Beach Cottage Soul

A designer creates a coastal oasis for two special clients.

At first sight, says interior designer Anne Pulliam, this Virginia Beach condo “looked like a contemporary mountain bachelor pad from the ’90s.” The kitchen, with its dark cherrywood cabinets, gray glass tile backsplash, and “spaceship pendant lights,” felt sterile and dated, while the stacked stone fireplace in the living room did little to brighten the mood. 

Her clients, Trudy and Cliff Porter of Richmond, also happened to be her parents. “They wanted a coastal cottage with that old beach soul,” says Pulliam. After a year of house hunting, they’d found a place spacious enough for visits from their three grown children, grandchildren, and family dogs. And while the ocean views were lovely, the décor was in need of an overhaul.

Could Pulliam transform the condo, her parents wondered? “They didn’t want a vacation house with starfish or mermaids and Gone to the Beach, Y’all signs,” Pulliam says. “They wanted something sophisticated and comfortable—without doing a gut renovation.” Yes, she assured them, she could infuse the place with the beach soul they’d found so elusive. 

Pulliam describes the design collaboration that unfolded over the next six months as “organic,” thanks to her parents’ built-in trust. “With most clients, you have to earn that trust,” she explains. “Working with them, I didn’t have to present every detail up front. We could slow-roll the decision-making process, so I had time to build on each space, adding layers to the design.”

In the kitchen, she transformed the dark cabinets with white paint, adding a blue ceramic tile backsplash by Architessa for a dash of coastal color. For the island’s base cabinets, she chose Waters Edge, a Benjamin Moore blue, to complement the tile. Quartz countertops replaced the ’90s-era granite, and white schoolhouse lights from Circa introduced an element of old-fashioned charm. 

To further warm the space, Pulliam made a subtle switch to the ceiling’s recessed lights, trading silver can liners for white ones. “Retrofitting old can lights is a cost effective way to update a space,” she notes.

In the dining room, a sisal rug brings “an island look,” Pulliam says, “but it’s an outdoor rug that’s indestructible. You can take it outside and clean it with a hose.” Downstairs, in the guest bedrooms and den, she replaced beige wall-to-wall carpeting with hardwood floors and area rugs. A blue geometric rug installed on the stairs creates an inviting welcome.

Along with new furniture, the Porters wanted to incorporate family pieces inherited from Trudy’s mother. “I find it really important for rooms to have some history and soul,” Pulliam notes. “There’s something old in every room—my grandmother’s puzzle table, and a hunt board that serves as a console near the kitchen, even my childhood bed in one of the guest rooms. Mixed with new furniture, they create a layered look that’s funky and fun.”

New pieces are damage-proof. “For the rattan coffee table in the living room, we added a glass top over the jute surface,” Pulliam notes. “If someone leaves a sweaty glass on the table, we just wipe it off—you don’t worry about creating a water stain.”

Color, too, enlivens the space, capturing the coastal feeling without overplaying it. “The sofas are blue, but the color isn’t deeply saturated,” she notes. “It’s about scale, too. I used a large-scale pattern on the sofa pillows to offset the solid sofas.” In the bedrooms, comforters by Roller Rabbit in an Indian block print introduce both pattern and color, “without a big commitment.”

And that old beach soul? Pulliam achieves it with textured pieces. “We added a natural element to every space—something tactile, like the rattan pendant light in the living room and the mirror in the guestroom,” Pulliam says. Even the entryway mirror is framed in braided rope and surrounded by a collection of straw hats. In the guest baths, surfboard and sailboat wallpapers add a subtle beach nod.

The project was a success on both sides. “This job gave me the confidence to follow my instincts,” Pulliam says. “And for any designer, those instincts are key to making assured decisions for your clients.”

As the client, Trudy Porter says it was “a gift” to collaborate with her daughter on a project that felt so personal. “Not only did we get a home decorated just the way we wanted it, we also got to see how Anne uses her creative skills in her business.”

The couple now enjoys entertaining family and friends in this welcoming space. “Whenever my mom’s friends visit, I’ll get a text from one of them afterwards telling me how comfortable the place feels,” Pulliam says. “Then we’ll come with kids and dogs and wreak havoc—and it’s all okay. The place is designed for that.” 

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue.

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