by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Jeff Allen
As I climbed the massive stone steps leading to the historic Jared Coffin House hotel, I was just as skeptical as everyone else in town. The buzz about its new restaurant had been going on for several months, and I was wondering what changes had been made to the dining room. Most islanders remember with nostalgia the original room when Peg and Phil Read owned the inn. It was a throwback to another era, with heavily-draperied windows, thick carpeting and faded, upholstered furniture. Having a meal here instantly transported you back in time, if only for an hour or two. With all this on my mind, I walked through the front rooms, down the hallway and stopped in my tracks. What lay before me was at once awesome, dramatic and totally unexpected. Michael Sturgis, for- mer owner of Cinco on Amelia Drive, is now the proprietor and sommelier of Brick Bistro, the new dining establishment in the J.C. House, and if the design of the place is any indication of what we can expect, this new venture will be nothing short of a huge success.
I had arrived ahead of my scheduled appointment to meet with Kathleen Hay, the award-winning designer chosen for the project. I wanted to get a first impression without interruption. I was alone in the dining room and it immediately exuded everything Kathleen later described as her goal, which was to make it the pride of Nantucket.
“I think this is exactly the way the original Coffin family would have done it for modern times if they were here today,” Hay said. The very first patrons on opening weekend were unanimous in their praise. “It’s modern, but not cold or off-putting in any way. In fact, just the opposite,” one diner said.
From another, “It’s so warm and comfortable. You simply want to remain in this room as long as possible.”
“The new design is contemporary in the perfect way for the building and for the community. I think everyone will be quite pleased with the transformation,” another said.
The room has been infused with an elegant youthfulness that speaks volumes in a whisper. To her credit, the designer has tapped into the “sweet spot” of this hotel and turned its dining room into the jewel it was intended to become.
“How did you approach this project?” I asked Hay, whose firm specializes in high-end residential projects, including many on Nantucket. This is her first commercial venture and while it was a challenge, it is clearly one she has embraced.
“It just came to me like so much of my work,” she said. “I was given a very tight time schedule and like all jobs, this one had budget constraints as well. Limitations are good because they foster a creative approach to problem-solving. I was very fortunate in that I worked with talented and wonderful people. Michael was a big help because he absolutely knows how a restaurant has to function and he has great taste as well as respect for what I envisioned.”
Sturgis’ talent also shows in his choice of Kathleen Hay Design for this project. Hay has been featured in numerous regional and international publications and has recently been recognized by a distinguished international panel of judges as one of the world’s leading designers. Her trademark interiors are clean, sophisticated spaces that exude chic, comfort and appealing suitability. “
Rooms should be timeless,” she said. I asked if the project involved major construction. Hay said, “We could not do anything that would physically change the infrastructure of the building, so we had to work with what was, but the good bones of the room were there. It was just a matter of bringing it up to date while respecting the historic importance of the building.”
Hay went on to explain her initial concept for the overall color scheme, which combines neutral tones of browns with different textures like the dark-brown rattan chairs with their sumptuous light-brown upholstered seats that invite diners to linger, walls covered with jute or sea grass in a quiet natural color, and the antelope-patterned rug that defines the main dining room.
The lighting was another important factor.
“Lighting is tricky,” Hay said. “It should be pleasing for dining at different times of the day. At night, for example, you want the lighting to be low and romantic, for breakfast you want a brighter room and during the day the natural light affects the environment.”
This brings us to another aspect of the design. The lighting fixtures are dramatic in size, shape and texture. Some are wooden chandeliers, some round, natural twig fixtures and others of glass. Round shapes are part of the design concept. There are many architectural statements that suggest a moveable stage set, like the dividing pane-less window frames that hang from the ceiling, and a wall-size wooden cut-out circle that creates the illusion of a dividing wall used to create a feeling of privacy between tables, but without isolation.
“I didn’t want the room to look totally fixed. Stage-set elements like the window units suggest movement,” Hay said.
Everything seems organically integrated, but the piece de resistance, a stroke of genius that defines Kathleen Hay Design, is in the choice of artwork. Hay commissioned photographer Jeff Allen to create blow-up photographs, done in sepia tones, of architectural details from Nantucket buildings, such as the iconic columns and pillars, an abstract view looking down through a circular stairway, as well as close-ups of flower petals in the lounge.
Allen and Hay have been friends for over 20 years and have worked together on many projects. As a national- and internationally-acclaimed photographer who has lived on Nantucket for more than 25 years, Allen’s architectural interior-design, food and garden photographs have been featured in books (“The Nantucket Holiday Table” by Susan Simon) and appear regularly in magazines. I had the pleasure of collaborating with Jeff on one of my own books, “A Nantucket Christmas” (Bulfinch Press).
“We had meetings to talk about the space. Kathleen came up with the master plan and I shot the photographs specifically to go with the overall design,” Allen said. To complement the dominant color of the furniture and tablecloths, Allen, who is also a master craftsman, made the massive wooden frames that offset each photograph and painted them dark brown for dramatic effect. This has to be the most perfectly-integrated form of artwork imaginable for the overall interior design of the room.
Hay said this was a very important Nantucket project – a gift to the community. “I used all local craftspeople and businesses because there is so much talent here,” she said.
Kitty Kania, for example, hand applied the jute with rivets on the walls in the bar as well as the sea-grass wallpaper in the dining room and the mother-of-pearl panels behind the front bar table. Hay also credited Josh Brown of J. Brown Builders, the Nantucket Lightshop and Marine Home Center for the window treatments and carpeting.
“I wanted everyone of all ages to feel comfortable here. It’s a place where people will be welcome for a meal in the main dining room, a light bite at the bar, a drink at the ‘belly up’ bar with its flat-screen TV or coming into the back lounge later in the evening for an after-dinner drink or dessert,” Hay said.
The lounge area reminded me of Cinco, as this signature is pure Michael Sturgis. A caramel leather banquet wraps around the step-up area with little pull-up cocktail tables to create an intimate, casual place for a group or just two. It’s a tucked-away spot to curl into. The door between the dining room and lounge has glass panes, creating an ambiance of quiet and cozy without feeling cut off.
Everything about the design in the new Brick Bistro spells modern with a respectful nod to the past. “This design is fashioned on the natural beauty of the island with the architecture at its root. There are layers of the air, the sea, the vegetation, and most of all the venerable old building in which the restaurant is housed,” Hay said. I look forward to my next visit, which will definitely be for a dining experience.
Note: The Nantucket Preservation Trust has produced a lovely paperback book about this project, including a brief history of the Jared Coffin House inn and restaurant. It is available through the Trust and the Jared Coffin House.