The Little White House

By staff June 1, 2002

John Ringling once dreamed that St. Armands would be the site of a Presidential vacation White House on St. Armands Key. Now, there is a white house of distinction on nearby Lido Key-the little white beach house of Joni Bergs, 45-year-old fashion model and Florida manager for Juliana Collezione, a line of upscale women's clothes. Bergs admits that she followed her own fashion formula in putting together her house-classic materials and style and lots of neutrals-especially white.

The walls in every room are white, as are the kitchen counters and cabinets and everything in both baths. The large pieces of furniture are slipcovered by Covers by Carrie in white cotton duck, and the bed linens are white as well. All that white not only expands the small rooms and 8-foot ceilings; it also creates a sense of calm and serenity.

"White is so refreshing and soothing," says Bergs. "Even most of the photographs and line drawings I have on walls or arranged on ledges are black and white. And just for the record, I dress in neutrals and sleep only in white cotton lingerie."

Further playing up the white-light theme, Bergs opted for big windows, simple ivory panel drapes and glass exterior doors. She also brought in overscaled, gilt-framed mirrors and leaned them against the walls. In both her guest room and living room, one wall is completely mirrored; and behind the upper cabinets in the kitchen a wide strip of mirror provides front and back views of a collection of 19th-century apothecary bottles.

"Mirrors are another way to project a spacious feeling because they gather and reflect light," says Bergs. "I also used clear glass for my living room coffee table and the laminate cabinetry, and appliances in the kitchen have a reflective surface that bounces light around. People always leave thinking this house is much bigger than it actually is."

Yet despite all the white, the house is anything but stark. Instead, Bergs has created a comfortable retreat with furniture that looks like it was either inherited or artlessly collected over the years. "Using white wall paint with no blue undertones helped keep the house from being remote and modern," she explains. "And I've accented the white with ecru, cream, and other neutrals stretching from beige into the browns for softness and comfort." Pillows, ottomans, chair cushions, and chenille throws are fashioned from faux animal skin. Additionally, the open-floor plan merges inside and outside; and Bergs has placed enormous tropical plants in baskets like pieces of furniture.

Robert and Joni Bergs bought the 900-square-foot 1955 residence four months after they wed with the intention of renovating and enlarging it and renting it out during the tourist season. The enthusiastic newlyweds figured on four months of hard labor and lived at Golden Gate Point during the renovation to reduce stress. Besides installing new plumbing, wiring and a tin roof, they converted a garage into an eat-in kitchen. Nine months later the Lido house was now 1,200 square feet and finally habitable. But it was April, and the Bergses had missed the tourist season, so they moved in themselves to save money and complete some landscaping projects.

"That was it," confesses Bergs. "Once I get my feet planted, I'm done. I fell in love with this little white house the minute we moved in." Over the next six years the Bergses imported four mature coconut palm trees (they got them at a bargain from a Bradenton Beach resort going out of business) and strategically planted them. Then Robert Bergs scraped three feet off the front yard to reveal white sand. Now the sunken patch of personal beach is surrounded by a deadhead cypress boardwalk, rocks, and planting areas reserved for seasonal annuals. An arbor of white Confederate jasmine arches over the entrance. The couple eventually created a back patio, koi pond and an private shower area outside.

But the couple's love affair with their home outlasted their marriage. Six years ago, they divorced, and Robert Bergs moved out. "But we've kept the house in both our names and we are still the best of friends," says Bergs. "The apothecary collection displayed in the kitchen belongs to him. The bottles look so right in that space that he's never removed them."

She has continued to apply her fashion theories to purchases for her home. Her first rule: A big budget isn't necessary. "Most of my favorite clothes have come from vintage shops like Creative Collections," she reveals. "They're things with character, and I mix and match them with more expensive designer clothes. I do the same with furniture. I look for good lines, comfort, and things with a bit of age and personality. Flea markets, secondhand stores, or new things from places like Binjara Trader are all mixed together in this place. The continuity comes from the colors-white, natural finishes, black iron-and in the consistent use of the same textures such as the animal prints, natural fiber rugs and green plants."

And she refuses to add any clutter. "I'm forever taking away rather than adding," she says. "If it's not useful, I don't need it. The temptation in both wardrobe and home furnishings is to acquire. But for a casually elegant look, you must be highly selective. Own only that which supports your lifestyle."

That said, the fashion expert admits she has more than 200 pairs of shoes in her spacious white walk-in closet and doesn't intend to part with a single pair. "Shoes are different!" she exclaims. "A woman cannot have too many shoes, and that's just the way it is."

Last year, Bergs collaborated with contractor Melissa Sargeant of M.A. DeMarco to add a new master bedroom/bath suite to the house, bringing it up to 1,800 square feet. They used the white color theme and followed the rambling layout of the beach cottage. "We did raise the ceilings to nine feet in that part of the house, but otherwise it's just a natural flow from the den, which used to be the lanai, to the new addition," she says.

Bergs chose hard-surface flooring for the bedroom and found a big, sexy, leopard-skin ottoman to play off the pristine white bed linens and oversized custom-made white headboard. She brought in a mountain grass rug to cozy up the space and suspended a clear glass candle-powered chandelier above the oval soaking tub in the adjoining bath. Speakers for the sound system are embedded in the ceiling.

"My selections are practical as well as aesthetic," she says. "I have three cats whom I love like children. They've been with me for 12 years, and if they want to claw the rugs or get hair all over the white furniture, that's fine. I can wash the slipcovers or replace the rugs because they are so inexpensive. I wouldn't live in a house that didn't provide me with equal parts comfort and beauty. At the end of the day, nobody wants to come home to a showroom."

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