Architecture & Design

The Great Maine Style Guide

Living here presents questions, practical and aesthetic. We’ve got answers, culled from a slew of trusted local pros.

TEXT BY MICHAELA CAVALLARO

No matter how long you’ve been feathering your nest — and how many talented professionals you’ve worked with along the way — there’s always more to learn. Especially in Maine, where we’ve got a whole season named for mud, environmental concerns colliding with evolving technology, and a strong-to-the-point-of-constraining architectural aesthetic to contend with. To address these and other locational challenges, and offer relevant design lessons, we consulted more than a dozen experts on the ground to come up with this roadmap for living beautifully, thoughtfully, and (more or less) mud-free in Maine.

gray is also a coastal color
Photographed by Erin Little; Designed by Heidi Lachappelle Interiors; Built by C.A. Monsell Construction

Repeat after us: Blue is not the only coastal color.

For a less expected look that’s still apropos, consider all the shorefront shades — the orange of sunrise, the golden yellow of seaweed, and the browns and greens of rocks and vegetation, Yarmouth interior designer Samantha Pappas says. Portland designer Heidi Lachapelle also likes to use a mix of textures to evoke the granite-edged shore, trees, and sea. “Chunky linen upholstery, which reminds me of rocks along the coast, brings in a seaside vibe without being too obvious,” she says.

Punch up classic fabrics.

What’s a Maine home without crisp plaid upholstery or a striped cushion on an Adirondack chair? To keep these looks current, Rhea Butler, of Nobleboro’s Alewives Fabrics, suggests juxtaposing zingy modern designs.

Plaid + Birds

“The bold bird shapes are a good contrast with the plaid, and the little pops of cheddar orange in the birds are a nice contrast with the spring green.”

Moda Fabrics Fiesta woven plaid in avocado, $12.96/yard; Birch Fabrics Charley Harper Blackburnian Warbler, $16.96/yard

Stripes + Paisley Floral

“It’s classic to combine a geometric, like a stripe, with organic shapes. This paisley keeps the overall look neutral, but not boring.”

Moda Fabrics Urban Cottage Stripe in ivory, $11.96/yard; Art Gallery Fabrics Kismet India Ink Parchment, $11.96/yard

Houndstooth + Geometric Floral

“The houndstooth shares some colors with this modern, graphic print, so they don’t compete — they complement each other.”

Robert Kaufman Fabrics Limerick Linen Yarn Dyed small check in royal, $21.96/yard; Cotton + Steel Mori No Tomodachi Kumo in dark blue, $19.96/yard

All material available from Alewives Fabrics.

Pick the right rug for mud season.

The muck we track in during what passes for spring in Maine can do a number on even the most durable carpets. Brett Mougalian, of Portland’s Mougalian Rugs, tells how to choose one that will last — and look good along the way.

What’s the best material for a rug that takes a beating?

Especially in an entryway, you want something with a medium pile, handmade from all wool, which is easiest to clean. Good-quality wool will withstand just about anything, and last forever as long as you don’t have a really unusual amount of traffic.

What about indoor/outdoor rugs? 

We don’t really know about their longevity, but some of the new polypropylene and poly-silk styles look unbelievable and you can literally hose them off.

Do wool rugs really require pro cleaning?

Yes — once a year, for rugs that get a lot of traffic. Dust and dirt breaks down a rug’s foundation, so beating it in a professional rug tumbler is the most important part of the cleaning process.

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Fill your garden with native plants.

They’re hardy, low-maintenance, and a boon for the environment, says Marjorie Peronto, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator, who named three of her all-time favorites.

High-bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum)

High-bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) provide spring flowers, summer fruit, and spectacular fall color, especially in full sun. Plant at least two to facilitate cross-pollination.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) flowers in July and August, after many shrubs have finished, offers habitat and food for birds and insects, and thrives in almost any environment.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows in regular garden soil, despite its name. A host for monarch butterflies, it dazzles with dusty-rose blooms.

Introduce these mid-century shapes to your old farmhouse. 

Furniture from the first half of the 20th century has a rugged pragmatism well suited to Maine life, says Erin Kiley, of Portland Flea-for-All, noting that the clean lines are consistent with New England architecture and a welcome contrast in more ornate interiors. Here are four standouts to consider.

Mies van der Rohe Barcelona couch

Mies van der Rohe Barcelona couch

Created in the late ’20s and early ’30s, van der Rohe’s Barcelona collection helped define modern design. Beyond the living room, this sofa can provide office seating or a place to sleep. Vintage: $1,000–$3,000; reproduction: about $500

Danish Modern teak desk

Danish Modern teak desk

These trim pieces, popularized by Danish designers Peter Lovig Nielsen and Arne Vodder in the ’50s and ’60s, “are incredibly well constructed and optimal for space maximization.” Vintage: $500–$1,000; reproduction: $300 and up

Mads Caprani bentwood lamp

Mads Caprani bentwood lamp

This mid-’60s Danish design “bridges the divide between bohemian and modernist E style,” says Kiley, who loves the “funky throwback pleated shade.” Vintage: Roughly $1,500; reproduction: $150-$250

LaGardo Tackett architectural planters

LaGardo Tackett architectural planters

Fifties California modernists went crazy for Tackett’s spare ceramics. Today, “the clean, structural forms can really tie a room together.” Vintage: $1,000–$1,500; reproduction: $60 and up

souped-up interior lighting
Photographed by Greta Rybus; Designed by Berman Horn Studio; Built by PC Builders

Combat dark winters with strategic lighting.

