Swirling snowflakes and snow-covered marshes greeted Dana Gibson the first time she and her family drove to the 1948 cottage that would become their Rappahannock River weekend place.
“It reminded me of that scene in ‘Doctor Zhivago’ when they come upon the abandoned country house frozen in time and push the door open,” Gibson says.
It was January 2014. Gibson, husband Mark Longenderfer and their two sons pushed open the front door the real estate agent said would be unlocked. Inside, the one-story house was a time capsule of vintage cottage living: whitewashed walls, heart-of-pine floors, board-and-batten walls. It was said to have been built of World War II Navy surplus materials, including Jeep crates. The house had not been lived in for several years; some old wicker with faded chintz cushions, iron beds and a few wobbly tables had been left behind. An old-fashioned but airy kitchen offered views of the water.
“We all liked it right away,” says Longenderfer, 53, a general contractor. “It was an easy, casual, come-in-and-throw-your-stuff-down kind of place.”
They bought the 1,100-square-foot house, less than two hours away from their Richmond home, as a family retreat. Now Gibson, Longenderfer and sons Jack, 18, and DeWolf, 16, come to their Northern Neck house in all seasons. In the fall, that means enjoying the sound of geese flying overhead as they take Paco, their beagle, for a walk.
“We enjoy the simple things here: good food, a breeze, a sunset,” says Gibson, 52, who designs home accessories, fabrics and wallpapers. “While some people would have knocked the place down and started over, keeping what’s old is important to me. I wanted to keep this place authentic. Our decor is rustic and casual, with a bit of glamping style.” That means baggy white slipcovers, rush carpeting and painted chests mixed with a few fancy curtains and glitzy chandeliers. Fishing poles are mounted to the rafters of the enclosed porch, where the family sometimes has dinner by the light of a silver candelabra.
The house has a breezy, open plan. There are three small bedrooms and a side sleeping porch. There’s a nice living-dining room, and the front porch, which has a stunning water view, has several ceiling fans and cozy spaces to relax.
Gibson seems to have inherited a talent for art and design. Her mother is a painter. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dana Gibson, a 19th-century illustrator and artist and creator of the elegant “Gibson Girl,” modeled after his wife, Irene Langhorne Gibson. Nancy Lancaster, Dana Gibson’s great-aunt and an owner of the London decorating firm Colefax and Fowler, was one of the most celebrated design figures of the past century, known for her classic English country house style of floral chintz fabrics, old portraits and painted furniture.
Gibson was always attracted to art and design and began her business in the 1990s with a line of hand-sculpted porcelains that were sold at shops such as Neiman Marcus and Henri Bendel. She eventually expanded to other home accessories such as trays, lamps and tole wastebaskets, often in bold patterns and colors. Today she designs fabrics and wallcoverings for Stroheim, furniture for Miles Talbott, and napkins and notecards for Caspari.
In furnishing her rural cottage, Gibson must have channeled Lancaster, who was known for making country houses livable. Although there is a casualness about it all, with thrift shop paintings leaning against the wall and boho throws from World Market tossed about, there are also touches of glamour. She kept the whitewashed walls and chose upholstery and curtains in neutral shades of brown, gray and green.
The couple didn’t do much to the structure of the house. Longenderfer and his crew insulated the living room ceiling and raised the kitchen ceiling. They took out the claw-foot tub from one of the bathrooms and replaced it with a tiled shower. They left the country kitchen pretty much as is, adding a retro Smeg fridge, open shelving and an old green table.
The bedrooms are furnished simply, with comfortable beds, homey quilts, botanical prints and old mirrors. One bedroom has a chunky, white four-poster bed Gibson found on Craigslist for $125. In another, a decoupage lamp she received as a gift was topped by a custom shade sewn from a cowhide she picked up at a flea market. Curtains are made of one of her floral fabrics, and she’s papered a few walls in her wallcoverings.
She’s known for jewel tones in her work, and you’ll see them around in small doses. There are piles of iridescent silk pillows on the daybed in the sleeping porch. The dining chairs, which came with the house, have seat covers upholstered in five vivid colors, an idea she picked up from a room by French fashion designer Christian Lacroix. Gibson’s seat covers are felt, a fabric she says “does well with wet bathing suits.”
The family enjoys being by the river. DeWolf and his father go striper fishing, and dinner might be fish tacos from their catch of the day. Other local seafood is as fresh as can be, thanks to a neighborhood waterman and an oyster farm down the lane. They might enjoy a casual dinner by the river bank, at a table and a bunch of chairs Gibson pulled from various rooms, lit by a line of bulbs strung between trees.
Gibson’s sons are always telling her not to doll up the place too much; they like it just as it is. “We do things here as a family we don’t seem to have time to do at home,” Gibson says. “We watch the sun go down from the deck. When it’s raining, we play board games. It’s a total escape.”