Real Estate / Houses

A Dream Home Like No Other: This River Oaks Renegade Turns a Conservative Nantucket Village Into Her Family’s Colorful Playground

photography Francesco Lagnese

Contemporary art collector Poppi Massey earned a reputation as a renegade when she built one of the few modern houses in River Oaks, which is known for its classic, old-guard architecture. With a penchant for wearing black leather biker boots, she also sometimes lightheartedly refers to herself as a “pinko Communist liberal,” a label her father jokingly gave her in college for her left-wing political leanings. And, for the past 20 years, she’s been quietly disrupting the conservative Siasconset village on Nantucket, where she regularly summers with her grown daughters, Phoebe and Annabel, in their color-packed 1920s cottage.

“People tease me, ‘You’re on the wrong island, you should be on Martha’s Vineyard where there are more liberals,’” says Massey, laughing. When she first moved in, most of the cottages in the community had flagpoles flying Republican flags, she says, so she countered by flying a Democratic flag from hers.

“Someone took it,” she says. A cardboard donkey she put in her front yard also generated plenty of comments from neighbors.

Political jousting aside, Massey has been in love with Nantucket since the mid-1990s, when she and her former college roommate chose it as a place to meet during the summers with their children. “I like Nantucket’s tiny size,” she says. “And it has a cool history — it was once the whaling capital of the world and the inspiration for Moby Dick.”

Tucked away on the far east end of the island, ‘Sconset, as locals call it, is where John Steinbeck penned East of Eden in the 1950s.

The living room’s vintage seating includes Bill Stevens chairs from Knoll and a Herman Miller Marshmallow sofa. Fabrics from Designers Guild and Lee Jofa.

Massey and her now ex-husband, Craig Massey, bought their 95-year-old cottage in 1997. “We’d go there as soon as the girls got out of school and stay as late as possible in August,” she remembers. “But it was a summer cottage, not winterized — a fact we learned the first Thanksgiving. The wind blew through the walls.” Insulating the house would mean losing precious interior space, she says, so renovations were put off. “I love all its quirks and didn’t want to touch it inside.”

Six years ago, when “the technology finally caught up, we were able to insulate it from the outside, adding three inches to the exterior walls and four inches to the roof,” she says. It was also a chance to expand the cottage to accommodate the pack of college friends her daughters invite every summer. Local firm Nantucket Architecture Group doubled the space from 2,400 to 4,800 square feet. Thanks to a new basement, several new bedrooms, a bunkroom and an attic converted into a bedroom, the house now sleeps 20 people.

Massey tackled the interior design herself, and she relished the opportunity to make it her own. “Back then, it looked like everybody else’s beach house,” she says. “I came back home, went to the design center and got fabrics, vintage furniture from eBay and mid-century pieces from all over.”

For inspiration, she channeled the colorful Sinatra-esque Palm Desert vacation house her parents, Marilyn and Basil Georges, owned when she was growing up, installing similar red-metal St. Charles Cabinetry (preferred by mid-century greats Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright), a retro blue Big Chill refrigerator, a red TurboChef oven and Formica counters rimmed in stainless steel. A contractor freshened the walls and pine floors with coats of Benjamin Moore white paint.

She recovered all the vintage furniture (except for the original white vinyl George Nelson Marshmallow sofa in the living room) in vivid Designers Guild and Lee Jofa hues — orange, yellow, hot pink, red, green, lavender and purple — with contrasting welt trim and a mix of patterns. Massey experimented with combinations of color and pattern by laying fabrics together on her dining-room table and living with them for a few days.

The local Nantucket upholsterer was confounded by Massey’s kaleidoscope of choices. “They said, ‘You can’t have four different kinds of fabric on one chair,’ and I said, ‘Why not?’” Massey has no doubt inherited her mother’s fearless design aplomb. “Our Palm Desert house was super-duper mod, with crazy colors like turquoise,” she says.

“That was definitely in my mind. My mother loved to redo houses, and she always said there’s no rules when it comes to patterns and colors. I find that with clothes or art or furniture, as long as you love it, that’s the commonality and it all goes.”

The ‘Sconset cottage is a joyful place, and now that it’s winterized and redone, the family uses it as often as possible, says Massey, who often returns in the fall for the cranberry harvest after spending the summer there with her daughters. They also sometimes head back in December for the Christmas stroll.

“It’s definitely my happy place,” says Massey.

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