Her design firm focuses on decor at the Shore

Christina Smith, whose Summer House Design Group is busy at the Shore. Her clients, she says, "don't want to duplicate what they have at home."
Christina Smith, whose Summer House Design Group is busy at the Shore. Her clients, she says, "don't want to duplicate what they have at home." (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2014

STONE HARBOR - Christina Smith is not a local, but close. Nearly 20 years ago, the interior designer gave up the cosmopolitan lifestyles of Philadelphia and Stamford, Conn., and cast her lot at the Shore. In her case, the very tony Shore of Stone Harbor and Avalon. She formed the Summer House Design Group and, needless to say, she has had a unique view of the lifestyles of the rich and shoobie. And it's not all starfish fabric and "Welcome to the Beach" signs.

Question: How did you end up at the Shore, here in Stone Harbor?

Answer: I was always a summer resident. My family has been coming here literally since 1929. I'd moved back to Lower Gwynedd when my daughter was 4 years old. I'd always been with an architectural firm in Stamford, Conn. If I was to work for a firm again, I'd be on a plane Sunday night and not coming home until Friday. As a single parent, that was a big decision for me. I had friends in the architectural and design community in Philadelphia, and they said, what about the Shore?

Q: And you said, wow, what a great idea?

A: I said, oh, no, no, year-round the Shore, no, not a good idea. I realized the services in my background were not available down here. And I was going to be able to carve out a nice niche for myself. Leaving my urban need to be in the city and stuff like that, and coming to a Seven Mile Island that's quiet in the winter months? It's all good.

Q: You said there were no services like you provide down here. What was down here? Who was advising people?

A: There was a furniture store, a retail establishment here and up the road in Long Beach Island. There was an interior designer who was more of a decorator. There really wasn't anybody. It was interesting. I don't really know how people satisfied or got there - there were mattresses establishments that would sell beds or bedroom sets. This was how people piecemealed their homes down here. I have literally done numerous homes for people, families. I'm into their third project right now.

Q: Wow. Third summer home?

A: Yes, sometimes, yes, a change down here. Or going back to the primary residence. Or going even to another home.

Q: So do you find that people, when doing their second home, summer home, Shore home, do they look for a different aesthetic?

A: They're looking for less. They're looking for easy. We come in, we drop, we do a food order, we play. We go home. They don't want to duplicate what they have at home. We gear ourselves to hard living. People don't want to police their guests and their family. They want to let people come off the beach, drop their bathing suits, little children in bathrooms, mudrooms.

Q: Do people insist on a beach theme?

A: No. The beach theme more times than not is a very played-down thing. Everybody knows you're here. Everybody knows what's east and west. It's all water and sand. And they don't necessarily want to be held to a lot of starfish fabrics and things that are a constant reminder of where we're at. I want to preface that by saying, no two of our projects are the same. Our client base, they're pretty select.

Q: It's like prom dresses. You have to make sure two people who know one another don't end up with the same interiors.

A: We don't even like when somebody goes into someone's home and says, oh, I love that light fixture you used in so and so's home. We like the challenge of trying to always find something new.

Q: Do people want things that evoke the old Shore houses, like wainscoting?

A: You'll find more the majority of people, from Cape May up to Ocean City, lean conservative in terms of architecture, interiors. They want to revisit like old seashore. Four or five panel interior doors, the use of shutters on the windows. More retro tile, mosaic ceramic tiles on floors. Even plumbing and everything else, it kind of revisits the old seashore feel. Every once in a while, here, we'll get an invite to do a contemporary home or more streamlined interior. We love that. Then up to Long Beach Island, you'll find architecture that lends itself more that way, a lot of glass, different kind of structures. That's where the people get more contemporary interiors.

Q: Are they more daring in second homes?

A: I think people see it as an invite to, yes, why not. I like to build a house that will be timeless to them. We're getting a lot of applied molding now. It's not a trend, it's becoming the norm. Wainscoting, very detailed ceiling work with V-grooves and intersecting molding.

Q: That evokes what they were building in the 1920s at the Shore.

A: Exactly. Down here, a lot of the houses were plain little cottages. But the nicer homes always had good appointments.

Q: They like to build big at the Jersey Shore.

A: Sand is expensive. They max out their lots. I like a little house. But these people aren't going to buy a lot and build a little three-bedroom house, two-bath house on it anymore. They will take it to what the borough allows them to build on. More times than not it's driven by the need to get a whole family under one roof and make summer memories together. It's also the bottom line. They're not going to develop something that's really worth many zeroes, many figures, and make it a small structure. They're going to try to get five bedrooms out of it.

Q: What was the biggest house you've done?

A: My biggest home was not here in this state, it was in Connecticut, almost 18,000 square feet. They just built a new beachfront property in Avalon. I was glad. The husband wanted it for a long time, and the wife was indifferent, and they just bit the bullet. They just moved in a few weeks ago.

Q: They bit the bullet?

A: They just tore down down here and built a fabulous new [house]. And I have to tell you, architecturally and engineering-wise, it's a unique structure to this island. It's glass from floor to ceiling on the water side. And it's all steel that supports it. It's a gorgeous interior. All applied wood inside, disappearing doors trimmed in mahogany. It's a big wow. This is what this is all about, living on the beach. It's like the surfers are going to come through the glass. Everything is taupe and beige and ivory. Art will be the only introduced color in the house.

Q: You mention artwork. Again, a lot of people feel that they need literal beach art, the gauzy ocean scene.

A: That's the tough one, art for a beachfront property. What's going to compete with a fabulous ocean view?

Q: Have you done Buddhas? I saw a big beach house where they recently moved a Buddha out.

A: No, no Buddhas. I have a lady who follows the stars. You're supposed to always put all of your turtle sculpture facing west. It's the belief it will bring you good fortune and the money will come in to you. I never take exception to it.

Q: Have you ever done an un-air-conditioned home down here?

A: Believe it or not, no. We always have ceiling fans. Sometimes we make them obscure. Sometimes we're looking for funky ones. Because people do love, given the opportunity, to have their windows open.

Q: They will open their windows?

A: Except when it's very humid.

Q: The old Shore houses, with ceiling fans and transoms, it was all about the air flow.

A: People just want to be comfortable. It's not like cell blocks we're living in down here. You're not doing your time. And it's not always about the immediate family, but the guests that come down. I go back to the idea of practical. Someone will come in with a wet bathing suit and want to sit down. You don't want to be, like, stop.


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

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