Signature Rooms

Notable Island designers and builders identify the rooms that best express their aesthetic.

The Vineyard thinks about design in many dimensions; an aesthetic must embrace not only a sense of beauty, but also usefulness, durability, and timelessness. A well-proportioned, traditionally built dory or sloop may easily be considered the prettiest boat in the harbor, though it might do only one or two things well, and cost tens of millions of dollars less than the most lavish, oceangoing yacht nearby. On land, the sensible room, handsomely turned out, may be considered much more in keeping with Vineyard traditions than the grandest atrium. The designers and builders on these pages all embrace the Island’s senses of aesthetics and ethics, each in his or her own way. These are the rooms that, by their own choices, most sharply reflect what they do best.

Paul Munafo and Eric Shenholm

“Customer satisfaction” is the watchword of craftsmen Paul Munafo (of Paul Munafo Fine Woodworking) and his unofficial business partner, Eric Shenholm of Oak Bluffs.

Whether presented with detailed instructions from an architect or a sketchy floor plan by a homeowner, Munafo and Shenholm pick up the gauntlet and see the project through to the end. So when Marc Brown (of the Arthur children’s books) presented the duo with sketches of a studio to be built into the second floor of an old tractor barn on his Tisbury property, they did not hesitate.

“The concept was the owner’s right from the get-go,” Munafo says. “In this space, we had no architect involved other than Eric’s buddy, who drew the plans so we could get a building permit. None of the detailing was done. Nothing was really figured out.”

The goal was to build a pleasing artist’s studio, including a comfortable meeting space, within an existing building. The first challenge was to reinforce the structure without using big wooden beams to support the ceiling.

“Marc said, ‘No way I want a big beam in there,’” Shenholm says. “There was only one alternative, and that was to use collar ties” – which support certain types of roofs in less substantial ways – “but collar ties get big, too.” They brought in engineer Kent Healy to figure out a way to support the structure unobtrusively. “These kind of disappear,” Shenholm says of the steel rods that span the width of the room. “You don’t really notice them.”

When an order of industrial-looking metal cabinets arrived, the team had to figure out how to incorporate them into a space softened with wood, cork, and fabric. They encased the files with wood that matches shelving in the rest of the room. Munafo runs a hand over the top. “This counter top [material] is traditionally used for stair tread,” he says.

A wall accommodates an antique coat rack. Dormers were added, equipped with window seats and hidden storage. A wall was transformed into a bulletin board.

“The customers always end up being happy,” Shenholm says. “That’s kind of a major goal. If we understand what they need, and it’s within our capability to do it, and they’re happy with what they see from the get-go, then everything kind of goes that way. It’s a very symbiotic thing. It’s not just that they give us a plan, we build it, and get a check at the end.”

Munafo agrees. “Ultimately we like to work for people who appreciate what it is we do.”

With only the guidance of Brown’s sketches, Munafo and Shenholm built a room that’s functional, durable, and inspiring to work in. “The drawings that he did months before we started work looked like he did them the day we finished,” Shenholm says.

Joseph Dick

“Every room, every house, every effort, has to respond to the context of the occupants, to the site itself,” says Joseph Dick of Joseph W. Dick Architecture Inc. in Vineyard Haven. “I wouldn’t do a rustic cottage in Edgartown. It’s a hallmark of my work. It’s very varied.”

One look at the “stretched octagonal” bedroom he’s designed for a Chilmark home confirms Dick’s architectural philosophy. The house itself is a large, multi-legged building designed to take advantage of spectacular views seen around 270 degrees of the compass. “The house is not a typical foursquare house,” Dick says. “The floor plan is like a butterfly. It’s faceted, angled.”

The building sits on a ridge, with views to the west, south, and a bit of the north and northwest. “The idea was to sort of bend or shape the floor plan in response to the views. The reason why I faceted the room was so that I could then, in that room, frame as many of the views as possible.”

Besides allowing the owners to enjoy the sight of the hills of Chilmark from their bed, the space is comfortable, harmoniously proportioned, and stylish. The view is framed by French doors with a half-circle window above. “They’re arranged in a Palladian motif,” he says, “which is a very classical element.” Arched moldings above the door are repeated around the room.

The ceiling is vaulted and forms a peak, creating a faceted, three-dimensional, octagonal shape. A classically inspired mantel surrounds the fireplace. The walls are painted dove gray. A series of moldings painted creamy white and scaled to fit the room connects the elements and pulls them all together.

