Russell & Mackenna Style - No Beach Cottage? Bring the Beach to Your House.

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Lauren Russell has always dreamed of living in a little beach cottage overlooking the water. The home she imagines has exposed-beam ceilings, casement windows, French doors and painted cedar shake siding.

The house she actually lives in? Well, that's much different.

With three small children, a growing business and neither the time nor the money for a second residence, Russell is content with her dream oceanfront home being just that for now. In the meantime, she has turned her five-bedroom hillside house near Annapolis into the comfortable, coastal living she covets. One step inside and you feel surprised that the surf and sand are not right outside the door.

"I've always been drawn to the water," says Russell, who is 36. "It's a lifestyle. It's a relaxed and permanent decompression."

A home that induces relaxation is probably a good idea for Russell. Aside from being a mom to three girls, ages 7, 5 and 2 1/2 , she's also the founder and creative director of Russell & Mackenna (, a Severna Park-based company that specializes in custom beach-house-style upholstered and painted furniture. She started the business in late 2003 with her husband, Kevin Russell, and her father, Larry Strassner (Mackenna is the middle name of the Russells' oldest daughter, Sawyer). Also living in their lively home is a 13-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Maggie and a parakeet named Starlight, who likes to chirp. A lot.

The couple bought their home early in 2003 with elaborate plans to renovate it inside and out. "It was so outdated and not remotely close to being a cottage," Lauren Russell says. But they wanted to live in the small Severna Park waterfront community of Round Bay so much that they jumped at the chance when a house there became available. Their commute to the Severn River is a five-minute walk.

In the midst of a planned three-phase renovation that began the year they moved in, the Russells unexpectedly received seed money to start the furniture company. Rather than sink more money into constructing their ideal house, they decided to put everything they had into building a business. All house projects were put on hold. That is why the two older girls share a suite with a bathroom that has a glass-enclosed shower and radiant-heat flooring, while the bathroom in their parents' room was last updated during the Reagan administration.

But earlier this year, Russell decided to redecorate. "I get a bug to redo stuff a lot," she says. "A change of season, my third baby is going off to school. . . . It was just time. And I had been living with prototypes for years."

Because the house serves as a laboratory for testing new Russell & Mackenna products and designs, the Russells' furniture was always mismatched. And with the family growing and closet space dwindling, they needed more storage.

The redecorating started in the living room with a baby blue faux-leather sofa. It's as pretty as it is practical, Russell says. "I knew the faux leather would work because you can take 409 to it." Of course, the one new piece made the rest of the room look even more mismatched and dated, so one thing led to another, she says, and soon the living room, dining area, master bedroom and the girls' rooms had been redone. Each room is as cheerful and beachy as the next.

Russell's beach-related concept is part aesthetics and part practicality. For example, on the first floor, hardwood maple flooring has been buffed, painted white, then purposely distressed. "With this many kids, . . . and the sand, dirt and grime, things need to be distressed." She refers to the paint splatters on the white wood floor in the playroom as "a nice patina."

Signs of warmth and family appear everywhere in the home. The furniture is a mix of new, antique and flea market finds. Nothing feels too precious or is off-limits to the children. A seven-foot chalkboard hangs in the kitchen with a grocery and a to-do list written on the top portion and decorative preschool scribbling on the bottom. The girls' artwork is displayed on a string with clothespins that hangs on the staircase wall (Christmas cards hang there during the holidays). Blankets and toys lie on the couch in front of the television. There are chocolate-milk stains on the back of a pretty starfish throw pillow. When Russell notices the stains, she sighs, smiles and shakes her head all at once, then places the pillow back on the sofa -- stain side down.

She doesn't say so, but this much is clear: Russell would rather her family be happy and comfortable than have a picture-perfect home. "I want a low-stress environment for the kids," she says. "They can take their sippy cups everywhere. Everyone is much more successful if they are relaxed and comfortable."

In the living room, a simple sisal area rug covers the floor and a pair of armchairs covered in brown patterned slipcovers sit opposite the new blue sofa. Russell is a big fan of slipcovers. "You can bring them to the dry cleaners," she says. "I've had these chairs for four years, but I've had three sets of slipcovers. It's a way to be green and practical as a mom." Two new free-standing white bookshelves with cabinets flank the fireplace, and a white armoire (another Russell & Mackenna prototype) stands on the opposite wall. The piece's top cabinet stores blankets, books and toys; below are three drawers, one assigned to each girl.

And though the palette in the house is a combination of painted solids, stripes, flowers and waves in beige, blue, yellow, green and coral, that's likely to change. "I paint walls every three to four months," Russell says. "I like change and freshening things up."

The plans to finish the first floor and renovate the second floor and exterior have recently been put back on the table, Russell says. Perhaps she'll have the cottage she dreams about after all, even if it's not along the ocean.

"You know when you're at the beach that first day and the sun is shining and it's warm and you feel relaxed and comfortable? I want that same feeling," she says. "We're not at the ocean and it's not our second home, but I want it to feel that way all the time."

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