Designer Elisa Allen: Breaking the Mold

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

“I do what I do out of joy and then I apply it to a business perspective, rather than the other way around,” interior designer Elisa Allen says.

I first met Allen several years ago when she was putting the finishing touches on a house in Madaket that she had designed and was about to put on the market. It totally took me by surprise. The rooms were designed around spectacular finds, mixing the traditional with the unexpected, a style that seemed to unite disparate influences.

The current homeowners, along with Anita Nettles Stefanski and her husband Michael Stefanski of Seed to Stone, created the new landscape with a waterfall/pond design as part of the outdoor environment.

Here was a designer with the ability to take classic good design and give it her own spin that announced a cutting-edge trend for what would soon become the new Nantucket style. And she does it with respect for the island.

Fast-forward a few years and Allen is just finishing a project on Hussey Street. I had been in this house when the previous owners lived there and I was anxious to see what this designer had done to meet the needs of the current owners. The house is a building of architectural significance because it is only one of a handful of gambrel-roof houses built on the island. A gambrel is usually a symmetrical, two-sided roof with two slopes on each side. The architectural term in 18th century England and America was “Dutch roof.” This design allows for maximum headroom on the top floor, which, in this case was a second floor used as a laundry room.

Built in 1772, there were two sets of stairs in the house.

“We eliminated the newer entry-hall stairs, leaving the very primitive set of back stairs,” Allen said.

“There are always problems with any project, but I love the challenge of figuring them out...” Elisa Allen
One can’t help but fall in love with slightly-crooked places, a slant of a floor or a primitive door, and to the credit of the designer and her clients, the renovation and restoration were designed to incorporate the original doors, floors, molding and this back staircase.

For practical purposes, these early homes were built with self-contained, small rooms.

“We opened up the first floor by eliminating walls between rooms to create a graceful flow,” Allen said. “A private side deck off the master bedroom/bathroom suite was added and includes an outdoor shower built around an existing, mature, Japanese maple tree.”

Because of the layout, the family room had been underused. By moving doors and walls around, the furniture fit better and the room became more inviting.

“The second floor was a dormer with a washer/dryer up there,” Allen said. “By moving the laundry to the first floor we created space for two large built-in daybed/bunks for guests.”

It takes a minute to absorb the details and one isn’t instantly sure of the origin, new or newly-created. Remarkably, the character of the house has not changed in the modernization process.

As we walk through the house and she explains what was done, it becomes obvious that she is a no-nonsense professional who knows how to get a job done well, a quiet force who has made a name for herself in a very competitive field.

“There are always problems with any project, but I love the challenge of figuring them out, especially when it comes to construction and the ‘interior hardscape’,” Allen said.

This is what she calls the floors, trim, counters, fireplace surrounds and mantels, built-ins, kitchens, plumbing and light fixtures, door hardware, etc.

While Allen is confident about her work, there is no ego involved, although she has certainly earned the right to brag. Her vast knowledge of all phases of building a home on Nantucket comes from hard work and experience. Every job she has had since she decided to make the island her permanent home has been in the field of creating beautiful houses.

It was her training that inspired Allen to start a design firm on Nantucket. In the early 1990s, she worked for developer Bruce Poor when he was building homes on Woodbury Lane. For the next couple of years she worked at Coffin/Sconset Real Estate, followed by a 10-year stint with builder Randy Sharp, before going out on her own. She still considers him a friend and mentor.

“I give Randy the credit for teaching me all aspects of construction and how to run a business. Because of Randy I have been in business for myself ever since,” she said.

Allen’s “one woman band,” as she describes her business, began in 2004 and she has since been involved with a prestigious list of Nantucket home projects. There is one more thing. Allen has a sense of humor.

“It’s an important asset in this business,” she said.

What makes her stand out in this very competitive arena, and so valuable to her clients, is that she can read plans and knows architecture, all aspects of construction, as well as design and decorating. She can be found on jobsites working constantly with contractors and knows how to communicate on many levels.

“I love the entire process, from siting the houses, to laying out rooms, creating the exterior and interior vibe on paper, then watching it come to life as a structure, then walking through the house as it’s being built so I can edit and get everything as close to perfect and logical as possible,” she said.

Allen has built several spec houses on her own, and she has been involved with new construction as well as renovated and restored antique homes.

“When starting a project, I take into consideration location, surrounding vegetation, topography, approach as you drive up to the house, sun orientation, what rooms you want to be in at what time of the day, what other nearby houses look like and outdoor living spaces so I can create privacy in the house,” she said.

“I think about what I’m currently seeing in the design world and try to imagine what a client or buyer might want. I try to achieve a combination of clean, comfortable, fresh, current, inviting bright pops of ‘color-organic,’ rich, cozy, relaxed, natural beachy and logical.”

When asked what projects she enjoys the most she said, “I love an old Madaket beach shack, but times have changed. Obviously the houses are now bigger, smarter, more luxurious with all the modern amenities, which is not a bad thing. Who doesn’t want air-conditioning, big, open kitchens for entertaining, great materials and bedrooms for everyone?”

It seems pointless to dwell on nostalgia for old Nantucket, and refreshing to see how a sensitive designer can reinterpret it for modern living.

It not only takes talent, but instinct and the confidence to transform space into something

that is both surprising and familiar.

“For the Hussey Street house, I was hired as

the architectural, construction and design consultant. Val Oliver drew the initial renovation plans and took them to the Historic District Commission for approval. After that I collaborated with Stephanie Hall at Nantucket Looms on the decorating part of the project,” Allen said.

“They have an amazing design studio above their store and a staff that can facilitate the ordering of everything for a project.”

Hall and Allen have collaborated on many projects, including this one.

“We have similar and complementary design tastes and work well together,” Allen said.

She went on to explain that furnishing this house was so interesting and exciting because the owners had their own original modern artwork, traditional American antiques and a collection of Asian furniture that they wanted to incorporate with the newly-upholstered furniture.

Allen instinctively knows how to incorporate that “wow” factor into our traditional Nantucket interiors. It’s a subtle thing that has become her trademark.

When asked if there were any challenges on the job, Allen said, “the challenges for this project were getting natural light into the dining room and kitchen, and providing ample seating for guests in the living spaces. We also had to update and reconfigure the kitchen and incorporate current appliances without losing its unique feeling.”

The family is made up of a couple and their young-adult sons who have friends visiting often. They are a tall family so Allen had to take this into consideration when it came to ceiling heights, especially when turning the second floor into bedrooms. The end result is evidence that everyone involved in this project had an intuitive dedication to craftsmanship and a connection to the island.

When asked if she has a favorite project Allen didn’t hesitate.

“Building my largest spec project on my own on Millbrook Road,” she said. It will be interesting to see what her willingness for experimentation leads to next. ///

Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author of design and decorating books. She writes regularly for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s weekly newspaper, and Nantucket Today.