One February day 15 years ago, designer Stefanie Scheer Young and her husband—or as I like to call them, my parents—bought a house in Downeast Maine. They’d been watching it on the market for years, and were already familiar with the layout: “Big house, little house, back house, barn,” as 19th-century schoolchildren used to sing. Notes on the structural quirks rang familiar, like the way one bedroom’s floors sloped so much that an unattended marble or golf ball would roll itself from one side to another.
The house was the same one where my mom had grown up spending summers, and where my dad had visited when they first met in high school, before my grandparents moved across town. The town and the house looked much like they did then and as they had a 100 years before, save for modern automobiles, motorboats, and some telephone lines.
The process of designing interiors was incremental to an unorthodox degree. For years before my parents had a Maine house to call their own, my mom had been chipping away at furnishing her future abode, amassing items in a maze of boxes in our New York basement. My dad now claims that the Maine house was 80 percent decorated by the time the moving trucks puttered off into the distance. “Everything found a place,” my mom says, “except one set of plates that looked wrong and had to go back to New York.” The final 20 percent of finessing, perfecting, and settling in took place in the 15 years that ensued.
Since my grandparents sold the house in the 1980s, two interim owners had made small, fortuitous improvements. One trained the 100-plus-year-old Dutchman’s Pipe vine over a new trellis, creating a favorite outdoor spot where we now ferry lunch plates and sometimes crack lobster dinners over a makeshift tablecloth of yesterday’s newspaper. Another owner restored the wonderful kitchen fireplace, complete with a beehive oven where we toast marshmallows during winter visits and on chillier summer nights. Otherwise, the place remains much the same. The Adam Federal-style house pulses with history—the familial, the architectural, the literary. Within its walls, great American poems were written, great writers were entertained, and a famed marriage of two literary giants—Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick—once weathered its gusty storms.
The 21st-century character of the house embodies my mom’s preternatural sense for play in design. In this case, it seems to stem from the astonishment at the kismet of inhabiting her beloved childhood house once more. Though it’s now more or less finished, the Maine house continues to serve as a muse: The themes my mom has woven throughout the rooms now figure into her forthcoming collection of products, fabrics and wallpapers.
Behind the more formal living and dining rooms sits the kitchen, followed by a playroom, and then, our favorite space: the barn. My mom designed a plexiglass ping pong table—it feels like playing tennis on grass when you’re used to hardcourt—and easily transitions into a generous dining table. Behind it, she installed indoor swings, providing entertainment for anyone with dibs on the next game. Devendra Banhart and Simon & Garfunkel play on the record player. One summer, she let my brother and me splatter-paint the barn floors, and we experienced the idiom of “painting yourself in a corner” in real time. ‘’
In its contemporary form, the house is also an expression of my parents’ collaborative nature. Sometimes I imagine a time-traveling interloper visiting them at age 18 and telling them about how it would all go down: that one day, by a circuitous route, this would be their home, and that they’d know and care a lot about furniture and art. That they’d become shrewd scavengers at antiques fairs and shops, experts in finding good value and unconventional workarounds, and that together they’d collect Boston and Sandwich glass, Victorian spongeware, pink lusterware, Napoli lettuceware, Chinese export china, antique country quilts, vintage linens, old brass andirons, nautical fids, and sailor’s valentines. That after dinner, that they’d sit with their children around the kitchen table, where candle wax drips from the chandelier overhead, and erupt into belly laughter over some silly joke.