Coastal + Classic Style at This Stunning Sea Island Home

On a tiny island in eastern Georgia, designer James Farmer’s signature tradition-with-a-twist style fills a vacation retreat with storied history and spectacular natural beauty.

October 12, 2020

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Making History Feel Like Home

Designer, author and lifestyle expert James Farmer has a knack for creating spaces that celebrate both old world classicism and the ever-changing vernacular of Southern style.

He had a magnificent opportunity to do just that when clients hailing from the Midwest asked him to reimagine the cottage they’d purchased on southeastern Georgia’s Sea Island: “their family had been vacationing there for generations,” he explains of this five mile long and one-and-a-half mile wide, privately-owned barrier island that has become synonymous with casually spectacular resort life.

From: James Farmer

Old World Meets New World

Tucked among ancient trees festooned with trailing Spanish moss and boasting picturesque views of the Golden Isles’ marshes, the terra-cotta-tiled retreat is the perfect headquarters for escaping winter’s chill. Wildlife shares that sentiment, and more than 300 species of birds have been spotted in the area. With both the home’s distinct natural setting and its storied past in mind, Farmer set out to create a destination that celebrates the best of both.

From: James Farmer

Line of Beauty

This interior hallway echoes the lines of the painted white brick on the home’s exterior. Don’t call it shiplap: “I prefer to call this wall treatment horizontal paneling, as that’s more of the proper architectural and design term,” Farmer says. “This creates geometry and texture but is also a wonderful [effect] that paper or grass cloth alone cannot achieve.” Graceful wheat-sheaf sconces and a graphic painted platter offer curvaceous contrasts to those bold planes.

From: James Farmer

Vanity Fair

Farmer solved a potential problem with a gorgeous gesture in this powder room. “The skinny buffet lamps add additional lighting to a room that does not have a window,” he explains. “I’m not a big fan of actual vanity lights, so treating a vanity like a chest or a small sideboard with a couple of lamps adds ambience.”

From: James Farmer

Birds of a Feather

Tabletop arrangements throughout the cottage highlight Sea Island’s biodiversity, and this one in particular pays homage to one of its best-known observers. “John James Audubon’s work is closely linked with the low country,” Farmer says. “So many of the birds he painted are native to this area.” While stocking a vacation spot with pieces like trail maps and dining guides is practical, it’s awfully prosaic. Why not swap them out for references to local flora and fauna?

From: James Farmer

Beachcombing for Beauty

A second tabletop tableau references Sea Island's five miles of private beach with volumes of lavish collections and a bowl of seashells. Vivid hydrangaeas, in turn, evoke traditional cottage style.

From: James Farmer

An Accessory for All Seasons

Substantial antique furniture and the brilliant plumage of this home’s avian art could be its most noticeable motifs. That said, one can’t help but notice the strong supporting role versatile ceramic garden stools play just about everywhere. “Drink tables, side table, accents … they’re multifaceted for sure!” Farmer says.

From: James Farmer

Hidden Heft

Like vacation homes the world over, this one is expected to survive the rigors of vacation — and Farmer gave pieces like the living room sofas a head start by upholstering them in high-performance outdoor fabrics from Ralph Lauren Home and Schumacher. The piece above the mantel is also sturdier than the average painting. “It’s a screen that I found at an antique store,” he explains. “Screens are wonderful alternatives to paintings, prints or mirrors … they are artwork in and of themselves!”

From: James Farmer

Shoreside Finds

The Palladian-style shelves flanking the living room mantel are original to the home, but the color accenting them — Valspar’s Afternoon Nap, chosen to highlight a collection of books and curios that were sourced in part from shops on Sea Island — is Farmer’s subtle accent. It’s also a lovely thematic nod to the room’s sense of calm.

From: James Farmer

Easy Greens

Farmer loves to bring seasonal cuttings into his spaces, and the architectural saw palmetto frond he chose to accent the home’s original mantel is a fine example of how accenting a space with native foliage — here, a ubiquitous low country species — can add unfussy regional character. (This foliage might also qualify as an antique, since some saw palmettos live for 500 to 700 years.)

From: James Farmer

Eclectic Treasures

Beyond the living room, framed Audubon blue heron and flamingo prints flank rustic open shelves with a playful assortment of traditional porcelain, emerald-green glass buoys, antique hardcovers and simply-displayed shells and coral. A jewel-bright mahi mahi presides over the whole scene.

From: James Farmer

Culinary Art

A vivid collection of antique majolica oyster plates both references a local delicacy and creates a large-scale pattern of its own on an otherwise-neutral wall. It’s also a terribly clever way to display heirlooms or antique-store finds that might be of dubious use as serving pieces.

From: James Farmer

Finding Light

Veined caladium in a porcelain bowl takes center stage on a pale console table before an intricate mirror at the edge of the dining room. The shapely lamps Farmer chose as accents are a subtle way of adding a bit of illumination, as their transparent glass bases don’t overpower the eye.

From: James Farmer

New Neutral

Farmer made an unconventional choice for the dining room pendant. "The lantern is in fact an outdoor lantern and the copper finish I felt was a good neutral balance with the neutral seagrass rug," he says. "The kitchen is light and bright and has shinier brass light fixtures, so the copper works as a neutral and architectural choice."

From: James Farmer

Practical Majesty

The English drop-leaf table and studded French velvet chairs Farmer selected for the living room speak to his interest in Sea Island's multicultural history. The area rug he unfurled beneath it, in turn, both defines the space and acknowledges the likelihood that someone, at some point, will come to dinner with sandy feet.

From: James Farmer

Tone on Tone

A barely-there blush tint adds dimension to a quartet of barstools at the expanded kitchen’s island. The space is simple but luxurious, thanks to details like the textural handmade subway tiles, subtly detailed cabinetry, pale marble slabs and a carefully-edited suite of ceramic accents.

