A Family of Four Ditches City Life for the Coolest Little Island Cottage You’ve Ever Seen
The founders of a wallpaper company turned their quirky rental cottage into a snug and stylish family home.
The best home stories usually originate with far-fetched what-ifs, questions that are often the catalysts for massive changes that push people into new frontiers. The tale of this charming, two-bedroom waterfront cabin on Bainbridge Island is a perfect example.
The owners are the founders of a small wallpaper outfit called Abnormals Anonymous based in Poulsbo, a quaint waterside village northwest of Seattle known as the area’s Little Norway. The “anonymous” factor began as a whim, so their designs could speak for themselves and the couple could work quietly behind the scenes and continue their careers in production and design for television, film, and commercials. To keep the ruse alive, we’ll call them Henrietta and Paco.
The pair met when they were in Nashville working on separate design gigs. Henrietta was working with a client through her job at Donghia Showrooms in Atlanta and Paco was on a Bon Jovi music video. They quickly bonded over their shared love of flea marketing and vintage patterns. Sparks flew. Eventually, Henrietta moved to Venice, California, to be with Paco. A couple of months a year, they’d head north to Bainbridge to spend time at the shingled cottage Paco bought as a vacation home, and was renting out on Airbnb.
“I’m an avid boater,” says Paco. “I would spend as much time up here on Bainbridge as I could. I was looking for a rental when I found this quirky little house, which the owners wanted to sell. The house needed a lot of work, but it was the dock that was the real diamond. We had some fun for a while when we rented it out. We decorated it with a real vintage nautical style. We filled it with really fun accessories in that theme.”
“People loved coming here. We had a guest book and people would tell us that they got engaged on the deck, or celebrated a milestone,” says Henrietta. “But it wasn’t the kind of place where you’d want to live full time.”
When their first son was an infant, they were spending a typical weekend day browsing the (now shuttered) Santa Monica Flea when they stumbled on a salty fisherman who sold illustrations from vintage nautical books.
“This guy was a live-aboard commercial fisherman in Long Beach who collected beautiful, rare books with drawings from the sea, before photography was available,” says Henrietta. “He would carefully remove the pages from the book and put them in plastic sleeves, and then sell them individually. We couldn’t believe how great they were.”
This is when the first what-ifs began to bubble to the surface.
What if they transformed some of the motifs from vintage etchings, like an adorable blowfish, into beautifully crafted wallpaper?
What if Paco tapped into the local printers he knew through his set-design experience to make it?
What if they pulled together a box of sample swatches and took them to Walnut Wallpaper in West Hollywood, the iconic shop on Beverly that helped re-establish the trend of putting bold patterns on stylish walls?
What if they were actually onto something?
“To our surprise, Walnut really took us under their wing,” says Henrietta. “We worked on putting together samples for about two years, and then just walked in with a box we bought at Staples. They were our first showroom. Then we took it to New York and did the same thing. We walked in kind of cold and said, ‘Here’s our stuff!’ It just started to jell.”
The business and their family grew in tandem. They had a second son, and a handful of showrooms and designer representatives began selling Abnormals paper, and later textiles, across the country. Then the next round of inspiration struck.
What if they ditched their city lives and moved the whole operation to Bainbridge—full-time?
What if they bucked the tear-down trend and turned their weird little rental into a snug family home with vintage charm instead?
“We’d had some conversations about leaving Los Angeles. We loved our little Venice bungalow, but the backyard was covered in concrete. We wanted our boys to have a different kind of childhood,” Henrietta says. “I was reluctant to leave, but he was ready for a change.”
The lure of a simpler life on the water, where the boys could grow up riding bikes on the island with a fishing net in hand, was strong. And the house, despite its quirks, had serious potential.
“It’s a tight layout, about 1,400 square feet,” says Paco, “and the renovations have been slow. When we first moved in, we painted it and replaced the floors. Over the past 10 years, we’ve been finding our stride and letting our personality shine through.”
Their priorities were to maximize the light, and to furnish it just enough so it didn’t feel crowded. They built a set of bunk beds in the boys’ room, and installed an Enviro wood stove that keeps the whole cottage toasty on chilly, drizzly days. They whittled down their flea market finds to the essentials, including a set of four Cesca chairs around a table they found on Craigslist, to keep the decor warm but spare. After a few failed attempts to brighten up the primary bedroom, which sits at the front of the house away from the large windows and the water views, they embraced the dim light and went for a deep, flinty gray paint.
“It’s Washington State, so you have to embrace that eight months out of the year, it’s pretty gray,” says Henrietta. “The other four months are perfect, and we live outside on the deck and the dock.”
The last design element to fall into place, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the wallpaper.
“It took forever for us to commit to a pattern,” says Henrietta. “We’re always designing new collections, moving onto the next thing, and I hate to admit it, but it was hard to make that decision.”
“Once it was up, we were so glad we did it,” says Paco. “Now we have firsthand experience of how absolutely transformative wallpaper can be. It changed everything.”
The best part is that inspiration for their Pacific Northwest patterns, like fishing flies and fun, lake-house-ready water-ski toile, is all around them.
“There are so many outdoor adventures to experience,” says Paco, who spends most of his free time on the water or exploring coves and hiking trails along the many hundreds of miles of coastline that trace the islands. As they’d hoped, their boys have grown to love island life. And the local creative community is growing.
“Whenever we meet someone on the island, and we start talking about what we do, they’ll say ‘Oh, you’re the wallpaper people.’” says Henrietta. “It’s definitely a small town.”