson acrylic fabric around a wood-topped, rope-entwined coffee table.

In the end, this house is like the sea pearl that inspired its palette: an intriguing smooth gem, born of the sea, teasing with its subtle swirls of color, and harboring hidden depths.