The well-worn charms of these summer destinations—Kennebunkport, Maine; Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Newport, Rhode Island—have been visited (and revisited) for centuries. But these historic Northeast enclaves are, at once, similar and dissimilar: Each boasts a beloved character that’s exclusive to their shores. The aesthetic of Kennebunkport (with its white-painted wicker furniture) is different from the aesthetic of Newport (with its dark wood and stripes). Herewith, a closer look at the timeless design stories unique to each locale.
HISTORY: This enclave embraces the best of Maine—a fishermen’s (or lobstermen’s) town with pedigree. From 1755 to the mid-1800s, the commerce was centered around the construction of sea vessels. Those associated with this business (e.g., ship captains) decorated their homes with an assortment of treasures that were collected on their adventures. In the mid-1800s, the “new wealth” from the midwest (including the Walkers, the predecessors of President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush) discovered this destination. These summer residents came to favor shingle-style “cottages” with comfortable, well-worn furniture.
DECOR: The fabrics are chintz and the walls are decorated with a palette of sea-worn colors (e.g., a gray/green called “Kennebunkport green”). The furniture is from Northeast-based manufacturers (e.g., Heywood-Wakefield) and the pieces that are the most characteristic of Kennebunkport are white-painted and wicker. Kirsten Camp of the Kennebunkport Historical Society says, “People have really maintained that breezy, light feel—especially with that wicker furniture. That Laura Ashley look is still really popular. It’s about that very bright, very white, very ‘ocean’ feeling.”
HISTORY: This beloved island was embraced by whalers and their wives in 1715. It was around then that the tradition of Nantucket “lightship” baskets was introduced: Sailors would pass the hours on their boats by creating baskets, which were woven from rattan around a solid-wood base. “The Little Gray Lady of the Sea” welcomed its first inns in 1840 (with Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, being one of its first tourists in 1852). Nantucket would attract artists and other creatives to its shores in the 1900s—a bohemianism that continues to be at the heart of Nantucket’s aesthetic.
DECOR: The Nantucket “lightship” baskets are, perhaps, the most decorative when they are souvenirs. The island is also famous for its folk art (which can be discovered at the Nantucket Summer Antiques Show). The accents are brass and the wood is white-washed. But the aesthetic isn’t WASP—it’s bohemian WASP. And then, there are the hydrangeas. As Donna Elle, who designed the Anchorage House at the Wauwinet, describes, “Hydrangeas became synonymous with Nantucket about 20 or 30 years ago. They just thrive out here in the salt air. You have the complimentary colors of the verdant green and the periwinkle blue. They are a quintessential part of the island. They’re always revered in any composition.”
NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND
HISTORY: The Atlantic Ocean has heartened the character of this Ocean State destination. In the 1700s, it was a center for import-export trade (which included first-class furniture from Townsend and Goddard). Then, in the 1900s, it became a second home for yacht owners and their yachts. These Gilded Age elites commissioned the most esteemed architects and decorators of the era to create enormous mansions on Bellevue Avenue. But the aesthetic has since evolved from a demonstration of affluence to one of understatedness, where the old—or, rather, the eclectic and the inherited—is prized above the new.
DECOR: The decor is an ode to Newport’s historic connection with the sea—from maritime-themed art to stripe patterns (evocative of yachts). Then, there are dark wood–paneled rooms (also, evocative of yachts). A combination of antiques from different countries and different periods is also characteristic of Newport—but not when it’s too precious. John Peixinho, who is on the board of trustees for the Preservation Society of Newport County, advises, “My first piece of advice before you buy anything: Train your eye. Buy books about houses. Buy books about interiors. Buy books about Newport and historic properties. Read them and study the photographs.”