If your vision of the Jersey Shore includes a Tilt-A-Whirl, packed boardwalks, and lots of tanning oil, the forever-elegant Paloma Contreras has a rebuttal. The Houston-based designer and author of the forthcoming book The New Classic Home (October 2023, Abrams) recently brought an ineffable sense of seaside luxury to her clients’ newly built retreat just a few houses away from the beach. “Their primary residence is in Houston, but during the pandemic, the husband was inspired to find a getaway for the family,” Contreras says. “He’s originally from New Jersey, and Avalon, an old Victorian town at the southernmost tip of the Jersey Shore, fit the bill perfectly.”
Their goal was as far from MTV as it gets: a tailored New England beach house that’s both easygoing and sophisticated. That’s not easily done in a world where most coastal houses are studded with design touches so common they may as well have washed up on shore, from lighthouse throw pillows to shells at every turn. “I wanted it to feel coastal without being cliché,” Contreras says. She leaned towards clean-lined yet tailored furnishings and pulled much of the color palette from the hues beyond the windows—tawny sands, cloud whites and ocean blues.
It helped that these particular clients are art obsessives whose tastes veer more towards MoMA than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which juxtapose against their sandy surroundings like chrome details on a teak yacht deck. “We would scour Artsy.net and 1stDibs to find different pieces,” Conteras recalls. “The husband really drove that process—it’s very personal to him.” The collection they amassed includes jaw-droppers like Ed Ruscha’s “Cold Beer Beautiful Girls” in the husband’s study—an ode to both his wife and daughters and his summer beverage of choice—and works by Anish Kapoor and Ellsworth Kelly.
In the foyer, an etched gesso-and-ink board by Elliott Puckette hangs above an 18th-century Swedish commode with a collection of plates salvaged from a 19th-century shipwreck. “They had this great, crusty patina and I loved the variation of colors—terracotta and cream and verdigris—peeking through. They added a lot of dimension and character,” says Contreras. “Plus, the fact that they were shipwreck plates at a house on the Jersey shore felt appropriate and authentic!”
Because the kitchen is the heart of the beach home, too—especially in an open floor plan layout with 17-foot ceilings like this one—cozifying the space was key. “The palette is really clean, with a lot of white paneling typical of this architectural vernacular, so warming it up was a really tall order because everything is so crisp,” Contreras explains. “I leaned into warmer finishes when it came to the flooring, which is a big part of setting the tone for how the space feels, and all the case goods. We have a lot of cerused oaks and some reclaimed things. Having that depth of character in these more casual finishes—they’re not glossy—helps to infuse a sense of warmth.” Also adding instant aesthetic comfort: mixed metals, in the form of polished nickel faucets, bronze accented lighting and unlacquered brass cabinetry hardware.
Contreras found a particularly daunting design challenge in the primary bedroom, where—true to her clients’ New England ambitions—the roofline encroached hither and thither, as if in a garret room of an old waterfront Victorian. “It’s the only room on the third level of the house, and the ceiling was sloped and furred down in more places than I care to count,” the designer recalls. “The husband is also quite tall, so I worried that with the wrong technique, it could feel suffocating to him!” Her solution: tenting the walls in Colefax and Fowler’s Jude Stripe. “It instantly unifies the space, tricking the eye away from the various ceiling angles,” she says. “The palette of pale blues, greens, and corals is super calming.” Call it a breath of fresh—and a little bit salty—air.