Does this kind of elegance work on the Island? “I don’t think that any one term can be used to define Martha’s Vineyard architecture,” Dick says. “Look at the grand houses on West Chop. Look at the beautiful in-town residences in Edgartown. Contrast those with the Cottage City houses in Oak Bluffs. If you go into West Tisbury, you’ll find things that are more farm-oriented. That’s one of the wonderful things about Martha’s Vineyard. It is diverse.”

Sandy Alexander

When you mention “renovation” to Island architects, designers, and craftsmen, Sandy Alexander’s name frequently comes up. Whether it’s a total old-house redo or scratch-built doors for an old barn turned studio, Alexander, of Tisbury, is a go-to guy. Give him a project with a lot of detail, and this architect and builder shines.

Olga Hirshhorn’s Vineyard Haven manor houses his favorite room – more of a nook, really. It’s a reading alcove that Alexander designed and built, tucked into a niche between the two floors of her guesthouse.  

 “The curved roof of the stairwell has an eyebrow dormer in it,” Alexander says. “There’s basically a bed-couch kind of thing built in under the landing. It’s part of the stairwell, with a ladder that goes up to the space. There’s some little bookcases built in, and some small lamps. It’s a cozy little place to curl up and read a book.”

Alexander included architectural details that enhance the room’s coziness. Eastern pinewood paneling lines the walls – just enough. Matching bookcases face each other across the space. The window – four panels lined up horizontally and flanked by two diminutive round ones – lets in plenty of light during the day. A ladder ascends the center front, offering access. The ladder, the wide railings of the staircase, and the windows give the alcove the look and feel of a captain’s stateroom on an eighteenth-century sailing ship.

“It’s a nice, inviting space,” Alexander says. “It’s not big, but there’s a lot of intricate detailing. Everyone who sees it falls in love with it. Olga has it decorated in a nice way.” One other detail that the designer added is a secret storage space, just large enough to stow a bottle of wine, in the landing’s newel post.

The dormer itself is a complex bit of architecture. Eyebrow dormers are challenging to design and build, but Alexander took it a touch further by adding extra arcs to the roof. “We curved the backbone to this one, so it’s kind of a compound-curved ceiling,” Alexander says. “Which is difficult to build, but very subtle. We took some time to get this to really fit the house. It’s a part of the house that Olga allowed us to take a little extra time and do something out of the ordinary. It came out nice.”

Julie Robinson

Julie Robinson, of Julie Robinson Interiors Ltd., insists that a room she designs be beautiful, interesting, and comfortable. “I like it mostly to be comfortable,” she says. “When somebody walks into their room they feel at home, they feel relaxed, they can put their feet up if they want to.”

Beauty and interest tie for second place. “Everything that comes into your view should be appealing,” Robinson says. “It should be something that makes you smile.” The showroom above her Holmes Hole Road studio in Tisbury is filled with Chinese and early American antiques, window treatments, and lamps.

A lot of lamps. “Lamps are my obsession,” Robinson jokes.

Her commitment to comfort, coupled with a love of diversity, drives the design of the living room of a Katama summer home Robinson recently decorated. She says it’s her favorite.

“It’s an easy living-room. Kids can be in there. Adults can be in there. Reading, playing cards, just relaxing, gathering. It’s got a great combination of antiques, new fabrics – very eclectic.”

The house was built in the 1970s, and when the owners bought the home, “it felt like the ’70s,” Robinson recalls. “They basically rebuilt the whole house – stripped it down to bare wood.”

Robinson fashioned a summer great room of the old-Vineyard type – pastels in the beachy hues of sand and sky, cushy couches and chairs, a welcoming fireplace. At first glance, it looks rather archetypal – but a closer inspection reveals small touches of fun. On a side table, behind a Nantucket basket full of ersatz lemons, stands a lamp with what appears to be a cast-metal elephant as its base. An upholstered footstool with zaftig ball feet brings a surprise of color with its kicky geometric print. Matching throw pillows enliven the nearby sofa. A long, narrow, rustic antique cabinet stands against a wall between two windows. Tucked between two chairs sits a small, round, glass-topped table with a cast-iron base. Roman shades in a bold, contemporary Chinese print jacket the many windows.

Robinson says that throughout the house, many of the adornments were the choice of the owner. “It’s interesting,” she says, “when I look around, there are things that [the owner] has added since we did the house – small objects that appeal to her.

“That’s what’s really, I think, the job of the designer,” she says. “To get it to a point where the client is happy to walk in and then they bring in all the small objets d’art that appeal to them. That’s what turns it into their home,” she continues, “and not something that a decorator has done fully for them.”