“It’s dark by 4 o’clock in December, and that just takes a toll on you after a while,” says Tanya Gagne, co-owner of North Yarmouth’s Evergreen Building Company. Her solution: souped-up interior lighting.

Kick the cans.

Retrofit older can fixtures with an inexpensive LED recessed lighting conversion kit. You’ll get broader, less severe illumination — and lower energy bills too.

Set timers.

Gagne has low kitchen lights set to switch on at 5 a.m., the better to see her coffee pot. No need to get fancy — a $10 hardware store timer works fine.

Bring string lights indoors.

Loosely draped globe lights that stand in for overhead fixtures or delicate fairy lights on a houseplant or around a window frame have a spirit-lifting effect. “They’ve been doing this forever in Norway and Sweden,” Gagne says. “The soft glow is kind of magical.”

Get schooled on local styles.

State historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. reveals surprising facts about some of Maine’s most familiar architectural genres.

Cape home

Capes have been popular in every Maine county since the early 1700s. Much of their 20th-century ubiquity can be credited to humble Boston architect Royal Barry Wills, author of the 1955 ode to the genre Living on the Level: One-Story Houses by America’s Best Liked Architect.

shingle-style home

Shingle-style homes first appeared in Maine as “cottages” adjacent to large Victorian hotels. Upper-middle-class rusticators would spend a season in a developer’s summer colony; if they liked it, they’d buy a lot and build their own cottages in similar styles.

Greek revival

Greek Revivals were en vogue for a brief three decades starting in the 1830s, and their reach was scattered. The Portland peninsula, for example, has just two of the temple-style beauties, while Richmond boasts 12, thanks to its prosperous pre-Civil War shipbuilding industry.

Illustrations by Kelsey Grass

Ask what your sofa can do for you.

Show the same concern for your indoor environment as you do for your favorite pristine Maine forest with a non-polluting pick, says Ross Endicott, of Scarborough’s Endicott Home.

What should Mainers prioritize when selecting a new sofa?

We spend so much time and energy making our homes airtight — it’s important to remember that if you bring in furniture that is emitting anything, those chemicals will go into your body. You want to avoid products with toxic chemical flame-retardants.

What’s new in the world of non-toxic upholstery? 

There’s a slew of super-sensible upholstery fabrics — Crypton, LifeGuard, OptiClean — with no added chemicals and no toxicity. We offer one from Revolution Performance Fabrics made from recycled milk-jug plastic! They hold up in the sun and can be cleaned with gentle household cleaners.

How about construction? 

Look for pieces that use PureBond plywood, a formaldehyde-free material that’s now widely available. We also use non-toxic soy glue to avoid off-gassing fumes.

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Debate: Deck vs. Patio

How you choose to enjoy Maine’s embarrassment of natural beauty comes down to whether you want to extend your living space or escape from it, say two pros.

Deck devotee: JT Loomis, Elliott Architects, Blue Hill

“A deck can add exterior space that feels like an extension of the interior. It’s a way to transition between indoors and the landscape. We like to use ipe as a decking material. It has a lot of naturally occurring oil in it, so it’s very rot resistant and you don’t have to stain or treat it.”

Patio proponent: Josh Tompkins, Joshua Tompkins Landscape Architecture, Yarmouth

“A patio creates a deeper connection to the natural environment — you’re closer to plants, to pollinators, to stone. It’s a retreat from your house. And it’ll generally last a lot longer than a deck, especially if you use enduring materials, like thick, oversized pieces of granite.”

modern architecture and Maine can mix
Photographed by Brian Vanden Brink; Designed by WMH Architects; Built by Atkinson Builders

Know modern architecture and Maine can mix.

“It’s too easy to make something exactly as it was,” says Bill Hanley, of Northeast Harbor’s WMH Architects, who believes the most compelling new builds present elements of Maine vernacular architecture — shingles, gabled forms, familiar window and door proportions — in a fresh, pared-down context. “By not overcomplicating the exterior language with cornices, corner boards, and built-up window casings, you get a hybrid interpretation of the past that still fits.”

Seek out these sustainable woods.

With a wealth of beautiful, ecologically harvested hardwoods available in Maine, why opt for exotic zebrawood? Saer Huston, of Kennebunkport’s Huston & Company, shares his top picks for furniture.

ash

Ash

Along with oak, it inspires a vibe of permanence and nostalgia, thanks to decades of use in churches and schools. Bonus: The texture hides wear and tear.

cherry

Cherry

A favorite of Scandinavian designers, its closed grain means your eye won’t be distracted by knots.

maple

Maple

The toughest wood listed here, its light tone also camouflages scratches.

walnut

Walnut

A good match for mid-century modern designs, its current popularity comes at a 10 percent premium.

white oak

White oak

Works well with a cerused finish, which uses stain to subtly mute the wood’s color while emphasizing its grain.

Understand “green” heat.

Months of below-freezing temps make efficient heating a must in any Maine home. Architect Chris Briley, of Portland’s Briburn, gives the skinny on three key types you can mix and match.

Passive heating: Ranges from maximizing sun exposure in a home to designing one that meets the passive house standard, which requires robust insulation and extremely energy-efficient appliances and systems, among other features.

Radiant heating: A catchall referring to systems that use electricity or hydronics (recirculating oil or water) to provide gentle, even heat. Radiant systems can be installed under subflooring and cement slabs. Or go for baseboard units or wall-hung panels.

Heat pumps: Super-efficient appliances that pull heat out of even the coldest air and distribute it inside your home. Briley suggests keeping an eye on CO2 models, which don’t rely on refrigerants that, if leaked, contribute to global warming. Popular in Europe, CO2 units aren’t yet available stateside.


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