“The ocean,” was the reply that came quickly from the couple when I asked about the inspiration for the design of their home on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Not so unusual, given the fact that Kiawah’s lauded beaches inspire sunseekers from all over the world to come and play. But their arrival at this time and place in their lives was via an unusual journey, when, in 2008, they sold their Indiana home, plus all of their furniture and belongings, and cruised into retirement.
Susan and Andy Francis embarked on this new chapter powered by a top-of-the-line, 55-foot Nordhavn trawler. After five years traveling both coasts of the United States, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, they dropped anchor in the waters off South Carolina and imagined a lifestyle that embodied their love of the sea.
“Signing the contract on the boat was making the commitment to retire,” says Andy. “Within two years we sold our business, house and cars. When we moved on board it was with some clothes and two cats. We wanted adventure.”
During their travels, they were written up by a Chinese publication, greeted by Kuna Indians in dugout canoes loaded with colorful molas, and they transited the Panama Canal in their own boat. “It was exciting, nerve-racking and fun!” Susan adds with a laugh.
It is this joie de vivre that designer Jennifer R. Mendelsohn would tap into to compose a “look” for the couple’s seaside home—one that reflected their spirited lifestyle and nautical aesthetic. Owner of J. Rhodes Interior Design, Mendelsohn seeks sources and inspiration from global travels of her own and proved to be a good fit for the project.
“They came to me asking for natural blues, grays and soft greens,” notes Mendelsohn, a Charleston native who brought her own unique perspective to the mix. “The colors of the water, the lifestyle of the Caribbean, the modern, modular influences in boat design—all were driving forces for the design theme.” The designer’s credentials include president-elect of the Carolinas Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). Her portfolio ranges from Lowcountry traditional to contemporary to the historical.
The property that the Francises had acquired while vacationing in Kiawah is bordered, in front, by a slender creek, and in back, by the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, it boasts a panoramic view from one end of the island to the other—one of the island’s finest. Thanks to an architectural plan that exploited the lot’s high elevation, they were able to lower the garage floor, thereby adding several feet and a third floor to the structure while complying with the architectural review board’s height requirement.
The Francises were afloat in the Pacific when they brought Camens Architectural Group on board the project. Principal architect Marc Camens drew a plan for a traditional exterior, also in compliance with the review board’s design guidelines, and a plan for an airy, contemporary interior with the nautical influences the couple desired.
Top: A cantilevered stairway suspended from the third floor ceiling seems afloat while providing a welcome tunnel of light. Bottom: A pair of curvaceous chairs add a note of playfulness.
“We really like a lot of glass and light,” notes Andy. “Marc opened up the spaces by widening the hallways, and he planned the entryway so you would see the ocean from the front door, giving the home a very inviting view when you enter.”
Koenig Construction led the build-out of the house. With over 30 years experience in upscale Kiawah area projects, the well-respected firm works routinely with Camens and also referred Mendelsohn to the Francises.
The vision for the layout of the home was a reverse floor plan that would provide the kitchen, dining and living spaces with stunning ocean views. A lofty master bedroom enjoys sweeping vistas from its third-story perch, and guest rooms are located on the first level. Mendelsohn used a neutral color palette of pale grays throughout the house to tie together the home’s three floors and showcase the natural beauty outside.
With the exception of a few stored pieces and some artwork, the Francises were starting with a clean slate and charged Mendelsohn with the responsibility of furnishing the entire 4,300-square-foot home. Her choices in furnishings and accessories were rich in leather, glass and metal, reflecting the neat, clean lines of a boat cabin. In fact, the idea for the leather Ekornes recliners actually came from the couple’s boat. “It was a big investment,” recalls Mendelsohn. “At first the Francises insisted on seeing the furniture options firsthand and traveled with me to showrooms in High Point, North Carolina. When they saw what I presented, they felt comfortable letting me make choices alone.” “We lived a good life on the boat,” says Susan, but Andy adds: “We thought it would be really good to live on Kiawah. Jennifer steered us in the right direction.”
Wendy Swat Snyder is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Charleston.