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Cottage Classic

Cottage Classic
March 2010
Whimsy and elegance cozy up in this downtown ode to English charm

When Roberta Ketchin first saw this house, it wasn’t the ample parking or front garden (both rare finds on the peninsula) or even the 300-year-old pittosporum by the gate that sold her. In the end, a window did it. “I’ve always dreamed of cottage windows,” says the interior designer who is known for her spot-on classic taste. “The living room’s diamond-paned window fills the entire end of the room with light. As soon as I saw it, I knew that I loved this house.”

And the house seems to have responded in kind, absorbing Ketchin’s passion for color, art, and antiques like a canvas primed for a master’s touch. Comfort and charm are the unifying themes, and the result is an abode that simply makes you smile, as much for its inherent architectural surprises as for its delightful décor. 

Many unique elements, such as the signature windows, shingle exterior, and off-center fireplaces, offer a distinct twist on “traditional Charleston,” despite the home’s basic single-house design, with a side piazza entrance and one-room width. Quintessential local touches, such as a Philip Simmons’ iron gate opening into a Loutrell Briggs’ courtyard (which the Ketchins restored to its original design) and Roberta’s innate sense of easy elegance blend well with the stately King Street environs. But the house also disorients you, in the best possible way; like in Alice in Wonderland, you can imagine yourself transported to an enchanted place—the mother country perhaps?

In fact, the original owner of this circa-1898 home, a grandson of the family in a larger neighboring residence, had studied in England and was drawn to the style of British country houses, notes Ketchin. “When my husband and I were traveling in Scotland, we saw an arch at Abbotsford that resembles the one in our dining room,” she adds. 

After buying the home 13 years ago, the Ketchins kept the front formal rooms as they were but made some renovations in the back. They created an inviting den from what had been a dark card room and transformed a former maids’ kitchen into a warm and bright English country kitchen, complete with marble countertops—a Roberta Ketchin design staple—and yummy servings of butter yellow. “I used the space I had and worked on making it cozy and intimate,” she says, referring to the relatively small footprint. “All I need in a kitchen is a good corner and a pretty space.” As for the color: “I love yellow. Yellow offers the sun day and night—you can’t go into a yellow room and not feel cheered up,” she adds. 

Ketchin, who is known as an expert on color, doesn’t shy away from the power of the palette throughout her personal space. The home’s hues are fresh, lively, and definitely smile-worthy. The foyer welcomes visitors with cool blues and turquoise and teal accents, echoing the nautical playfulness of gilded figurehead sconces and a fun ship-shaped chandelier. “I love chandeliers. They are great art pieces that you can display in every room,” says Ketchin, who owned Allie’s Ally, a Charleston gallery (opened back when there were only a handful in town) for 30 years and still represents several artists. In the oversize dining room—her favorite space in the house—a soft putty gray is the first course, anchoring the walls and creating a handsome backdrop for the artwork, and the ceiling is the dessert, painted a delicious lime-sherbet green. “You absolutely have to address the ceiling,” she says. “It’s the fifth wall.” 

Everywhere, the emphasis is on intimate, from the pull-up-a-chair kitchen to the curl-up-in-the-corner den to the sit-and-stay-awhile back garden, which Roberta herself designed. The off-center fireplaces contribute to the relaxed feel by throwing symmetry off. Even in the formal living room, antiques and upholstered pieces are arranged to create conversation-inducing spaces and minimize the room’s scale. “I don’t care how big your house is, you want to sit close to people at night,” she affirms.

Indeed, for Ketchin, a home is all about personality, and hers exudes a buoyant graciousness. The diamond-paned windows struck a chord for a reason—their charm mirrors hers. “I like for each room to have a wonderful, inviting feel,” says this designer who opts for mixing more than matching and believes breaking “the rules” is what makes design fun. “I want my home to be comfortable throughout.”