Creative on the Cape

Sunny California style brightens up a cozy cottage by the sea

Here’s a conundrum: Let’s say you buy a house near the ocean, a perfect little shingle-sided Cape with access to the beach. You’ve been a water worshipper all your life, and you want your house to sing to the nearby surf and sand. And yet you loathe nautical style—no anchors, no buoys, no distressed nets for you.

This is the problem that faced Elizabeth Kirby when she moved into her “perfect” house on Cape Elizabeth’s Shore Road, just steps from where she grew up. When she and her husband, Kyle, purchased the Cape, they were blown away by the porch, the backyard, and the easy access to Casino Beach. (“It’s a real beach,” she says with reverence. “An actual, sandy, real beach. It’s my forever happy spot.”) But they weren’t so crazy about the maritime style that’s so common with beach houses, complete with lighthouse light plates and painted buoy decals. Although Elizabeth and Kyle are both lifelong Mainers, they decided to look farther afield for inspiration. “I was aspiring for Malibu beachy,” Elizabeth Kirby reveals as she swings slowly in her womb-style hanging rattan chair. “And yet I’ve never lived in California. I guess I just really love the style.”

With its surplus of natural textures, colorful textiles, and contrasting patterns, the Kirbys’ house feels like a coconut oil–scented breath of fresh air. It’s light and breezy, playful, and clearly considered. It took some work to get to this point. It wasn’t all as easy as switching out a light plate. On the first floor, Kirby enlisted a family contractor, Brian Hopkins of Gorham, to add built-in storage to the mudroom so the family of four can hide away their winter gear during the warmer months. Rob Barrett of Barrett Made did the bulk of the construction. “Rob [Barrett] helped me find this place,” Kirby explains, so it only made sense that they would enlist his help in updating the interior and reconfiguring the floor plan. They added a new wall to separate the sunny sitting room from the kitchen and dining areas. They got rid of the formal dining room and added a breakfast nook for a “more casual dining space,” says Kirby. They did away with the woodstove insert and brought in a brand-new gas stove. They also opened up the kitchen, making it larger and airier, better for cooking and socializing. “Upstairs we painted and combined two bedrooms into one,” Kirby says. “We created an owners’ suite, with our very own bathroom— we didn’t want to share ours with the kids.” Now the house has three bedrooms and three full bathrooms, including a bathroom with a shower on the first floor. (“Which we may never, ever use,” admits Kirby, “but it’s nice to have.”)

This was Kirby’s first big renovation project, and while some homeowners find the process all-consuming and terribly stressful, she loved it. “I had always wanted to do a project like this,” she says. “I loved making every little decision. I had a particular idea about what I wanted it to be—organic, classical, but relaxed.” She used a mix of old items and new finds to furnish her space. In the kitchen, there are brass lighting fixtures from Lulu and Georgia, and modern glass globe pendants from West Elm light up the hallway. She found hanging chairs from the online retailer Serena and Lily to swing in the sunroom, a few feet above its light-stained oak floors. “They’re comfy and sturdy and fun,” she says. “Perfectly beachy and bohemian, plus the kids love them.” For the living room, she found chairs on Etsy, which she refinished and covered with a textural gray fabric. “I’m obsessed with Etsy,” she adds. She also designed a few items herself, like the bench cover in the kitchen, which uses an enticing mix of faux leather and velvet. “It’s functional, and it’s actually really easy to keep clean,” she says. “It’s not real leather, so I can just wipe it off. It feels really cool, I think.”

Although the decor feels contemporary, there are touches of retro scattered throughout. “My mother-in-law is a total hippie from the ’60s,” Kirby says. “She has so much experience working with macramé.” When it comes to DIY, Kirby is willing to try anything once, so she worked on a few wall hangings, but when it came down to it she preferred the pieces created by her mother-in-law (and a few sourced from Home Goods). “I love the tapestries and wall hangings because they bring so much warmth and texture,” she says. “I also like to bring in greenery, but I don’t really have much of a green thumb.” Neither does her husband, so Kirby buys “good fakes” that add a little joy to the space. “We also rely on plants that just can’t be killed,” she says, gesturing toward a ZZ plant that rests in a midcentury modern ceramic planter with a wooden base. “I would love to have more succulents, but I’ve killed my fair share already.” Kirby has a sense of humor about her house, and a clear appreciation for color and pattern. While some of her ikats and embroidered hangings might clash in less steady hands, Kirby has found a balance by relying on simple furniture (pieces from West Elm and Article) that can be pepped up with a throw pillow here, a punchy blanket there. “Sticking to the same color scheme helps when you’re mixing patterns,” she says. “That way, one doesn’t stand out particularly against the rest.” She chose a neutral base for her eclectic collection of art, painting almost all the walls in the house with White Dove by Benjamin Moore (a soft, warm white with just a hint of gray). On this soothing backdrop, Kirby has added splashes of cobalt blue and rosy pink. “I like pink and blue together because it reminds me of a sunset,” she says. “Plus, I didn’t want it to be all masculine-feeling with too much blue, or too feminine with all the pink.” She found a balance, one that feels gender neutral and appropriately summery.

When Kirby’s not at home cooking Asian-inspired meals in her California-style kitchen or working on her newest project (an essential-oil vape pen startup), she likes to spend her free time at the beach playing with her two kids and their friendly neighbors. Cape Elizabeth, she says, is a welcoming community, filled with “salt of the earth” types. “Every weekend in the summer, everyone is down at the beach,” she says (somewhat wistfully, considering the snowy weather outside). Friday night is pizza night, and the neighborhood kids come out to play while their parents order pies from Otto and watch from their beach chairs. “My kids are going to be third-generation Capers,” Kirby says. “I honestly couldn’t imagine a more perfect community for me.” Not even in California? “Nope. This is home.”