A Coastal Cottage in the Sky

By staff May 1, 2006

Decorating with blue and white can make you feel a little bit closer to heaven. The color scheme is airy, ethereal, the essence of sky and sea. Indeed, blue and white might just be one of the world's earliest expressions of a global economy; references to blue and white Chinese temple porcelains, Central Asian ikat fabrics and Moorish tile motifs appeared in the work of potters and weavers throughout Europe soon after Silk Route trade began.

China's blue and white patterns, craftsmanship and cobalt pigments spawned cottage industries across the Continent, inspiring still-loved classics like English Spode, Dutch delft and French toile. Today, American design icons from Nautica to Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren apply their own signature to blue and white. And in Sarasota, it was the only color scheme Harriet Ahstrom would even consider for her new condo on Longboat Key.

"She was very specific about what she wanted," designer Sally Trout recalls. "Harriet stipulated blue and white right from the start." Ahstrom also envisioned a comfortable French country cottage style. But with her Players Club condo's less than trendy interiors and deteriorated condition, she knew help would be needed to convert her dream to reality.

"When our realtor took us to see the apartment, I couldn't believe that four other people were bidding on the place," Ahstrom says. "It had mildew problems and terrible turquoise and orange diamond-patterned draperies, with walls to match." But she and her husband, James, a recently retired orthopedic surgeon, had just missed out on another property by hesitating, so they made the winning bid.

While the blue and white color scheme was a given, Trout had a slightly newer vision that went beyond French country to give the couple a sense of place. "I like to call the look coastal cottage," Trout says. "It has French influences, but the overall design incorporates a blend of textures and accessories that play up the beach location."

White is the predominant color-in hand-painted furniture, upholstered sofas, chairs, bed coverings and decorative accessories. "White visually stretches the space, while subtle touches of blue entertain the eye," Trout says. "The color scheme is all light and brightness, but it isn't overpowering."

Small in comparison to the towering oversized condominiums now springing up in downtown Sarasota, the Ahstroms' building was completed in 1981. As a result, owners and designer were confronted with low popcorn ceilings, dated tile colors and bathroom appointments, and an overall lack of architectural detail.

What's more, Harriet required surgery back home in Oak Brook, Ill., for a debilitating elbow condition, and she recuperated at the couple's primary residence there during the entire nine-month renovation process. Far removed from construction dust, the couple met with Trout, approved her design concept and let her run with it. "Jim and I stood back and waited to see what happened," Ahstrom says.

Trout scraped off the ceiling's popcorn finish, raised the bathroom ceilings, built new soffits, installed new doors and baseboards and added crown molding and wainscoting throughout.

"At our initial meeting, I threw out some fabrics to see what they would gravitate to," Trout explains. "Harriet really loved two fabrics for the living room chairs-a pale blue and white lattice stripe and a little basket print. In furniture she favored major pieces in Country French and distressed finishes."

The living room entertainment armoire and dining room buffet, both from Habersham Plantation, are hand painted with heavy distressed finishes. Trout designed a custom lattice-patterned woven Wilton rug for the living room and traveled to the Design Center of the Americas in Dania to choose ready-made designer rugs in overall floral patterns for the entry hall and guest room.

"I told Harriet right from the beginning that blue is probably the hardest color to work with, because there are so many shades," Trout says. "And I warned her not to expect everything to match perfectly. I chose subtle nuances in the blues and varied the intensity from powder blue to cerulean and touches of cobalt."

Because the condo is a relatively small 1,748 feet, Trout painted walls white, used white broadloom carpet in bedrooms, and specified four-and-a-half-inch plantation shutters to cover sliders in the master bedroom and living room-a space-saving device that reinforced her beachy coastal cottage theme.

The only accent colors are found in the home's artwork, the most striking being the entry hall's Botti painting from Wallace Fine Art Gallery on Longboat Key. The painting commands center stage amid the home's quiet colors, its impressionistic style a surprisingly pleasant complement to Country French furnishings.

The designer took some liberties if an otherwise ideal item didn't quite fit the color scheme. "We chose stock hand-painted Habersham dining-room chairs, so I had my decorative artist change the pink to blue," she explains. "And Harriet was going to throw out her green and ochre candlesticks, but we salvaged them by sending them out to be painted blue."

White appears in various textures and surfaces throughout the home. Chenille sofas are chevron patterned, new bead board under a chair rail in the master bedroom adds dimension, a whimsical Italian garden seat is actually a trompe l'oeil set of three ceramic stacked cushions with tassel, and various forms of pottery and orbs above the living room armoire form a focal point without color.

"When the Ahstroms walked into the finished condo, they loved everything, even the art I'd selected," Trout recalls. But not every client with a penchant for blue and white is so accommodating. As a budding designer, one of Trout's first rooms in a model home was blue and white. "Everyone flipped out over it, including one visitor who told me she wanted the exact same room, but in a different color."


Sally Trout's tips for designing with this color scheme.

Perfection is boring. It's impossible to match all the blues, so don't even try. Subtle nuances are more interesting, anyway.

Limit accents. With a blue and white scheme, resist adding too much accent color. Trout likes adding a touch of yellow or simply relying on artwork for color.

Vary shapes and textures. To create visual interest, the white in this scheme takes on many shapes (orbs, pottery, ceramics, cushions), fabric textures and degrees of distressing on furniture surfaces.

Watch your tone. There's a "right" blue for your décor. Pale blues, cerulean and touches of cobalt work best in traditional homes. Blue and white can be very contemporary if you choose deeper, more intense tones.

Play up pottery. Have fun with blue and white pottery from a variety of cultures; collections can include antique and new pieces. Go for the impact of your display from the start, then upgrade with better pieces as you find them.

Start with fabric. For small spaces, tone-on-tone whites stretch the space with blue and white patterns in subtle stripes and lattice patterns for accents. See if you're comfortable with more active patterns by viewing samples in your home.

Whiten your shell. White carpet, walls and sliding bi-fold plantation shutters create an interior shell that appears larger and becomes a canvas for blue accents or feature walls.

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