From a cowhide seat in interior designer Justine Sterling’s living room, visitors can either watch television or admire the bowl of ostrich eggs resting beside it. At the opposite end of the room, a majestic photograph of a rhinoceros greets guests as they enter through the front door.
The eggs and the photo are just some of the mementos from Sterling’s native Cape Town, South Africa, that make her home in Melrose, Massachusetts, anything but the typical New England Colonial-style house.
For Sterling, who moved from Cape Town to Boston 20 years ago, the artwork and artifacts are touchstones to her past. “I feel that they’re almost more important to be in my home now, because I live outside of South Africa,” she says. “It’s kind of like this connection I want to still have with South Africa.”
Around every corner, in nooks, on walls, and on shelves, the mix of South African culture and contemporary design makes Sterling’s home distinct.
Sterling and her husband, Bill, a graphic designer whom she met in Boston, bought the house 10 years ago, complete with faux terra-cotta tile on the entryway floor and brown gumwood mouldings that gave the space a dark, heavy feel. “I said to my husband, ‘The only way I’ll buy this house is if I can paint the wood,’” says the designer, who saw past the home’s cosmetic flaws. “I could tell that there were good bones.”
Since then, she has renovated every room. In the entryway, she lifted the fake terra-cotta tile to reveal hardwood floors. The gumwood mouldings and the brick fireplace in the living room were painted white, brightening the space. She spruced up the walls with neutral shades, creating a delicate balance of dark and light.
Every room embodies the family’s past and present. Each piece of art, every trinket, seems to have a story. Sterling was raised at the foot of Table Mountain, and a photograph of the landmark hangs by the front door. The smiling faces of her two children, Reid and Ruby, ages 6 and 9 respectively, radiate from a gallery wall of black-and-white family photos that lead from the entryway to the kitchen.
The couple remodeled the kitchen shortly after they bought the house, opening the tiny space to an adjoining sunroom. Then, in 2015, they enlisted the help of Stephen L. Reilly from SLR Architecture in Auburndale, Massachusetts, to build a 400-square-foot addition that added an eat-in area to the kitchen, a home office, and, on the second story, a guest room. A long window seat turns at a corner, providing banquette seating for a round white table where the family can add chairs and seat six.
Window benches are typically 20 inches deep; Sterling’s is closer to 30 inches, comparable to the depth of a sofa. She had a single L-shaped cushion, stretching 14 feet along the windows and 6 feet around the corner, fashioned from Sunbrella fabric. The easy-to-clean material has survived even peanut butter stains, she says with a laugh. A line of windows above the bench bathes the area in sunlight. “I love natural light, and I love bright spaces,” Sterling says.
On any given day her kids may curl up with a book on the window seat or sprawl out for a nap. “This is my favorite space in the house,” says Sterling.
Adjacent to the eat-in area, “a West Coast feel on the East Coast” predominates, with double doors that open to a large ipe deck. Designed without railings, the deck affords an unobstructed view of the verdant lawn.
In the designer’s compact home office just off the kitchen, a skylight casts a sunbeam onto Sterling’s white desk. “Being able to have a home office is a bit of a privilege,” she says, noting family life is important to her and working from home gives her more time with her children.
The dining room is furnished with black Danko chairs crafted from recycled seat belts paired with a bench and table stained charcoal brown from West Elm. Above an oak sideboard, Sterling hung African juju hats — white, feathery headdresses she bought during a trip to South Africa and stuffed in her suitcases to bring home.
On another wall, a tribute to American culture complements the South African souvenirs. A print from Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can series, signed by the artist, brings a bold pop of red to the space.
A small powder room where the dining room meets the kitchen is covered in Botswana Trees, a wallpaper designed by fellow South Africa native Mally Skok of Mally Skok Design in Lincoln, Massachusetts, that mimics faraway, silhouetted trees. Above the sink is a trough bowl repurposed into a bathroom mirror. When Sterling is in the kitchen, she says, “I leave this door open and I can just see the trees in the distance.”
Upstairs are the master suite, the children’s bedrooms and bathroom, and a guest room. Ruby’s room has vibrant pink accent pieces and her own framed artwork. Reid’s aesthetic is heavy on Legos and stuffed animals.
The light walls of the master bedroom are adorned with family pictures and a photograph of penguins huddling on Boulders Beach in Cape Town, an iconic location Sterling has visited with family.
Over the past 10 years, Sterling has worked to establish connection and flow in her home, paying attention to the finest of design details. “There’s definitely a look and a feel that you wouldn’t have seen five years ago,” she says. “Everything just constantly evolves.”
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