The distinctiveness of the region and feelings you experience all around evoke a sense of place. There’s the beauty of Narragansett Bay, the Sakonnet River, Mount Hope Bay and other serene waterways; the 14 scenic miles of Route 77 that weave through rolling green hills and winding stone walls; the weathered salt boxes that dot our landscape. From the charm and Americana permeating throughout Bristol to the earnestness of Warren’s working waterfront and quaintness of Tiverton Four Corners, the East Bay has no shortage of history and heritage.
The bond between where we live and our deep emotional attachment to it is most often manifested through our own personal sense of place. Within our walls we can imbue a deep appreciation for culture, connections, and surroundings. Whether a cozy cottage, contemporary condo, intimate apartment, or sprawling estate, there are myriad ways to celebrate the unique character of the area through architecture, textiles, texture, and furnishings.
Aligning where you call home with a sense of place doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process. Rhonda Casey is a holistic design consultant and founder of Tiverton-based Makers + Holm, a human-centric interior design service that focuses on wellbeing and works with specific sensory needs and incorporates natural elements. She advises taking stock of what’s happening in your life, your family needs, and your goals before anything. “If you start there, you are always going to start with the best foundation, because your taste will change,” she explains. “If you’re looking outwards at just the gorgeous natural surroundings, it’s easy to include that as part of the way you dwell in your home because nature is a natural part of our well-being,” says Casey.
Capturing a sense of place doesn’t have to be radical or overt. Patti Watson, owner and principal of Taste Artful Interiors & Design based in Jamestown, says while we always have to take our cues from where we are, design works best when approached with subtlety and a light touch: “It has so much more integrity and believability when it’s not right in your face. It should be in the background.”
“Texture, I think, is even more important sometimes than color,” explains Watson. Since launching Taste in 2004, she has witnessed the evolution of design trends while staying rooted in the specific needs of clients who make a home in New England, whether a primary home or big city escape. “There is so much more sophistication that can come when you use texture as your medium. We will apply texture anywhere and everywhere we can,” she concedes.
Watson says her team of designers consistently uses texture in unexpected ways. In one home they are currently working on, they are using grasscloth wallcovering on a ceiling to accentuate its distinct characteristics. Grasscloth is made by hand using natural fibers, including jute, sisal, reed, or hemp, and hand-weaving them into rice paper. “We are incorporating it on the ceiling because in this instance, the ceiling is really intricate and interesting.The architecture deserves more than just plaster. It’s the perfect opportunity to bring in that coastal texture where you wouldn’t expect it,” explains Watson. “It’s going to be really amazing.”
To create texture, consider blending different elements: stone, wood, ornamental grasses (both live and dried), and other interesting decor. Varying components add layers of tactile interest, fashioning a cohesive visual impact.
Reclaimed wood is a way to bring warmth and character into a space. It establishes an especially authentic sense of place if it’s locally salvaged from an old barn, factory, or building. The degree to which you incorporate reclaimed wood can be as subtle as decor elements, including floating shelves, a fireplace mantle, or even driftwood for a tablescape that’s been sourced from Fogland Beach. Reclaimed wood makes an impact when used as a focal point (i.e. exposed beams, a sliding barn door, a repurposed church pew, a wood accent wall, or custom built furnishings).
Using design accents made from natural fibers is a simple way to capture texture. Macrame pieces are seeing a resurgence in popularity. Their affordability, muted palettes, and cozy vibe are captured in elaborate wall hangings, decorative fiber art, plant hangers, even indoor seating hammocks ideal for a sun-drenched corner or reading nook.
One of the easiest ways to refresh your living space is through window treatments, bed and bath linens, throw pillows, and rugs.
This region, or course, is synonymous with textiles. “There is a lot of history here on the South Coast in the textile industry,” says Rhonda Casey. “This is an area where folks came from other places and the textile industry was what supported their community. If you are fascinated by that history, then by all means, seek out things that you love and bring them into your home that are reminiscent of it.”
Indeed, cotton mills thrived here during the Industrial Revolution, including the five-story Bourne Mill, a granite behemoth straddling the Tiverton-Fall River border. While many mills were abandoned or repurposed, and the textile industry is just a whisper of what it once was, there are companies like Matouk that nearly a century later continue to thrive. Based in Fall River, Matouk handcrafts luxury linens, employing local residents the company describes as “our community of craftspeople, artists, and partners.” Today, the company makes bed and bath linens, throws and blankets, table linens, and fabric accessories.
“We are really starting to see more rugs with hemp in them, and a combination of hemp and jute,” says Taste’s Watson, explaining that rugs made from sisal, the same natural fiber used to make ropes, was long the mainstay in coastal New England. “Just that little light touch of jute coming through in the pattern is that really subtle nod to the coast.”
Pieces from local makers capture a sense of place perhaps more than any interior component. Like textiles, furniture-making is a part of our region’s legacy.
Early America’s premier furniture and cabinetmakers, the Goddard and Townsend families, were based in Newport. (A mahogany desk made by John Goddard for Nicholas Brown, Brown University’s namesake, sold in 1990 for $12 million.) Today, similar craftsmanship principles continue with artisans like Warren residents and RISD grads Sara Ossana and Jonathan Glatt, the duo behind O & G Studio based in the town’s iconic Cutler Mill. They handcraft furnishings ranging from tables, dressers, and dining tables to settees, beds, benches, and stools – many with a twist on traditional 19th century Shaker and Federal styles synonymous with colonial New England.
Another lauded maker, Jeff Soderbergh, has been crafting sustainable custom furnishings and sculpture for both residential and commercial clients and collectors for over 30 years. From his studio in Portsmouth’s Island Park, Soderbergh fashions pieces from reclaimed materials, mostly sourced from the Northeast, from early homes, mill buildings, ships, churches, schools, and barns.
The East Bay is peppered with a diverse array of dwellings and their adjacent environs — and beyond — that play a pivotal role in architectural design.
“Whether you are doing a major renovation or addition, or just one room, I think you do have that sense; you have the opportunity of connecting things with your surroundings,” says Justin Zeller, founder and general manager of Red House Design Build based in Providence.
“There are a lot of people who live on the coast and they have this opportunity for coastal views and that’s wonderful. But I think a lot of what we’ve seen with people, and what they’re trying to do with their homes, is they are not interested in just creating more space or functional space. Now it’s a matter of ‘How do I create special space?’”
Zeller explains that pandemic living has many people investing in their homes, creating outdoor spaces, or multifunctional indoor/outdoor spaces, which make them want to stay home. Part of that is the connection they feel to where they call home. Zeller works on renovations that highlight existing elements, like centuries-old stonework or a picturesque meadow that’s remained unchanged for generations. “The East Bay overall does have a lot of ancient pieces of architecture that might still be there, like a stone wall. Or sometimes it’s the original layout or the original structure of a house that’s nice to accentuate. But the other thing the East Bay really has going for it is how lush, green, and beautiful it is. The light in the evenings is amazing … [so I’m] really thinking about how to frame those pieces.”