t’s just a seven-minute ferry ride from Key West to Sunset Key, a speck of an island with limitless views across the azure-tinted Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. But this 27-acre Florida residential enclave feels a world apart: There are no cars or businesses, leaving bicycles as the primary mode of transport, and only 50 or so homes. “Once you’re there, it seems as if there’s nothing else in the world,” says designer Joe Nahem, who worked on one of the island’s original homes for a Manhattan couple.
Built in the late 1990s, the house is in the conch style–a traditional look for Key West, with characteristic wood siding, a tin roof and generous porches. Nahem, who has completed five other projects for the owners, set out to modernize the design, injecting elegance and practicality while respecting the area’s Caribbean vibe. “We agreed to sync it with the conch style and Key West architecture but not translate it literally for interior furnishings,” he explains.
A primary feature Nahem intended to update was a longstanding problem: the home’s seemingly invisible front entry, which was disguised among two sets of white French-style doors that lined a porch. In their place, he installed a clearly de ned front door–glass framed in dark wood, with sidelights–next to a matching paned fixed panel. The result is “more of an entrance look,” describes residential designer Guillermo Orozco, who collaborated on the project with general contractor Raf Dornford. In 2007, Orozco had renovated the house, a task that included creating an 8-foot-wide back porch. This time his team returned to expand that porch as an outdoor living and dining area, and to enlarge a wraparound porch on one side of the home. “It became more of a private space,” the residential designer says.
Because the front door swung directly into the vaulted, double-height living area, Nahem devised a foyer. He commissioned a perforated ceramic screen that separates the entryway from the larger living space and allows light to filter through, gently welcoming the outside in. The designer also replaced a living area wall with a pivoting panel that neatly stacks to one side, exposing the panoramic ocean vista and changing the atmosphere dramatically. “It opened up the whole living area to the outdoors and created a seamless transition between the inside and the outside,” he says.
In a final flourish, Nahem placed planks of pecky cypress on some of the walls. “It’s a beautiful wood,” he says. “It has a lot of depth to it.” Formerly dark and seldom used, the revamped space “has been transformed,” the wife says. “Now everyone wants to spend time there. You can sit inside and feel like you’re outside.”
Amid the renovated backdrop, Nahem amped up the home’s palette with bright hues to complement the vibrant tropical setting. “The clients really like color,” he says. Importantly, they also prefer an abode that requires minimal maintenance–not surprising for a vacation home. “Everything is indoor-outdoor, including the fabrics and the surfaces,” the wife says. Sunny tones appear on fun but eminently practical pieces such as the living area’s turquoise swivel armchairs and the seafoam-tiled master bathroom. An acrylic console table makes a statement in front of the entry screen, and a futuristic-looking white Corian table with a laminate wood inset anchors the dining area. “It’s Windex-able–no scratching or stains,” the designer says.
Throughout the residence, Nahem incorporated art that is reflective of island life. He commissioned a pair of neon-bright paintings of tropical fish and flowers to hang side by side in the master bedroom. And on a wall in the living area, he displayed a set of the couple’s beloved works created by Key West and Haitian artists. The pieces also reference the property’s own luxuriant grounds, where landscape designer Patrick Tierney added cheery focal points like Queen Emma crinum lilies, hibiscus and blood lilies. “My gardens are all about color,” he says. “I made the garden pop.”
These adventurous clients heartily approve, inside and out. “We love the beauty of our house and garden,” the wife says. It’s exactly how anyone should feel on tranquil Sunset Key.
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