Known for reviving classic New England design, Lilse McKenna has perfected pattern-mixing. Peek inside a Maine summer house by the designer, and learn how she uses color as a backdrop for relaxed, layered living. Blending gingham, checks, and florals, Lisle spotlights new twists on tradition and shares her Chairish favorites.


Design by Lilse McKenna | Photo by Read McKendree / JBSA

As someone working on the East Coast, your work feels deeply rooted in a sense of place and history. How did that play out in this Maine Summer House?

When we started this renovation the house was only thirty years old, but our clients had a longer family history in the area. Throughout the design, both in some of the architectural changes and in the decorating, we referenced 19th century design in Maine and throughout New England.  In the entry we used a wall stencil design from a book of early American wall stencil designs, which we blew up in scale and applied to the floor.  We also designed the mural in the dining room in the style of Rufus Porter, a decorative artist who produced several murals in the area in the mid 1800’s. 

Design by Lilse McKenna | Photo by Read McKendree / JBSA

You’ve said that longevity is a key part of your work. What questions did you think about when designing for longevity in this project, and how did vintage and antiques come into play?

This house is a family summer house that our clients hope will be in their family for generations to come. When designing this space I tried to think carefully about our clients and their children: how would they use the space? What holidays would they spend here together?(Lots of them!) Where would the grandchildren play? (Everywhere!) What would they continue to collect and make throughout the life of this house? Which pieces would retain value for them, even once the upholstery was all worn? 

We used as many of the family’s inherited antiques as we could throughout the space, because I think the sentimental value attached to those pieces is so important. If an heirloom fits in terms of scale, it is instilled with much more meaning than any new table we could find. Our clients are prolific needlepointers, so when layering the patterns throughout the living spaces and bedrooms we kept in mind that over the years more pillows would be added to the collection.  Our painters painted the mural in the dining room on canvas, rather than straight on the walls, so that the pieces of it could be saved and framed if a family member down the line decided to redecorate. 

Design by Lilse McKenna | Photo by Read McKendree / JBSA

This home has a real sense of connection to nature and indoor/outdoor living. What was your concept for the project, and how did you bring it to life through the materials and furnishings you chose?

There are beautiful views all around the house, both of the water and dense greenery, so that you feel like you’re in a little forest by the beach.  We tried to give a nod to that feeling with materials we chose throughout the house.  The mural in the dining room mimics the nearby coastline, and the schemes that emanate from there throughout the first floor incorporate the blues of the water and greens all around the house.  

Our clients really live on the screened porch in the summer, so we expanded it as a part of this renovation.  We wanted them to feel that the doors to the living room and dining room could be open all summer, and that sandy feet and wet bathing suits could be both inside and out.  Wherever we could, we painted floors rather than using rugs, so that sand could be swept away.  The rug in the living room is indoor/outdoor to accommodate wet feet, too. All of the upholstery is covered in pattern, much of it dense and organic in design, which hides stains better than solid fabric, and the dining chairs are slip covered so that they can be sent to the dry cleaner as needed. 

Design by Lilse McKenna | Photo by Read McKendree / JBSA

Pattern and color play such a big role in this project, from the painted floors to the ginghams, checks, and florals throughout the home. How did you edit this amazing mix of colors and patterns to achieve a space that really feels curated, where everything works together?

Our client’s one request for the patterns in this house was that we use gingham, which is sort of the perfect summery “Maine” pattern to me.  You see grids all around in 19th century Maine design, from the layout of wall stencils to handmade quilts. We used that as a connective thread throughout the project.  Our clients love blue and white, and I like to add a shot of red to break up the blues.  The dense greenery that surrounds the house on three sides inspired me to add the greens to the scheme as well. 

With that connective visual thread of the grids we started adding more organic patterns. For me this is a sort of puzzle to work out of colors that work nicely together without matching perfectly, scales that compliment one another, and enough variation in the origins of the patterns to allow for the clients to continue to collect without upsetting the balance in the room.  I never want our clients to feel that they can’t add a pillow or throw blanket as their tastes change throughout the life of a room.  I think scheming with fabrics that are inspired by textiles from America, France, England, and India creates enough of a dynamic collection to allow for those later additions to blend more seamlessly.   If everything in the room is from one era or one country, it can’t evolve. 

Design by Lilse McKenna | Photo by Read McKendree / JBSA

Tell us about your approach to vintage and antique finds. How does that come into play when it comes to layering patterns, colors and styles? How do you like to incorporate vintage/antiques?

I treat the layering of antiques and vintage pieces into a space in much the same way I treat the layering of patterns.  For this house, on the coast in Maine, we used primarily American antiques and vintage pieces that felt fitting to the area and the style of the house.  We then incorporated some more exotic pieces, again to offer contrast to those American pieces: a Spanish bench used as an ottoman, an Indian inlaid coffee table, and a pair of delicate French regency armchairs all found homes here. 

Lilse McKenna | Photo by Read McKendree / JBSA


What do you find most compelling about Chairish?  

I love the variety of pieces I can find on Chairish, from very high end collectible antiques, to vintage pieces that need to be refinished.  That variety allows for me to shop for antiques regardless of our target budget for each piece. 

How does sustainability factor into your design choices and love of vintage?  

There are so many benefits to shopping for vintage pieces, sustainability being one of them that I think appeals to everyone who is turned off by the idea of having a house full of “fast fashion furniture.” I use furniture from all types of sources for my projects but always feel more confident in the quality of vintage and antique pieces because they have lasted long enough to qualify as such, which is saying something!


Favorite way to create a statement-making moment in a room: With decorative paint or handmade textiles. We are always creating custom solutions for making statements in the rooms we are working on, whether they are hand screened wallpapers or hand painted floors. 

Favorite paint color:  It is hard to choose one but I have really been loving Churlish Green by Farrow and Ball recently. 

Favorite piece of decor in your home: I have a really wonderful Greek needlepoint rug from the 1950s in my dining room that I love. 

Favorite style icon: A tie between Lee Radziwill, Mariella Agnelli, and KK Auchincloss.  

Design destination every creative should visit at least once: Morocco for the colors and the artisanal pieces everywhere! 


Favorite small museum: Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.

Favorite Instagram accounts to follow: My clients’ because I get to see how they are really living in their homes! @juliaberolzheimer, @nan.philip among others.

Favorite restaurant: Buvette for breakfast or lunch.

Favorite vacation destination: Harbour Island or Paris. 

Favorite hotel that’s inspired your work while traveling: The St. James in Paris and The Twenty Two in London.

Lead Image: Design by Lilse McKenna, Photo by Read McKendree / JBSA.

June 30, 2024

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