One piece of advice from the designer, if you’re trying this at home: “Don’t buy anything hideous.”
“Old, cottagey rugs and painted Victorian furniture were all thrown together, and the result is what I call ‘relaxed,’ in that we’re not really going all out to decorate. The bedrooms, too, are a crazy mixture of old-fashioned patterns and odd pieces of furniture, charming in an old summer cottage way.”
— Interior designer Markham Roberts writing about his and James Sansum’s Port Townsend cottage in “Decorating The Way I See It” (The Vendome Press, $60)
WHERE DO an in-demand New York City interior designer and his partner go to get away?
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Here. At the end of a gravelly lane over “downtown” Port Townsend. To an old and weather-whipped sea-captain’s cottage with a listing porch. Vast vistas of sapphire blue water beyond a white-picket fence. Where gulls, making such a fuss, catch breezes off Admiralty Inlet. And a deer, young, clops across the road in search of a munch, his demeanor all, “Whaddyayoulookinat?”
Inside, among a riot of pattern and style and color that together create a home most welcoming and gracious, the feeling is much the same.
“The most important thing for anybody is not to fuss,” says interior designer Markham Roberts. He’s pouring creamed iced coffee from a frosty pitcher. Harriet, Roberts’ and James Sansum’s schnoodle, stretches out across the back of the sofa, settles in. “If it stresses you out, you should let go. Take a Valium.”
Must be something about Port Townsend.
“This is one of our favorite places in the world,” Roberts says. “Our day consists of ‘Should we go to the hot-dog stand for lunch?’ Here I don’t have to answer questions. I don’t have to solve problems. I don’t have to say I like one thing over another.”
An interior designer’s work is never done. Neither is Sansum’s, a furniture and art dealer. Even at the place that is their most personal: Sansum’s parents bought the place in the 1970s. His mother was the poet Abby Sansum. The seashell collection in the dining room cupboard was started by James Sansum’s grandparents. A living room bookcase is lined with the school-bus yellow spines of old National Geographic magazines.
“All of our friends who come here to stay and haven’t been here before are just blown away,” says Roberts. Currently, he’s tinkering with a guest suite in the carriage house out back. Nothing fancy: pine-paneled walls, unfinished.
Roberts’ style is elegance with ease. It’s all about the invitation. There’s not so much a Markham Roberts look as there is a Markham Roberts feel.
“I don’t think imperfections are bad. I think they make it work,” he says. “They make it richer.” We are surrounded by furniture from Sansum’s family, finds from local shops and pieces from a great friend. Over the dining table, is that an Ikea paper lantern? Sure enough.
The couple has three homes. The sea captain’s cottage; an 1876 carriage house and barn in New York’s Hudson River Valley (They call it Clinton Corners. And, yes; the finest homes do have names.); and a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, two blocks from the office.
“My goal was to paint it and put furniture in it, and not make it a big project,” Roberts says of the Manhattan apartment. “We’re never there on the weekend.”
Of this place, he says, “Something like this is easy because you can have contemporary stuff and old stuff together. I guess it works because of its looseness.”
And for those of you tempted to attempt this perfect blend of interiors, Roberts has just one piece of advice: “Don’t buy anything hideous.”
Good luck with that.