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Art on the Beach: An artist is drawn back to Sullivan’s Island to find space for her family and inspiration for a blossoming career

Art on the Beach: An artist is drawn back to Sullivan’s Island to find space for her family and inspiration for a blossoming career
May 2023

The homeowners created a welcoming retirement reatreat surrounded by sun, sea, sand, grandchildren, and lots of art

Tranquil and traditional on the outside, surprising and sophisticated on the inside—these phrases aptly describe Debby Alphin’s newly built home on Sullivan’s Island, as well as the owner herself. The 71-year-old grandmother exudes gracious Southern hospitality as she opens the door to her home, where the classic white walls are adorned with her own vibrant, abstract oil paintings. A late-bloomer as an artist, Debby started painting in her 50s. She and her husband, Steele, plan to spend their retirement surrounded by sun, sea, sand, grandchildren, and lots of art.

The couple isn’t new to the island. The former Bank of America executive (him) and software designer-turned-artist (her) had a vacation home on Bronwell Avenue and Station 29 for almost a decade. While their main home was in Atlanta, they had swapped the beach for a mountain retreat in Asheville a few years ago. The Alphins soon realized their mistake. “Our grandkids love the water,” says Debby. With Steele now retired, they are settling into their new primary residence on an idyllic lot.

Nestled at the end of Atlantic Avenue, where it meets Station 16, their home neighbors a wide-open grassy hill leading to Fort Moultrie and a lush, wooded walkway to the beach. The maritime forest reaches right up to their pool, making for an unusual vista for a beachfront home. “It feels like a tree house, in a way,” says Debby, who loves how quiet and uncrowded it is, especially compared to their previous digs at Station 29.

A coffered ceiling in the living room continues the open-yet-separate feel of the downstairs. Deep blue sofas from the couple’s home in Asheville provide a pop of color against the walls painted in Benjamin Moore “White Dove.”

Their prime oceanfront lot came with plans, but the Alphins decided to start from scratch, working with Atlanta-based architect Amanda Orr to design the five-bedroom, 4,200-square-foot house. Their directive: a home suited for comfortable everyday living for two, but that could easily expand when their two daughters and four grandchildren visit. “They wanted a private office for him, a painting studio for her, functional entertaining areas on every level, and elements that bring the outside in,” says Orr. Constructed by Charleston-based 79 West Builders, the residence was completed in late 2021.

A large open-plan kitchen and dining room with sliding doors lead to a covered outdoor living room, providing plenty of space for the family to congregate. The primary suite is also on the first floor, along with Steele’s office, where the jib door handle prevents little fingers from finding their way in. Upstairs are four guest rooms and a separate lounge area to ensure reruns of Bluey don’t conflict with the golf tournament being watched by the adults downstairs.

The one thing that didn’t fit into the floor plan was Debby’s studio. “It was a bit too tight based on the available square footage for the lot and the other rooms we needed,” the artist explains. But Orr devised an ingenious solution, turning the upstairs landing into a movable studio. “It’s worked really well,” says Debby. “Amanda took a space that might not have been used and turned it into something wonderful.”

She loves the natural light streaming in from both the east and west, as well as the sink and small counter Orr placed into the window nook. A table built into the railing provides a spot for the grandkids to color and gives the artist extra work space when she’s painting alone. A large closet, hidden by another jib door, offers ample storage for canvases and a rolling cart with all her supplies.

The home’s overall feel is comfortable chic, with an exterior designed to fit in with the classic Sullivan’s style. “We wanted it to look and feel like it could have been there for decades with the selection of time-honored materials [tabby, shake] and colors that blend in with the sand and brush that envelop the rear of the property, as well as a connection to the exterior from each room,” explains Orr. But Debby also wanted a bit of a twist. So, the architect added a few imaginative details, including subtle curves to the columns and sweeping eaves.

Inside, white oak accents, natural hues, and fresh white walls enhance the house’s light and airy beach aesthetic, surprising considering most of the furniture came from the Alphins’ mountain home in Asheville. Debby directed her design team, Angela Means and Danielle Carney of Means and Carney Interiors in Atlanta, to reuse and recycle. “Our challenge was determining which furnishings from the mountain house would translate to a home on the water,” notes Angela. “Ultimately, we incorporated almost every piece into the new Sullivan’s home.” They achieved this by reupholstering bedroom chairs in pale blue and playful pinks, pairing existing darker sofas in the living room with new white swivel chairs, and adding a few coastal accent pieces, such as the driftwood-style coffee table by Clubcu.

While the artist says she rarely buys art to fit a space, she will paint to fill a wall. “In the girls’ room, there was this blank space above the bunk bed, so I did these three small paintings—a donut, an ice cream cone, and a cupcake—to fill it.“ Her Saltwater Roses adds color and personality to the entryway.

Lighting selections, which were almost all new, reinforce the desired coastal and organic vibe, from the Palecek “Coco Magnolia” pendant in the foyer to the coral-like fixture above the dining table. Another key adaptation was taking the Formations “Twig” iron bed in the primary suite from a mountain look to a casual coastal style. “We did this by enveloping the room in custom draperies in the Savannah Hayes “Riga” fabric, which reminds us of pieces of sea glass found on a sandy beach,” explains Angela. Another touch was reupholstering the desk chair in “Cassis” fabric by Serena Dugan, inspired by a town in southern France.

Art is a dominant theme in the home, with each room and every hallway highlighted by a unique piece—be it a favorite from Debby’s collection or one of her own creations. “Debby’s original paintings and personal art collection bring personality to their home,” says Angela. “The Lowcountry [boil] painting in the kitchen sets the tone for big family gatherings and casual dinners around the kitchen island.”

From the start, the house was designed to work with the art. “I am very sensitive to sight lines, and many of the spaces in the home we created for artwork,” says Debby. There was a conscious shift away from the trendier open-plan living, and she even directed Orr to add walls where the architect hadn’t planned them. “This wall in the kitchen wasn’t here at first; it was more open to the living room,” Debby notes. Ostensibly, they preferred a slightly more closed space as it adds a cozier feel and allows for an element of privacy, but the real reason is more walls for hanging paintings. “Once you start buying art, once you start living with art, you realize how important it is in your surroundings. It just makes your whole place come alive,” she continues.

While paintings occupy most of the wall space, a few spots are set aside for photography and sculpture. A stunning black-and-white Florida beach scene by photographer Jonah Allen, a life-size photo of the bottom of a pool hand-painted by an Australian artist, and a playful glass sculptural of figurines sitting on a pool deck—all very different mediums reflecting Debby’s draw to the water. “It’s just the whole way of life—the smell, the casualness of it, the good times you have with people,” she remarks about their return to Sullivan’s. “Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces. There’s just something about the coast that I love.”