The Modern Cottage

Portrait by Tim Robison
Portrait by Tim Robison

Designer Susan Portman, whose own home was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Carolina Home + Garden, talks about the importance of tying together comfortable living spaces with multifunctional design, the incorporation of the bungalow features she recalls from her South Carolina childhood, and what the term “cottage” really means. Her professional past life as a Biltmore House textile conservator, respect for history and love of simplicity enable her to create stunning, but always comfortable environs for herself and her clients.

You hear the term “cottage” so much. What does it truly connote?

To me, “cottage” evokes a feeling as much as a design sensibility. Actual cottages make us feel good — in their modesty, their typical well-executed sense of space and high quality materials. Shabby chic and chintz embellishments aside, a cottage feeling is associated with the unpretentiousness of indigenous materials. This doesn’t mean a ‘Hansel and Gretel-ish’ look, however. I’ve seen amazing contemporary cottages that borrow wonderfully from the drama of their surroundings — the Big Sur contemporary cottages of Carmel, California, for example. They’re very modern, but all about site orientation at the same time. 

You’ve talked about the rise of the kitchen island, which may, initially seem unexciting to some. Why is it important to you?

I can’t emphasize enough my feeling that one of the most important elements for a modern cottage feeling in a home is a kitchen island. They not only increase good flow in a living space, they mesh with the modern lifestyle of everyone from young families to Baby Boomers.

Can you elaborate on the kitchen island’s iconic nature?

When well executed, islands are the beautiful workhorses of shared living; they anchor the main space and create a locus whereby we can express our love of friends, food and hearth. They can serve as dining area, office, cooking/prep area, homework zone and an entertaining area, depending on one’s needs. Their surge in popularity also points to the desirability of linking kitchens to living rooms. And whether a homeowner favors traditional or contemporary, it should always be simple. Our lives and world are moving toward multifunctional spaces; I’ve even thought it would be great to increase an island’s functionality by adding a pullout or floating bar. 

What do you see homeowners valuing more now as they choose smaller homes whose spaces are less purpose-specific?

Basically, people are connecting to the intelligence and creativity behind going smaller. It’s important to think things through: examine how a space will be used and know that your individual needs should inform the design. Current design trends are more and more reflecting a hunger for shared experiences.

We’re lucky we have a past to refer to that prized comfort, efficiency, great craftsmanship and respect for the natural world. This concept was articulated and philosophized differently years ago, but we’re definitely honoring it again, now.

Are you finding that your clients are coming to you with a desire for these types of spaces?  

They’re definitely seeking it out. The more complicated life gets — with work, other responsibilities, and technology, the more people desire serene spaces that soothe. 

You refer to this as the “Low Key Simplistic.” Is this not unlike the Slow Food Movement, which focuses on honoring food’s proximity, growth process, and savoring the eating experience via one’s senses and connecting socially?

Exactly. In design, as in all other things, we have to decide: Do I want quantity or quality? It takes time to hand craft things — furniture, cabinetry, art. For example, my own home has a calm and compact feel that’s a result of excellent craftsmanship and using the best materials. 

What’s something simple anyone can do to add punch to a room?

Get the clutter out, edit and simplify. Color’s also important. I like a neutral palette because when you have lots of objects and color going on, it’s jarring visually and can make you agitated just by being in the room. I’ve learned these things from my own experience, too. A good trick is to question everything you have, in a sense. Put everything away, add things back slowly, and step away to get a snapshot at each juncture. This process encourages effective curating of your personal collections.

What keeps your work exciting and enjoyable?

Collaboration — with my clients and with other design professionals and artists. I love helping clients plan how best to utilize a space by making it both intimate and multifunctional. My work is endlessly interesting because these solutions are manifested differently with each and every project.

Design ought to be centered in the present. As Edison urged, “Just enjoy the feeling of living every day instead of thinking of the future.”

What’s an example of a space that has greatly inspired you?

One that made a big impression on me was the Huka Lodge in Taupo, New Zealand; they’ve incorporated cottages that are very modern and feature small, but open floor plans. I toured the Owner’s Cottage in 2007. It’s green, makes wonderful use of local materials, and incorporates historical elements, like Maori artists’ works. I’d love to do a project like this!

Any advice for those embarking on remodeling or home building projects that don’t know where to start?

Absolutely. Your environment should match how you want to feel in life. In order to figure out your visual preferences, it helps to do some research: flip through magazines and other image-rich resources like Pinterest, and create your own idea notebook. You’ll discover your preferences and put together a well organized master resource simultaneously, that you can refer to throughout your project.