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The Sea Inside

Susan Harris’ favorite room in her house isn’t exactly in her home. It’s her studio, a two-story cottage at the top of her driveway, where office-like chairs loll around workstations topped with cylinders of sharpened colored pencils. The walls are covered with clusters of drawings and watercolors, grouped by color: pinks in one corner, reds in another. The papers hang like tiles, small snippets of geometric patterns that might, eventually, turn into rolls of colorful fabric for Susan’s graphic textile line SeaCloth.

Anyone who has visited the SeaCloth boutique in Greenwich will instantly recognize the artwork. Sheets of paper marked with designs hang together on the back wall of the shop tucked into bookcases beside featherweight glasses and design books that Susan and her business partner, Dierdre Halper, handpick to complement the fabric line and SeaCloth accessories.
Susan’s studio and the SeaCloth store may be the lab and testing ground for her creations, but it is her home, a traditional seaside structure dominated by three symmetrical gables on the façade and overlooking Long Island Sound, that is the real culmination of her talents. More accurately, it’s the inside. After all, how many people get to design the interior of their homes using their own fabric designs?

“Building the house and starting the fabric line happened at the same time. When I was designing the fabrics, I wasn’t thinking about what was going in the house. I was just drawing what I liked to look at,” Susan says. Her art, which includes lots of collages and repeated geometric patterns in watercolor, lent itself well to textiles, something her good friend and decorator Lynn Morgan recognized. Lynn inspired Susan to start the fabric line (it launched in 2003). “You could look at any one of Susan’s works and see that it would be fantastic blown up into a great pattern. And I couldn’t find anything like it: hand-drawn, fun designs,” says Lynn, who has decorated three houses for Susan.

The first thing you notice when you walk into the house, however, is not the fabrics. It’s the view. The house overlooks an inlet of Long Island Sound.

“It is a community that was originally characterized by 100-year-old waterfront cottages. We wanted to fit in with that tradition, to be romantic in the sense of a grand summer house,” says architect Bruce Beinfield, who won an American Institute of Architects Connecticut Design Award for the Harris home in 2005.

Yet it is hard to make a big house, especially one with floor-to-ceiling windows and expansive views, feel cozy. Susan wanted a place that was comfortable and inviting for her, her husband and her grown twin sons. “We really liked barns, and we wanted something that was relaxed, not fancy.” To that end, Bruce crafted the floors and ceiling beams from reclaimed, antique barn wood. Wood is everywhere. Not just on ceilings and floors, but on the sink pedestals in bathrooms, on the endless built-in bookcases and on dark, circular Indonesian sugar crushers that serve as side tables in the living room. It warms the room, something Susan craves on days when she and her husband Chuck both leave their separate offices and work in the main house, or when they entertain.

While Susan has a natural affinity for the wood accents throughout the house, she did not have the same inclination towards the color of her downstairs living area: brown. “Susan was steering toward a summery palette of blue and green for the line. I challenged her to throw some of her patterns into more autumnal palettes, darker shades,” Dierdre says, a former marketing executive. Not only did deep chocolates and reds turn up in the four original SeaCloth collections (a fifth came out last spring), but Susan, a fan of fun, beach-inspired hues, embraced them in her home. “From working with Dierdre, I really came to appreciate other colors. Now I think the brown is so chic. I love it.”

Susan kept most of her furniture from past houses, simply recovering couches and chairs in SeaCloth fabric. The brown diamond pattern, called Facet, on the couches in the main living room is one of the company’s biggest sellers. The company’s signature bloom motif, a cross between chrysanthemums and bursting fireworks that are on the store’s shopping bags, covers chairs in the adjoining room. The looser, less structured design blends right into the neutral theme.

Lynn also suggested keeping the walls cream (there is one wallpaper in the entire house, a textured solid in a downstairs bathroom). The floor coverings are simple, flax-colored rugs from Country Swedish. The resulting effect is that the fabrics take center stage. “Because there is little going on with the walls, the fabric is like an exclamation point!” Lynn says.
If the downstairs is grounded in earthy simplicity, the upstairs reflects Susan’s sense of whimsy and love for bright colors. Her master bedroom is full of blues and greens, with abstract, floating leaf prints greeting you on throw pillows covering the bed. 

“Chuck really likes green and blue, too. I try very hard not to make anything super-feminine. Dierdre and I put a lot of thought into that with the collections. We have things that make men happy, even if the wife is doing the decorating,” she says.

Susan and Lynn also share a love of stripes, using them as accent fabrics as well as in bold, two-toned rugs in the master and guest bedrooms. They’re on her window seat, which runs the length of the bow window and gives Susan and Chuck a panoramic view of the sound. “Of course, the window seat is kind of like my bathtub. I never use it. You know how life is: just go, go, go all the time,” Susan explains.

In fact, as Susan wanders into a powder room tucked into a back corner of the house, she spies yet another of the ubiquitous squares of paper, this one covered in pale green leaves and abstract flowers, tacked up on the wall. “This is a pattern I’m thinking about for a new collection, maybe as a wallpaper. That would be so cool. I’d even like to put some of our fabric on a wall. I just haven’t stopped long enough to do it.” And back to the studio she goes.