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October 2008

The Charleston Home:
Coastal Fusion
Written By: 
Susan Hill Smith
Photographs By: 
Brie Williams

A young swimsuit designer and her surfer husband mix influences from their travels

It’s fitting to see surfboards on the walls at Nathaniel and Maria Dobrzanska Reeves’ house on Little Oak Island because surfing is how it all began.

Nathaniel started chasing waves on a post-college trip to Australia and was working at a surf shop in Delaware in 1998 when Marysia, as friends call her, walked in to buy her first surfboard. She was 17, working as a lifeguard at a nearby resort, and had moved to the U.S. three years earlier from Poland, where she attended a prestigious ballet school. Nathaniel talked her into a lesson, and they spent the rest of the summer together, surfing every day.

Their journey has taken them from the Delaware coast to Southern California, where Marysia attended fashion design school, to the South Carolina Lowcountry, where they now live with their 17-month-old daughter, Elle, and three dogs on this small marsh island in the early morning shadow of Folly Beach. Since the couple moved here three years ago, she has launched her career as a swimsuit designer with the Marysia Charleston label, and he has started a niche Internet business, Natty’s Phat Crabs, shipping orders of live blue crabs that he catches locally.

Simultaneously, they have created a home that reflects their love of the water, draws inspiration from the coastal places they have visited, and mixes in eclectic ­elements with style. “Everything has a story. It’s more livable that way—and more meaningful,” Marysia says.

Consider their back porch and deck. Marysia and Nathaniel started this space with a simple picnic table and have since redesigned it for comfort and style with influences from The Shore Club at Miami’s South Beach, where they became engaged. The Art Deco hotel’s landmark lobby makes liberal use of lanterns, candles, and floor-to-ceiling curtains and provides a soothing transition to a succession of outdoor garden “rooms.”

Marysia sought to recreate the effect, then added a splash of South-Beach color with red-lacquer nesting tables. The constant breeze off the Folly River lifts the curtains lining the screened-in porch, and two double-bed-sized lounges with thick, chocolate-colored cushions invite anyone who steps outside to take a break or even a nap.

The two inflated puffer fish that hang down from the porch ceiling remind Marysia of her favorite species at the South Carolina Aquarium. “Aren’t they great? They light up at night,” she says as she looks up. “When we first came here, we went to Coast, you know the restaurant, and they had these above that long table. We loved the effect, so we researched and researched and found some on the Internet.”

Pleased with the results so far, they ­recently retiled the floor and added a heating coil that will allow them to extend their enjoyment of the space into the mild winter months. The screened-in space spills out onto an open-air deck where Nathaniel, who also is a trained horticulturist, potted citrus trees and planted herbs and vegetables along the back railing. He’s known to make a curry using ingredients from the porch and shrimp he caught himself off their dock.
Sliding doors at the porch’s center open to the living room that serves as the epicenter of the main floor. One side of the soaring, light-filled space transitions effortlessly into the dining room, whose focal point is a striking built-in china cabinet with a dramatic teal blue painted interior. The dining room and kitchen flow seamlessly together, while a home office and laundry room are tucked away off a small hallway.

On the opposite side of the house is a downstairs guest bedroom, where Marysia’s aunt is staying while helping take care of Elle and teaching her Polish. “Marysia had me put this up,” Nathaniel says, pointing out the rectangular design of woodwork that frames the twin beds in the guest room. “It’s kind of like picture moulding for walls.” Above the headboards, they placed a pair of sconces made from silkworm cocoons that they purchased in Santa Monica. The moulding and sconces provide a milky whisper of contrast to the walls, which the couple painted pale pink. “The logo of my baby line is going to be that color,” Marysia says. “It’s one of my favorites.”

But there’s a dash of the old as well. The Reeves have inherited family heirlooms and collections, and few of the items in the house, even the ones they’ve bought, are new. Back in the living room, Nathaniel points out several hibachis he has collected and a late 1800s Japanese screen depicting a scene from the classic The Tale of Genji. His brother, Alexander, a fine art dealer in Virginia, helped him secure the screen and also steered him to a home sale where Nathaniel paid $1,000 for his first five pieces of furniture.

“Nathaniel had most of this when we got married,” Marysia says. “He had a house, and I was younger, and I had to…” “Reupholster everything,” Nathaniel ­interjects. She smiles ... “play with what he already had going on and make use of it.”

While in the private bedrooms she preferred a light and neutral palette of whites and pastels, Marysia opted to infuse furnishings in more public areas with punches of bold color. In the living room, she reupholstered one couch in a deep coral and had two chairs swathed in dark chocolate silk, their arms and legs repainted in black lacquer.

But the room’s showstopper is the nine-foot red-and-caramel surfboard that hangs over the opening to the dining room. While Nathaniel has another 20 or so boards, this early ’60s longboard was shaped by surfing legend Greg Noll, a pioneer who tamed the giant swells of Waimea Bay in Oahu. Nathaniel admits he has only taken it in the ocean a couple of times. “It’s not really for waves around here,” he says, “and it’s too pretty to surf.”

From clothing to interiors, Marysia believes that the designs you surround yourself with define you and have the power to make you happy. She draws from favorite shelter magazines for ideas and says she has a similar approach to Oprah regular Nate Berkus. The celebrity designer has stated that he’s “more interested in creating relationships between things than with sticking with an overall concept.”

That philosophy is at work in the ­living room as well. Whether it’s the surfboard, the Japanese screen, or the coral from Mr. John’s Beach Store that sits atop an elegant chest from Elizabeth Stuart Design, it all comes together with the rest of the room for a look that is comfortable, cool, and bears an easy elegance.

Just like the house with its eclectic charm, Little Oak Island is something of a melding spot. A stone’s throw from the area’s best waves but off-the-beaten path of tourists, Little Oak Island was a campground during the Edge of America’s heyday, only to become a small gated ­development of condos and coastal-style homes.

The Reeves’ house was one of the first built on the island in 1993. Marysia and ­Nathaniel did little to renovate the structure when they bought it in 2005, except retile the porch, replace the kitchen countertops with marble, add a workshop ­below the house for Nathaniel to shape surfboards, and dress up bedroom walls. They also worked together on Elle’s upstairs nursery. “We wanted to do wallpaper and looked at several kinds, but what we wanted was so expensive, and I couldn’t decide,” explains Marysia. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we just paint?’” Pregnant at the time, she taped off the project while Nathaniel went to work on the powder-blue horizontal stripes.

Waiting for Elle on her bedroom wall is a mustard yellow surfboard from Endless Summer icon Robert August with a whimsical hula monkey design by artist Paul Frank. “It will be Elle’s first board,” dad says, certain she will be a surfer girl. “She’s fairly fearless,” says mom.

After spotting the Morris Island lighthouse from the deck off the master bedroom, the couple heads downstairs and finishes the tour outside with a walk down the dock, where Nathaniel’s Carolina Skiff rests tethered on the tidal creek. Then, returning inside to the dining table, Nathaniel serves a roasted tomato quiche he made himself. As Marysia prepares to take a bite, she says “I think the décor of the house has evolved.”

With Nathaniel’s varied interests and collections, Marysia’s inherent sense of style, and the energy abounding from young Elle, it’s safe to say the evolution has just begun.

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