A Jewel Box for Treasures

Cape Cod Home  /  Winter 2021 /

Writer: Kathleen McKenna / Photographer: Kyle J. Caldwell 

Wendy Kaiser Smith of Shorebird Interiors creates a showcase for a homeowner’s beloved collections.

Michael Payne is a dedicated collector of rare books. That’s apparent by the space he’s devoted to them in his small and beautiful Harwich home where he converted an upstairs bedroom into a uniquely inviting library.

“I’m a very bookish person,” says the entrepreneur and former editor of collegiate texts and software. “I’ve been a huge reader all my life, I love words and ideas.” When Payne envisioned the library for the Harwich home which he bought in 2016, he knew that boards and milk crates would not do. “I had to have a room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves,” says Payne, whose book collection—which includes first-edition English translations of Greco-Roman works—reflects his extensive travels through Greece, Turkey, Northern Africa and the Middle East.

A fortuitous introduction by Bridget Cahill of Seaside Design in Dennis Village led Payne to his designer, Wendy Kaiser Smith of Shorebird Interiors in Harwich Port. Kaiser Smith says she knew upon meeting Payne that showcasing his lovingly collected treasures—his rare books, his Oriental rugs, and his esoteric and cherished artwork—would be the heart of the project. “This project was so special to me,” says Kaiser Smith. “Working with such a unique, articulate, and sophisticated client, who was clear on his likes and dislikes, but also very open to my suggestions and vision, was an opportunity to really create something with meaning.”

Payne says he fell in love with the house the first time he stepped inside, and made an offer within 48 hours of receiving the listing from his real estate agent. An Army brat as a child, Payne estimates that he’s lived in 30-35 homes in his life. When he decided to settle on the Cape, where he’d enjoyed many Truro summers, he was careful to choose a home that genuinely suited him, because he intends to live here for many years.

“The proportions and dimensions of it just appeal to the part of me that loves a classic design,” he says. “I really believe there’s not another house like it in the world.” The light-filled home’s bungalow style is reminiscent of the Craftsman movement begun in the early 1900s by Gustav Stickley. Thus it features a low-pitched triangular roof, overhanging eaves, a covered front porch, and other classic details.

Kaiser Smith refers to it also as a “jewel box,” which in construction terms is defined as a small house built with high-quality materials and designed with unique details and finishing. But the true jewels of the home, she says, were brought there by Payne. “The architectural style of the construction is that of a Craftsman, but the approach to the interiors was fully developed from Michael’s love for Orientalist artwork,” she says.

Payne moved into the home following the dissolution of a twenty-plus year marriage. “I didn’t leave with much, except my Oriental carpets, and my rare books, and the artwork I collected over the years,” he says. “So, Wendy started with a more-or-less blank slate.”

She also started with beige walls throughout the house. Choosing colors was an important element of the project, and one that Kaiser Smith approached from the perspective of Payne’s belongings. The stunning color palette that defines each room, she says, was inspired mainly by nine gorgeous Persian rugs Michael had collected on his travels. “That palette was also a nod to the classical elements and themes of Michael’s artwork, much of which depicts ancient Greek and Roman ruins,” she says. “The spaces during Roman and Greek times would have been bright colored with reds, blues, greens, and yellow – not as you see those colors today, but as bleached stone.” Combining antiquity and modernity created the home’s alluring and graceful charm.

Throughout the project, homeowner and designer spent considerable time together, and it was time that both enjoyed, despite their distinctly different passions and opinions toward what constitutes a beautiful space. “I wanted a place that I could really make home, and not have to apologize to anybody for my taste,” Payne says. “I like what I like, and Wendy listened.”

Through the process she taught him how to envision a house as a whole experience, and how each individual aspect of it would complement the next. “Wendy had to educate me about an innovative approach to putting together an entire house,” Payne says. “I learned that you can’t just go to Brimfield, buy stuff you like, then bring it home and expect it to go with everything else.”

While there are many striking elements of Payne’s home, the open-layout living room which features a two-story cathedral ceiling and a cobalt-blue tiled fireplace with an oak mantle, command the attention of everyone who visits. Also unique and intriguing are the gorgeous stained-glass interior and exterior windows, including two that open from the upstairs bedrooms onto the U-shaped staircase landing. The stained glass, bought and installed by the original owners, combines with the exquisite hues of the Persian rugs to lend inspiration to the home’s color palette, evident in its paint colors, window treatments, fabrics, and decor.

Furnishings throughout the home are a compelling mix of contemporary and traditional, with esoteric light fixtures, captivating window treatments, and the carefully-place antique furniture items that Payne loves collecting. His extensive art collection is displayed with loving care, with many pieces hung unusually low to create dramatic flair. But flair wasn’t Kaiser Smith’s only motive when it came to the artwork placement. “I knew Michael plans to continue to collect interesting works so we started to strategize on placement early on, and we are still curating pieces as they are found,” she says of her ongoing relationship with her client.

The design of the bedroom-converted library, began with Payne’s tree-of-life rug, which led to a complementary wall color and fabrics. “But the kicker,” Kaiser Smith says, “is the amazing red color that lines the bookcases. It seems to showcase all his rare editions.”

“Wendy and I worked out a great rapport,” he says. He recalls how his “lip curled” when she first suggested wallpaper, and he initially saw no need for curtains since he found the windows beautiful on their own. “But as soon as everything went up, you could see right away how it all tied in, how it all incorporated so perfectly,” he says. “It just knocks people’s socks off when they step inside the house.”

Kaiser Smith’s talents are thanks in part to her early training as an architect, which informs her approach to all aspects of her interior design business. She earned a degree at the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo in Canada, studied art and architecture in Italy, and formed Shorebird Interiors on the Cape in 2014.

“I understand construction so I can design a space and the furnishings within it with realistic goals,” she says. “Scale is another important criteria, working ‘to scale’ my entire adult life goes a long way in choosing appropriately-sized furnishings, artwork, lighting. The ability to architecturally draft schemes and to draw freehand sketches is priceless as well.”

The partnership was a fortuitous one for Payne, who calls the renovation and design of his one-of-a-kind home “the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done,” as he looks forward to spending many years in his carefully curated home, where he is now focused on hardscaping the grounds.

An astronomy enthusiast, Payne enjoys observing the night skies from his telescope in the backyard and volunteers with the Harwich Conservation Trust to lead free events where he points out star clusters, planets, and constellations to attendees.

He says he’s appreciative to the home’s original owners, whose input while working with the original architect, Douglas P. Mills of Nantucket, resulted in a thoughtful, well-designed space, not to mention the great care they afforded the home during their tenancy. He intends to do the same and looks forward to eventually passing it on to future owners who will carry on the tradition.

“That’s the attitude rare book owners take,” he says. “When you buy an old book, you realize it’s been around hundreds of years because people have taken care of it. That’s the same attitude I have toward this very special place. I want to make sure I can pass it on, to people who will also appreciate it and take good care of it, through time.”

Kathleen McKenna is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.

Kathleen McKenna