A couple with sophisticated taste creates two complementary spaces, one downtown, one up the coast
The two houses are located 175 miles apart, and their neighborhoods couldn’t be more different. One sits in downtown Portland, perched above asphalt and cobblestones. The other opens onto a lush garden with views (in the winter) of Acadia National Park’s nearby peaks. Yet the two homes share more than one would expect, says interior designer Brett Johnson. “The Maine Turnpike is just a portal, a hallway between the homes. It’s a magical thing; it’s like you got beamed into the condo from Bar Harbor, or vice versa.” He adds, “Katy did that. Her eye is very much her own.”
He’s speaking of his longtime friend, Katy Longley, who shares these spaces with her partner, furniture designer Kevin Rodel. Speaking with the couple, it quickly becomes clear that they also share a sense of taste and a high valuation of visual beauty. “Our aesthetic is exactly the same,” explains Longley. “We never argue about what goes where.” This is uncommon.
Most couples find themselves forced to find a compromise between their two personal styles: He tends toward classic cottage, she loves midcentury modern. Or maybe he likes antiques and she likes pop art. Even in my own marriage, I find myself advocating for sleek stone pavers while my husband begs me to consider brick. But not Longley and Rodel. They had no trouble decorating their Portland condo, which they’ve had since 2018, or their Bar Harbor house, which they purchased in 2017. It was easy for them to pick out furniture and fixtures that felt harmonious with their surroundings. “It actually wasn’t intentional that the houses have a similar feel,” Longley says. “But they both have very high ceilings and big windows, I suppose.”
They also both have Rodel’s fingerprints all over the furniture. While he didn’t make every item, his distinctive style is present in every room of each house. “There is a strong element of Japanese influence in my work,” he explains, “and I’m also very familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement.” This is putting it somewhat lightly: Rodel coauthored an award-winning book on the furniture of that era. While Arts and Crafts flourished in the United Kingdom, many of the movement’s primary designers were heavily influenced by Asian traditions and techniques, so it makes sense that Rodel would be drawn to both. But Rodel doesn’t make copies of historic pieces, nor does he simply mix Japanese lines with British forms. He brings something personal to each custom-built piece.
For example, take the sculptural mahogany side table that sits in the entryway of their Bar Harbor house. “I was inspired to make the tables after spending time in New Zealand and Australia,” he explains. “The inlay on the top is basically a Maori textile decoration, and the forms of the sides and front are reminiscent of tools and artefacts that Polynesian people traditionally used.” The warm-colored, oil-rubbed table has a soft curve and flow to it, yet it’s not entirely unlike the dark, dramatic table that sits under a window in the guest room of their Portland condo. On first glance, they’re opposites—one is light, the other dark; one organic, the other geometric— but they share a sense of balance, as well as Rodel’s craftsmanship. “When he made that, I was doing a lot of ikebana flower arranging,” says Longley. “The form isn’t too different from a traditional Chinese altar table,” adds Rodel. “It’s a split leg. There are a lot of contemporary influences. But I thought of it as a table for displaying Katy’s ikebana.” To give it a deep, intense color, Rodel treated the cherrywood with a chemical solution made from vinegar and iron that changes the color of the wood permanently. Some woods it turns silvery gray, but cherry, which has a lot of tannins, goes black. A layer of shellac gave this flower-ready surface a glossy finish. “Kevin never uses stains,” his partner reveals. “His work is very natural.”
But Rodel doesn’t just make statement tables or accent pieces. He’s also responsible for the big, hardworking pieces that get a lot of daily use. Like the light-toned bed, decorated with Japanese-inspired ropework, that lends a masculine, nautical touch to the pink Portland bedroom. Or the Viennese-style side tables next to it that give the couple a place to stash their coffee mugs or reading material when they’re staying in the city. Or the geometric bookcase that sits behind the sofa in their Bar Harbor living room. This cypress wood unit was inspired by an Italian design, Longley reveals. “I showed him the website and asked if he could make something similar,” she says. The original piece was made of plastic laminate, so Rodel modified the design to fit into his artistic practice and the physical space. “People don’t use a lot of cypress, but it was the right wood for this project,” he says. “I was able to get really wide boards with a nice grain pattern. It’s a light, soft southern wood.” (Rodel sources almost all of his wood from a single mill in Pennsylvania that specializes in ecologically produced lumber for builders and artists.)
