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At her first consultation with interior designer Jenn Sanborn, the homeowner wore a deep-berry-colored top with nail polish to match. It was a head-turning hue that down the road would influence the paint for the kitchen island and show up in various other ways throughout the house, a contemporary Cape in New Castle, New Hampshire, near Portsmouth. In fact, a rainbow of bold colors—aqua, coral, and plum included—enlivens the rooms in a way that perfectly reflects the homeowner’s effervescent personality.

“She’s just so outgoing,” says Sanborn, owner of Sacris Design in Amesbury, Massachusetts, whose clients are often reluctant to use such assertive shades. As a rule, so is Sanborn. “This delightful woman really challenged my color sensibilities, and it was a joy to envision a design scheme so full of vibrant details and whimsy.” The client couldn’t be happier. A busy professional, as is her husband, she hadn’t had the time nor interest to extensively decorate where they lived. With this house, it was if she were making up for lost time.

But first, there were some architectural hiccups to address. As Sanborn explains, “It was a house with good bones that needed updating and solutions to problems with the interior architecture.” For example, five sets of glass sliders between the living room and the back deck were replaced with new doors and windows that made the space more functional. “It’s awkward to put furniture in front of doors; the architecture needs to complement how you live in the rooms,” Sanborn points out. 

The kitchen was redesigned to integrate better into the open-plan layout, and Sanborn’s custom hip ceiling closes off and cozies up the living room, which was originally open to the second floor in a way that was both illogical and unattractive. “The new, lower ceiling gives auditory privacy along with a beauty that enhances the nature of the living room,” observes Sanborn. The designer’s planning of the interior cabinetry and millwork helps the spaces flow together well. Additionally, other rooms were reconfigured and bathrooms updated.

Once the house felt like a comfortable, functional space, the adventure with color began. The husband had been involved with the house’s practical and structural aspects, but he gladly gave his wife carte blanche when it came to décor decisions. And with Sanborn’s guidance, she delved into the heretofore unfamiliar realm of interior design. “I was lucky I didn’t have to be restrained,” says the homeowner, conceding with a laugh that “sometimes Jenn would have to reign me in, in a nice way, just to protect me from myself.” 

Sanborn offered lots of ideas and sources for furnishings. “We didn’t want to do the classic blue and white that so many have for a beach house,” she says, noting the home’s location in an exclusive harborside community where her clients love to play golf and go boating. “We tied together that love of color and a chinoiserie design theme, which is nautical but in a more exotic, Far-East-trade-route kind of way.” The fabric used for the back of kitchen counter stools as well as the window treatments in that room is Brunschwig & Fils “Les Pecheurs” (Fishermen), which the homeowner loved from the start. It became a foundational fabric for the color palette. 

The evocation of Asian motifs in furniture, fabric, wall coverings, and light fixtures lends a playful sophistication to the ambiance, whose sprightly touches include a trio of porcelain gods on the living room mantel. Known as Fu Xing, Lu Xing, and Shou Xing, they stand for the highest priorities in Chinese life: fortune and prosperity and longevity. “I found them in North Carolina at the antique center at High Point Market,” says Sanborn, “and I just love their smiling faces.” 

From the cool aqua-inflected living room to the den swaddled in raspberry hues, color is expressed confidently yet with a measured hand. “Choosing to use warm neutrals in combination with bold colors helped to temper the brightness of them,” says Sanborn, who integrated custom cabinetry in Benjamin Moore Shaker Beige and millwork trim in Sherwin Williams Antique White. “With color, it’s a fine line between lovely and garish. You need some way of balancing that, and here the mixture of vintage pieces and antiques with neutrals and texture makes sure it doesn’t go over the edge.”

Though the homeowners have been married more than 30 years, this house was the first time they’d created a bespoke environment for themselves. In the process, designer Sanborn not only stretched herself creatively but also formed lasting ties with her clients. A year from the day they closed on the house and met her for the first time, Sanborn received a gorgeous floral arrangement from the wife. “Happy Designerversary!” read the greeting on the card.