Siweb: Some fixer-uppers are obvious wrecks. Your weekend house on New York's Shelter Island was more subtly dilapidated.
CLORA KELLY: Everything was brown and dark. I didn't like the place at all, but my husband, Helge Skibeli, fell in love with it. I figured improving it would just mean making it lighter and brighter. But after we bought the house four years ago—it's a beach cottage that was built in the 1880s and enlarged in 1929 or 1930—our contractor discovered the main support column was totally rotten and the floors had subsided a lot. One good party and the place would have collapsed.
ED: Which obviously meant major repairs.
CK: It was completely gutted, which was dismaying, since I wasn't fond of the house anyway. But coming from Ireland and living around all those beautiful old Georgian homes, I tried to keep as much of its authenticity as possible and reused the original flooring and doors. The plan of the main floor required little tweaking, but the two upper floors, which had lots of poky bedrooms, were revised. Now there are seven good-size bedrooms, which is great, because we have three children—Isa, 10; Sadie, 7; and Otto, 19 months—and lots of guests. The house is packed in the summer with visitors from Ireland and Norway.
ED: You enclosed one of the porches too.
CK: The architect who had enlarged the house, Alfred Easton Poor, added two lovely porches, but we turned one of them into a dining room. I painted chocolate-and-white horizontal stripes on the dining room walls, and the whole time I was painting my children kept coming in and making faces and pointing their thumbs down. When I took the blue masking tape off, though, they came around to liking it. Poor also added columns to the front of the house, so it looks sort of Southern, and a little balcony off the master bedroom. We call it the dictator's balcony, because you can imagine Mussolini or Eva Perón standing there and giving a speech.
ED: What other improvements did you make, besides the structural ones?
CK: We dressed up the rooms with moldings and ceiling rosettes, which aren't historically correct, but I like them. The kitchen cabinets are from IKEA—I'm not a label snob at all. The baths are white and basic, with old-fashioned claw-foot tubs and Carrara-marble tile floors. I wanted them to be classic and not look dated in ten years' time. I'm a risk-averse person at heart. All my mistakes are hidden in the basement. You wouldn't believe the things I've bought off eBay and then wondered, "What was I thinking?"
ED: That's hard to believe, considering how fun and stylish your house is.
CK: I know what I like—old threadbare rugs, wrecked leather sofas, things that have a past. I love über-modern things, too, and graphic art. If it's beautiful and inexpensive, I'll make it fit. My design philosophy is very haphazard. What's important is that the kids can come up from the beach and hang out in their wet bathing suits or walk in wearing muddy Wellies. A nice house is lovely, but in the grand scheme of things, I can't take decorating too seriously. All a room needs to be is comfortable enough so everyone can put their feet up.
ED: That little nook off the living room looks like a cozy place to relax.
CK: It's good for having cocktails on a chilly evening. I bought the antique fireplace on the Internet; Stanford White designed it for a theater in New York City. The metal rocking chair is from Marika's, a wonderful antiques shop on Shelter Island. Actually a lot of the stuff here came from Marika's, including the Pierre Cardin cocktail table in the living room. The store is like a Pandora's box! My decorator friend Tom Fallon and I are huge fans.
ED: You designed a lot of things for the house yourself.
CK: Billy Baldwin, the 1960s decorator, inspired the rugs in our bedroom. A guide in Jaipur brought us to an amazing rug dealer who said he could make anything. I sketched a crisscross design, and a few weeks later, the rugs arrived on our doorstep in Manhattan.
ED: You have wonderful art by Kiki Smith, Andy Warhol, and Alex Katz on your walls and a terrific Ray Prohaska abstract above the stairway. But my favorite piece is the fantastic striped artwork in the master bedroom—and it's a Clora Kelly original.
CK: My daughter Isa and I made that together. It's colored vinyl tape stuck on canvas, and she chose the colors and the sequence. We were inspired by the work of Scottish artist Jim Lambie. I made a series of smaller versions for our house in the city.
ED: Travel has contributed a lot to your decor. Your rooms have everything from a Chinese chair to Moroccan carpets.
CK: When my husband and I lived in Singapore, we had the opportunity to travel a lot. After every trip we came home packed like donkeys.
ED: One of the guest rooms has a wall filled with a collection of tribal masks. Did you find those in Africa or Asia?
CK: No, those came from Marika's—I can't take credit, I just bought the whole display! The tapestry behind the bed in that room came from Argentina via a friend who is working with 90-year-old women weavers in mountain villages. The most precious object in the house, though, is the 1940s silver-and-Lucite lamp in the living room. I found it at Marika's, in its original packaging.
ED: Your haphazard design approach turned out to be a success. How long did it take to decorate without a plan?
CK: A week, honestly. In the 18 months or so it took to rebuild the house, I stuffed our basement in New York City and a storage unit on Shelter Island with things I liked. Once the house was finished, the rooms were put together in seven days flat. I was very pregnant with Otto and feeling lousy, and I just wanted to get it over with!
What the Pros Know
• Cotton slipcovers are a godsend if you have children or pets. If they get dirty, just wash them and put them back on until the next mess occurs.
• Baths decorated with classic fixtures and outfitted in white—floor tiles, walls, etc.—will look fresh for years.
• Mix well-worn antiques with crisp modern furniture and art for a look that's eye-catching and highly personal.
• If you're going green, try Osmo, a German-made environmentally conscious floor stain derived from natural vegetable oils and waxes. It comes in a variety of colors.