From: James Farmer

Marine Cuisine

Glass panels in the kitchen cabinets facilitate the sly presentation of dinnerware that’s just a bit too lovely to tuck behind opaque doors. Integrated appliances like the near-invisible refrigerator at left provide modern convenience minus too much stainless steel in such a traditional space.

From: James Farmer

Unexpected Accents

“[A] basket hung on a wall as artwork, whether above a bed, in a stairwell or over a sideboard is one of my favorite tricks of the trade!” Farmer says. “Baskets are just another form of artwork and often a great medium to use as a neutral accessory when prints and paintings have been heavily used.” Here, he adds, they complement and continue the rattan and bamboo accents in the room.

From: James Farmer

Bedside Reading

Books on southeastern Georgia’s tidal marshes and the history of Sea Island’s development as a resort colony rest on an antique desk doubling as a guest bedroom’s nightstand (and look awfully good doing it).

From: James Farmer

Literary Supplement

The only thing better than a desk doubling as a nightstand covered with books is a diminutive stool also doubling as a nightstand covered with books. The tropical bentwood stool Farmer chose here contrasts beautifully with the ebony-stained desk behind it.

From: James Farmer

Crisp Counterpoints

The sleek silhouette of this spool-turned four-poster bed adds drama to an otherwise-sunny bedroom — and draws the eye to the equally-shapely, intricately-painted table lamp on the bamboo dresser beside it.

From: James Farmer

Menagerie in Miniature

Grasscloth is an apt backdrop for the organic tones of the woven rattan chairs and occasional table in this well-populated sitting area. Here, Audubon’s birds cede the stage to artwork and accessories featuring everything from wetland denizens to foo dogs.

From: James Farmer

Home Grown

For the flooring beneath this handsome celadon dresser and throughout the home, Farmer chose scraped, wide plank oak. “This area boosts beautiful maritime forest with oak and pine, so both are natural choices for homes on the Georgia coast,” he says.

From: James Farmer

Summer Recipe

Guests in this bedroom enjoy variations on themes Farmer carries throughout the house: a pair of pale pagoda lamps preside over a shared-nightstand tableau, bold baskets stand watch over intricate bedsteads draped with crisp white linens, and gorgeous accent fabric lets a memory of far-flung seaports breeze through the space.

From: James Farmer

Room From a View

Farmer drew inspiration for the owners’ suite from the dreamy tones of the expansive marsh visible from the window above the desk. Pale sisal wall covering quite literally wraps the room in vegetation, and aqueous tones on the table lamps punctuate the neutral space with cool currents of blue.

From: James Farmer

Natural Patterns

Golden-hour batik, a palest-seafoam traditional floral and even zebra print feel like intuitive choices here, thanks to the environmental inspiration Farmer carries throughout the space.

From: James Farmer

Then and Now

The bamboo-legged, glass-topped desk features an eye-catching assortment of framed family photos, chinoiserie, antique porcelain, shell-encrusted souvenirs and more. It’s a lovely way to consider both Sea Island’s long story and Sea Island’s long story with this family.

From: James Farmer

Soaking in Serenity

Like the living room, the spa bath is equal parts durability and luxury. Farmer chose blonde tortoiseshell blinds and all-weather Schumacher fabric for the dramatic window treatment; to accommodate bathers, in turn, he perched a garden stool on an antique rug.

From: James Farmer

Flair Everywhere

This comparatively-compact vanity area, in turn, is equally worthy of embellishment (here, an opulent antique box). "Just because it’s a bathroom does not mean it’s not still a room proper," Farmer says." I like to outfit every room in our projects comfortably but with aesthetically pleasing objects that can serve a purpose as well."

From: James Farmer

Prints of Tides

"The fabric [used for the drapes and accent pillows in this bedroom] is by Quadrille, and they have so many wonderful selections that are beachy and coastal and fun without being kitschy," Farmer says. "I always err on the side of classic and not trendy [when it comes to fabrics] but that doesn’t mean they can’t be jovial and have personality."

From: James Farmer

Maritime Upcycling

The antique pub sign Farmer found on one of his local treasure hunts is both a thematic coup and a visual one. Look closely, and you’ll see how the deep color at its base carries through the navy-backed grasscloth on the wall.

From: James Farmer

Magnificent Mix

To draw attention to pieces atop your furniture, Farmer advises, consider how you’d put an outfit together. “Look to classic fashion and dressing. Lighter trousers and a darker shirt or vice versa allow for a great belt or other accessories to really shine.”

From: James Farmer

Garden Suite

A pair of palmetto-studded (and barnacle-encrusted) vases flank a giant clam shell on the porch’s glass coffee table. With accents like scrolled ironwork and a pendant that recalls the larger piece above the kitchen island, this outdoor area feels like an extension of the cottage’s indoor spaces.

From: James Farmer

Patio Tableaux

It’s no accident that the fabrics and furnishings Farmer chose for the pool area also recall the tones and motifs he used inside. “Outdoor furniture and indoor furniture do not have to be treated any differently,” he notes. “The choices for outdoor furniture these days are nearly unlimited, as are interior options. So treat each space with aesthetic and functional sensibility and they will flow together.”

From: James Farmer

You Can Take It With You

Ready for an even deeper dive into Farmer’s inspirational style? The story doesn’t end here. This modern fairy-tale cottage is one of 11 designs featured in Farmer’s first book, A Place to Call Home. He’s also invited HGTV to two more of his projects, and you can tour his own classic home in Perry, Georgia and his friends’ historic eastern Alabama estate.

BUY NOW: Barnes & Noble | A Place to Call Home, $36

From: James Farmer

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