Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today we look at the Watch Hill, Rhode Island, home belonging to Kelly Shea and Brendan Banks, a couple who took the long way (15,000 miles, to be exact) to get there.
Kelly Shea and Brendan Banks's journey is quite a story. The preface was written in New York City two years ago, when Banks, in a move straight out of a romantic Rob Reiner film, knocked on Shea’s door without warning and proposed that they buy a van, see the country, and "tell stories that we are proud of." Shea agreed on the spot.
The couple (he's a filmmaker, she left a corporate job at Ralph Lauren to become an art director and writer), purchased and restored a 1984 Volkswagen van (it was rickety and worn, and the curtains fell apart in their hands) and set off with no clearer plan than to travel the country in a counter-clockwise pattern and document the experience. "We did want to see as many of the national parks as possible," says Shea.
Six months and countless campfires and fly fishing expeditions later, they had explored a good portion of the United States and learned to live the slow life (in a van whose top speed is 65 miles per hour, there’s little choice). They decided to continue that lifestyle in Rhode Island, where the creative spark for the trip was born months before as they explored a cold and windy beach.
"I grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, and frankly, the state is last place I thought I would end up," says Shea. "But we wanted to live within three hours of New York City, where we could keep collaborating with creative people we’d worked with before."
After landing in temporary housing, they secured their current apartment on the lower floor of a classic shingle house in Watch Hill. "We loved the clean white walls, the hardwood floors, and the old architectural details," says Shea. "We thought the screened-in porch and all the greenery outside was wonderful."
After so long on the road, they were mentally ready for a home base, but their furniture and accessories coffers were empty. "I had gotten rid of most of my stuff, but I did have a love seat and a mattress," says Banks. Shea adds: "I had no furniture, just a mirror."
Around this time, the couple decided to launch a design and content production company called Vancrafted Studios in homage to their epic road trip. At the same time, there was a private collaboration at home: They had to furnish their place. "Initially, we needed a lot things," says Banks. "But we used a lot of Craigslist placeholders until we found the right pieces."
"We wanted to have a cozy feeling and we wanted to use some coastal elements, but we both like clean, modern lines," says Shea. "After seeing our place, one of our friends dubbed the style ‘midcentury modern clam shack.’"
In a space where modern chairs and antiques mingle, the moniker is an apt one. For example, in the living room, a brand-new sofa, a vintage midcentury chair, an antique cobbler’s bench reborn as a coffee table, and a couple of oars (used for both decoration and canoeing) furnish the space.
In the bedroom, a duvet crafted from a simple ticking fabric is flanked by side tables made by Shea in her father’s garage workshop. "Kelly has a way of making things and making things work," Banks says.
They made the existing vintage kitchen theirs with personal touches. "We put an eclectic mix of accessories on the shelves," says Shea. "We have a copper antique bowl, a candlestick made of marble from the quarry where the material for Michelangelo’s David came from, and lots of cookbooks." Plants decorate the kitchen and other parts of the home. Shea says it’s their way of bringing the outdoors inside.
Inside and outside are almost indistinguishable on the screened-in porch, a big selling point at the time of the lease signing and currently a favorite. "The previous tenants left the glass table, and we sanded and stained the base and surrounded it with white chairs," says Shea. "We love to sit out here and look at the sky and greenery." In the summer, the space serves as a place to relax, eat, and work.
The all-American look might bring to mind the classic aesthetic of Ralph Lauren, Shea’s former employer, but she considers her own past to be the biggest inspiration. "Growing up in the Northeast was my influence," she says. "Living in the van also shaped the look. It was a great practice in stoicism. Now we are devoted to living with less."