Traditional Design Never Goes Out of Style -August 2016

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

When Mellie and Jim Cooper got married many years ago, they furnished their first home with the best they could afford. That furniture has stood the test of time, moving with them to different homes and never going out of style.

“We bought traditional furniture, some antiques, handcrafted accessories and over the years I’ve added lots of interesting things I’ve found in my favorite haunts. Everything seems to work no matter where we live,” Mellie said with a cheerful laugh.

Having sold a large family home in Connecticut and a small early Quaker home in the Old Historic District of Nantucket, the Coopers combined all their furnishings into a more traditional house on the island.

“This house is different than any we’ve lived in before, but it’s big enough to accommodate our family in the summer and I have a wonderful, bright studio on the third floor,” Mellie said.

She also spends a lot of time in Florida in the winter, where she also has a studio.

“No matter where I am, I’m either painting or I’m on the golf course,” she said.

Cooper is best known for her sculptural paintings made from paper that she molds into various shapes, such as a border of scallop shells around a center botanical or marine-life painting. Another might be a quilt that, unless you examine it very closely, looks like fabric, but is actually created from hand-sculpted paper that she then paints.

Mellie creates her work all year for a one-person show at the Janice Aldridge Gallery on Washington Street, best known for its botanical prints and exquisite lamps.

Mellie is a quiet stylemaker, perfecting her own environment and adding to the interior design of many island homes with her paintings. She graduated from Pratt Institute with a master’s degree in fine arts and later earned a degree from Fairfield University in interior design.

“All through school, the one thing I really liked doing was the rendering of rooms. I majored in sculpture, but I wanted to come up with something new, out of the box and different from traditional art. I was looking for a new form that was intriguing, something that could fool the eye, where you weren’t sure what you were seeing. I wanted to juxtapose the old and the new,” she said.

Mellie uses quilting as an example of a traditional art form she translates onto paper and then creates a “quilt painting” that forces the viewers to re-evaluate what they are looking at.

“When the sculpted paper quilt is framed and presented behind glass, you’re deprived of the sense of touch and it makes it difficult to figure out the process,” she said. This is an aspect of her artwork that she delights in.

“I enjoy the element of surprise and discovery,” Mellie said.

Her approach to decorating is not as avant garde.

“I like good, traditional furniture mixed with antiques and something a little

off-beat,” she said.

At the moment, however, Mellie is trying, unsuccessfully, to streamline a bit. “From time to time I put things away, but I never get rid of anything. It’s too

hard. I love the things I’ve collected over the years and they fill me with memories, so I just switch things around from time to time,” she said.

She admits that when her two little grandsons arrive for the summer she doesn’t do much entertaining the way she used to. Now life revolves around family meals on the patio. Jim recently took a job in Florida and commutes as best he can. But with her husband gone much of the time, she doesn’t have elaborate brunches the way she once did.

Lifestyle changes often bring about a different decorating style, but Mellie’s is timeless and she keeps refining it, proving that when you buy right the first time you just keep building on what you started with. Her good taste and interest in creating aesthetically-inspiring surroundings is what she’s all about.

“This house isn’t architecturally unusual. It’s not like my former house where I started with the good bones of an early island home,” she said.

“As an artist, I’m all about color. Subtle light changes affect the paint color you choose for each room, so when we moved in, the first thing I did was to select interesting paint colors to create a background for the furnishings.”

She pulled out a stack of paint chips with hundreds of Benjamin Moore colors.

“I love green and used different shades in each room, “ she said. “The ceiling in the living room is Celery Salt, which is a pale green like the inside of a celery stalk. The living room walls and hallway are Benjamin Moore Military Tan, which has a greenish tint. In the dining room I used Farrow & Ball’s Churlish Green.”

To complement this color scheme, there are pots of greenery and botanical prints on the walls, along with Cooper’s own artwork throughout the house.

“I’m about expediency. I like to get things done and I’m deliberate about where things should go. I’m more attached to things than houses. Everything I own has a story and speaks to my inner self. I’ve collected over a long period of time and even though everything doesn’t work by traditional standards, this conglomeration is my taste. Nothing is predictable,” said Mellie, pointing out various pieces as she walked around her home.

Mellie has the confidence to arrange her interior to suit her without playing by the rules. When it comes to decorating with Nantucket style she has this to say:“While I understand that blue and white are lovely here, it’s become a little too cliché for me. For young people starting out I can see getting the basic furniture like sofas and chairs from places like Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware. But then take time to find things on the island that you like and that reflect your personality. Trust your instincts.”

When asked who influences her style right now, she said, “My daughter Courtenay Sicre has a great eye. She’s got her own style, which is more youthful and is influenced by what’s going on today. She likes a cleaner look and has encouraged me to put away a lot of my possessions, very painfully.”

Mellie said she’s finding new uses for things as Courtenay has shown her how to tweak what she has. When decorating, she calls on the language of art: color, shape, lines, form, composition, texture, positive and negative space.

“The space around the objects in a room is as important as the space that is occupied. Make it just as interesting,” she said, “especially when it comes to arranging objects, like a collection, for display.”

When it comes to color, Mellie said that it’s too easy and often boring to resort to a shade of white throughout a house. Before you begin to decorate, however, it’s more interesting to create a background with the use of color on the walls, ceilings and trim. Different shades of one color are what she chose and the lighting changes the look of the rooms throughout the day.

“I used Benjamin Moore Tamarind for the family room off the kitchen and Farrow & Ball Tanner Brown for the bannisters,” she said. “It’s an elegant contrast and goes well with the green shades in the other rooms throughout the house.”

The gardens around the house have received the same deliberate attention that is projected in her decorating and her meticulous artwork. As a consummate perfectionist, Cooper has done all the interior painting herself as well as tending to the gardens that contain everything you might find in a typical cottage garden.

It takes a lot of enthusiasm and constant perfecting to create an organic environment inside and out that looks effortless. The process and the results give her great satisfaction. Wherever she is, in Nantucket or Florida, this artist makes her home her most appealing destination. ///

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.

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