Mid-Century Modern in Historic Sconset
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
This 600-square-foot house feels quite spacious due to the openness and many windows typical of mid-century modern architecture. The homeowner’s collection of art and furniture of the period creates an exciting space.
In 2013, Katherine Murphy and Phil Arensberg downsized from a large island home and an apartment in Boston to their newly-built 600-squarefoot cottage in Sconset. The challenge they faced was how to arrange and fit their massive collection of mid-century modern art into the new house in an aesthetically pleasing way.
On moving day Kit, as Murphy’s friends call her, remembered, “Curtis Barnes, our builder; and Barbara Halsted, our decorator, were at the house helping us unpack boxes and putting things in place. Suddenly the movers started bringing in the artwork.”
Too tired to deal with it, she asked Halsted if she would hang it all. She told her she wanted the room to look like an art gallery and felt that Halsted had the artistic eye to pull it off. She was more than up to the task and did such a splendid job that Murphy admitted she’s never changed anything.
Every wall in the open living room, with its soaring ceiling, is covered with paintings, all artfully arranged. Rather than making the space feel closed in, the room exudes a vibrant feeling of excitement due to the colors, sizes and variety of the artwork. It is like being in a gallery devoted to one explosive period of creativity.
For the uninitiated, mid-century modern is a design movement that encompasses furniture, architecture, products, graphic design and urban planning/development from roughly 1933 to 1965. It is an American reflection of the Bauhaus movement. Brazilian and Scandinavian architects were influential during this period with a style that focused on clean and simple lines and integration with nature.
The trick to making it all work, especially in a small space, is selectivity. Each piece of furniture has its place and function and while bright and colorful, the effect is that of a minimalist sensibility. There is no room for clutter in this aesthetic.
Murphy now lives in the house with her Portuguese water dog, Luca. The house is small but perfectly suited to her lifestyle. It feels spacious because of the open floor plan, soaring ceilings to the roofline and lots of natural light. There’s a cozy, curl-up area off the living room where the ceiling is lower, with a loft office above, accessed by a circular stairway and overlooking the first-floor living space. A hallway leads to a private bedroom and bathroom and there’s a small powder room just off the entryway.
The exterior of the house is quite unpretentious, befitting the neighborhood and located on a side street in Sconset village.
“It’s always been Sconset for us,” Murphy said. “Phil first came here in 1974. He drove up Main Street and was captivated by the old oak trees arching over the street.”
The couple lived in Albany, N.Y. for years. Arensberg was a lawyer and Murphy was in banking. They arrived on Nantucket together in 1984 and were summer residents for more than 30 years. This is their second house in Sconset and after Arensberg died three years ago, Murphy decided to stay in the house year-round. “So far, so good,” she said.
When they became a couple, Arensberg and Murphy had to find a way to combine their individual art collections.
“It was difficult to let go of pieces I really loved so it could all be manageable. We originally bought art from contemporary Albany artists and going forward Phil and I had a rule: no art came into the house unless we both gave it a thumbs-up, except for the pieces I snuck in,” Murphy said playfully.
“We spent some winters in Boston living in Laconia Lofts in the South End where some of the apartments were artists’ live/work spaces. We bought from many of our neighbors,” she continued.
An art gallery in the building had exhibits devoted to up-and-coming, as well as established artists in the Boston area, and the couple occasionally found art there that they both liked.
When asked how she developed a passion for mid-century modern, Murphy said that growing up in the Buffalo, N.Y. area she was aware of significant architects who worked in the city, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Marcel Breuer, Eliel and Eero Saarinen and Frederick Law Olmsted.
“I grew up in a house that was very sparely decorated and had some mid-century modern furniture, even though the house itself was a Craftsman-style bungalow,” said Murphy, who remembered curling up with a book in the Knoll butterfly chairs, one
in each bedroom and two in the living room.
“I really find most mid-century furniture to be both comfortable and functional,” she said. “Our apartment in Boston had much more of this type of furniture.”
When the couple was downsizing to the new, smaller house, they had to decide what they could keep and what had to go.
“I think I miss the Barcelona day bed the most,” Murphy said.
Murphy has a unique way of acquiring artwork, saying she never consciously goes looking for it. It seems to find her, perhaps because her radar is always up and her years of collecting have given her a sense of what is worth buying.
“Suddenly I see something I really like,” she said. “It might be a photo, an oil painting, a sculpture. Subject matter is not important.”
She definitely has favorites that she looks at every day, like the three small pieces on display next to her bathroom mirror.
“I think of it as a comical grouping hung perfectly together in the perfect space,” she said.
This house is not overly crowded with furniture. There’s a Le Corbusier pony-hide chaise, a Knoll desk and chair and a Van Severen room divider used as a sideboard because “it’s colorful and practical,” Murphy said.
She feels that too much mid-century modern would overwhelm the space. Six Havana chairs in various solid colors were Halsted’s contribution. Right now Murphy believes she just might be the only person in Sconset (maybe all of Nantucket) who owns a three-piece white leather sofa set.
“It was a real find at the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum mega yard sale,” she said.
This is proof, as many islanders know, that nothing good ever leaves the island. It just gets recycled.
The space is dramatic and interesting and definitely belies its square footage. When you build small you can really hone in on the details that make the space unique, like the sliding, heavyglass barn-style doors between the public and private areas and repeated in Murphy’s bathroom, the Calder-like sculptural lighting fixture over the dining table and the spiral staircase, deliberate to the style of the house.
The open kitchen makes a definite statement. First of all, it’s red. Secondly, open shelves span the length of the room that overlooks the spacious living area. A long bar invites guests to belly up while dinner’s being prepared. Murphy takes no credit for the kitchen planning, since it was Arensberg who loved cooking and cooked every day. The Blue Star six-burner gas cooktop was his baby. Murphy’s favorite is the smaller, almost apartment-size Liebherr refrigerator. In the summer she likes to shop for fresh produce almost daily and said she never needs a lot of storage space.
“Phil wanted kitchen storage for wine so that’s the genesis of the glass-door wine closet that can hold 24 cases,” she said.
It’s also a great place to store cut flowers before arranging them, she added.
Neither Arensberg nor Halsted was afraid of color and together they decided on red. In the design phase they realized that upper cabinets would eliminate three kitchen windows and the light was more important. The couple liked open shelving in their other homes where everyday items become part of the design as decorative objects. The idea of cabinets, even with glass panes, felt claustrophobic, Murphy said.
For this to be a well-functioning kitchen, however, there has to be a lot of storage space under the cabinets.
Arensberg was forever changing his mind or coming up with new ideas, Murphy said.
“I was insistent on only four things: the small sink in the guest bathroom, the light fixture over the dining table, one neutral paint color for the entire interior, with the exception of the red kitchen, and the polished-steel barn-door hardware for all the sliding glass doors,” she said.
The neutral color for the walls worked with the artwork, allowing it to become the all-encompassing focal point of the room.
Murphy enjoys entertaining casually. She likes dinner parties with no more than eight people and thinks six is the perfect number for her entertaining style. It has nothing to do with space and she prefers to invite those who have been to the island and know it well.
Occasionally, in the winter, she pops off for ski trips and visits to the Big Apple.
“The house is like a suitcase,” she said. “Lower the heat, walk out the door, lock up.” ///
Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author of design and decorating books. She writes regularly for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and Nantucket Today.