It’s not too hard to spot the outliers, those pieces that Rodel didn’t make and the couple purchased new. When it came to buying pieces, Johnson knew it wouldn’t make sense to try and “match” Rodel’s level of work. Instead, he steered the couple toward clear acrylic coffee tables and midcentury modern sofas. “The contrast of the acrylic and the wood works really well,” Rodel says appreciatively. “It was smart.”
While this may paint a picture of two perfectly matched living spaces (for two perfectly matched humans), there are some key differences between the couple’s metropolitan base and their island headquarters. For one, the Portland condo has “so much more color,” Longley says. “Bar Harbor is white all around, which I think works there. The ceilings are a dark gray, so this gives it a more open, cottage feel.” The dynamic in the Portland rooms is switched. Gray walls encase white ceilings in the living room and kitchen, and in the owners’ suite a blushy, taupe-touched pink creates a cozy backdrop for Rodel’s solid woodwork. “That Farrow and Ball paint—they call it ‘ Calamine ’—that was my big ‘aha’ moment,” Johnson says. “When the paint cans came and were opened, my project manager called to check and see if it was right. She never thought I’d choose pink.” But he did, because pink was the right fit for the space and the clients, and just as important, it complements both the art and furniture. “I knew the bed going in there was very masculine, with the rope detailing, and Katy had these beautiful Japanese cherry blossom prints,” he explains. “It picks up the color of the art. It is soft, but not too much.”
The Japanese prints were a rare example of art influencing design during these two home projects. More often, the art was purchased and hung after the paint had gone on, the furniture had settled down, and the rugs had time to acclimate to the couple’s footfalls. For this task, they turned to Elizabeth Moss, owner of Art Interiors by Elizabeth Moss, a design business which focused on building corporate collections, and the Moss Galleries in Falmouth (where she works more often with homeowners). Longley knew Moss from a forum they both belong to, aimed at connecting Maine’s women executives.Several years ago, Moss worked with Longley and Rodel to decorate their Portland apartment, so when it came time to add art to the Bar Harbor home, she was a logical choice. However, by the time they settled into Bar Harbor, the pandemic had already caused a closure of nonessential businesses, including art galleries. Still, Moss had a plan. She used the same method she uses for companies with big buildings to fill, like WEX. “I used photographs of the interiors without art, then I superimposed art onto the images,” she explains. “By that point, I had a pretty good idea of what they liked. But I also knew I had to be respectful of the art that was already there.”
One of the pieces that was already hanging in Bar Harbor, above the dining area, was a dramatic, textured, emerald green work by Finnish-born sculptor Melita Westerlund. “I actually asked Katy who did that one,” Moss says. “I thought my corporate clients would love it.” To complement this dramatic work, Moss showed Longley and Rodel a series of abstract and contemporary canvases. “Katy must have really enjoyed the Portland condo,” Moss reflects, “because she went with many of the same artists in Bar Harbor.” The bright yet natural palette of Richard Keen appealed to the couple, who purchased paintings inspired by the brilliant lime and aqua colors of rockweed for both living areas. “Living in Maine, we all know what that’s like, to navigate a beach looking down at the rockweed,” Moss says. “But the way he paints is very sophisticated. In the last three years, I’ve seen a lot of people moving into Maine, and his work really appeals to well-traveled buyers. It feels warm. It’s not hard edged. It’s not cold.”
Similarly, the creative couple found themselves drawn to the softly textured and boldly saturated works of Lyle J. Salmi, who happens to be close friends with Keen (a fact that Moss says you can see in both painters’ work). “I think Katy likes art that makes a big punctuation mark, which you really need in an open, white space like the Bar Harbor house,” says Moss. This approach also works well in an urban space like the Portland condo, where canvases by Robert Wieferich depict abstracted versions of local landmarks. “The art we chose is complementary to where we are living,” says Rodel.
It’s also complementary to their furniture, their paint, their plants, and their textiles. Truly, these spaces feel unified, despite the range of influences found in individual pieces. Moss cites her clients’ “sophisticated taste” and thoughtful engagement with art for the success of the two spaces. According to Johnson, it all worked out so well because there was no one person “in charge” of decorating the homes. “There isn’t an ounce of self-centeredness anywhere in this project,” he says. “There was no ego. The clients were the designers, and I came in to gently stir the pot and add a bit of seasoning once in a while.”
“This project was really lovely because it was just sort of a dance,” he adds. “Like when you are dancing, and each person is responding gently to create that fluid motion. It was just calm and gentle interaction, from start to finish.”