“Have fun with gingham!” said one of the homeowners, a new grandmother, of her family’s worse-for-wear family beach house in Maine. She was offering direction to Connecticut-based interior designer Lilse McKenna, who immediately summoned a mental image of Gloria Vanderbilt’s 1970s-era Southampton bedroom, wrapped in pink check. While McKenna is known for her “grandmillennial” style, she thinks of her record-scratching remixes of classic motifs like chintz and patchwork as a “fresher take on Americana.”
Luckily, the pandemic-era renovation of the 30-year-old shingle-style home required just that, especially since grandchildren—that newest generation of beach-combing, tennis-playing, hamburger-flipping snowbirds that will eventually take over the joint—have recently entered the fray. “I could tell this house was important to them,” McKenna says. “It had been well loved for several decades, but needed some renewal to keep up with the growing family.”
Before a glut of gingham could be liberated, the designer required a clean slate. To that end, the original dark fir paneling that had been smothering the interiors was painted white, turning the walls into bright and appropriately seaworthy shiplap. Other architectural updates were completed with an eye toward more communion with the woodsy landscape of red oaks, pine trees, a blight of bittersweet vines, and, as the grandfather clarifies, “No hedges! This isn’t the Hamptons.” The shoreline is just 50 yards from the front door of the beachy rambler.
A new terrace off the second-floor primary bedroom faces the ocean, while the ground-level screened porch has doubled in size. In the porch dining area, meals consisting of “not much by way of fancy food,” insists the grandfather, usually lead to conversation, needlepoint, and other spells of languor in the adjacent sitting area, where the family’s collection of vintage wicker furniture takes pride of place. The porch and its trappings are verdantly painted to echo the natural surroundings, though the palette also conjures the green-tinted magical realism of Alfonso Cuarón’s modern adaptation of Great Expectations, sans the sorrowful decay. A new swing bed—inspired by the swaying seats popular on the porches of Georgia’s Cumberland Island, also a favorite destination for the native East Coast family—should come with a warning (or welcoming) label: May cause drowsiness.
Needless to say, the gingham-loving grandmother got her wish, and then some. McKenna used different scales and colors of the delightful check throughout the house: A soft, teal plaid covers a few overstuffed sofas, a red picnic pattern emblazons throw pillows, and the kitchen stools are upholstered in preppy blue squares. Still, gingham is just one of many motifs—from the Indonesian-inspired ikat cushions on the porch wicker to the thistle block print from India covering the dining chairs—that McKenna masterfully merged to create the exuberant charm and character she likens to a signature stateside style.
“What’s really American about any design is the juxtaposition of multiple influences rather than just one,” McKenna says. Her patron saint for the project was the late design icon Sister Parish, whose efflorescent interiors of splashy chintz, casual wicker, and storied quilts epitomized American midcentury maximalism, a joyful foil to the more stern, Bauhaus-inspired minimalism influencing that same era.
Arguably, Americana’s enduring appeal is its sense of heritage. When it comes to the beach house’s freshly brushed feats of decorative painting, a sense of place is also present, most significantly in the dining room mural, inspired by legendary American folk muralist Rufus Porter. McKenna commissioned Connor Owens of Brooklyn’s JJ Snyder Studio for the work, which is painted on a 33-foot-long length of removable muslin (in preparation for the modern heirloom’s potential future relocation). Owens’s seascape of tall ships navigating a pastoral coast honors Porter’s style so beautifully that folk art enthusiasts have been falsely convinced of the mural’s 19th-century provenance, inquiring about its supposed restoration.
“The horizon in the mural is almost perfectly in line with the true horizon seen from the dining room windows,” says Owens of the unwittingly auspicious connection to a symbol of optimism so eternal, every generation that ever was has looked in its faraway direction in search of perspective.