The Franklins of Vineyard Photo

The Franklins, who run Vineyard Photo, keep a project in motion at home.

For Sheila and David Franklin, their house is a lifelong project. As Sheila says, “It’s a project that’s always in motion.” There’s always something more to do, not because it’s unfinished, but because it’s fun to look at what’s new in the world of design and art and bring that into the house. And because the Franklins like to refine the thing they care about and know so well – their house – to make it more and more into what it could be. And because David and Sheila are two people with boundless energy.

Situated on a high ridge in West Tisbury, the Franklin house manages to both nestle into the site and at the same time expose its inhabitants to a view of a significant portion of the Island: a long stretch of the south shore, all the way to the water tower in Vineyard Haven, and on clear nights, the light at Cape Pogue on distant Chappaquiddick.

Before the Franklins moved here full time from Lexington sixteen years ago, they rented summer places and later owned a house in Sea Glen in Oak Bluffs. David, who was a senior engineer at Polaroid involved with instrumentation for quality control, was offered early retirement. The Franklins took it, Sheila says, “only because we knew we weren’t going to retire.” They decided to move to the Island and run a small photo store – Vineyard Photo in Edgartown. Sheila was managing Pad and Pen, a high-end stationery store at Copley Place, so she knew the retail end of business.

They found this piece of land and designed the house to match their dreams, with the help of Margaret Curtin, a Vineyard Haven architect. It’s a two-story house that looks like one story because its lower level is partly dug into the hillside. There are many rooflines and various sections that fit together to create ceilings of different heights and interesting ups and downs in the floor plan. The main part of the house is an open room, with the kitchen, dining room, and living room flowing from one to the next.

With a panorama like theirs, windows are especially important. There is lots of glass – in the triangular peaks and all along the view side, which faces south of east – flooding the house with light during the day. At night, David describes how the windows provide moon viewing: “You can see the moon when it comes up in the kitchen and then in those little clerestory windows in the living room and then later on, it goes down over there,” he says, pointing to the west windows in the living room, adding, “You can see it all night long, if you want to stay up.”

The simplicity of the inside design is embellished by the art that the Franklins have collected over the past thirty-five years. They didn’t set out to be art collectors – they buy pieces that they love – but they’ve acquired the work of at least sixty-eight artists, many from the Island. The house almost seems to be designed around the paintings, collages, sculptures, and art installations that cover walls in every room, hang in windows, sit in wall niches, and on windowsills and shelves. Sheila says, “My son always said to me, ‘Mom, you really should post gallery hours.’”

Certainly the interior decorating scheme hinges on the artwork. When the Franklins decided to repaint the interior of the house, which was all white in the style of the times, their painter, Peter O’Hayer of Edgartown, told them, “I don’t paint white.” The Franklins let Peter choose the colors. He found ones that picked up tones from the paintings, the rugs, and the natural environment. The pinky neutral tone in the main rooms, a color called soapstone, is the perfect backdrop for paintings such as Andrew Moore’s Rock Crab, an oil on linen painted in 2001. It becomes a violet gray in the front hallway around Julia Mitchell’s tapestry and Lucy Mitchell’s art installation, and picks up texture as it moves down the stairway past a Rez Williams painting of a fishing boat. The art show continues downstairs in the two bedrooms and little sitting area. There you find a wall full of David’s music collection. He loves jazz.

Both Sheila and David have a lifelong interest in design, David more from the point of view of the engineer and Sheila as the person in charge of display. When they married and rented their first apartment about fifty-six years ago, the first thing they did was to remodel the kitchen. Sheila says, “When you start out in life, you can’t afford anything, so you buy a saw and start doing your own thing, if you have that interest. When we started out, David made a lot of the furniture.”

The thick slate table with inset rosewood legs that David built thirty or forty years ago is still the centerpiece of their living room. Beside it is a sofa from Design Research, one of the first pieces of furniture they bought and one of the store’s original designs. In the 1960s, Design Research was a Cambridge home-goods store, full of the latest innovations in Swedish and Finnish design. Sheila says, “That’s where I got my education. We used to go to Design Research just about every Saturday and drink it. It was beautiful! It was a museum of furniture and clothing and accessories.” Sheila still likes to see what people are doing in the world of design beyond the Vineyard – for example, the unusual lamp floating above the dining table like a small, elongated dirigible.

There is an almost preternatural tidiness about this house. Virtually nothing lingers on any horizontal surface to suggest the habits of the occupants, although the lack of clutter tells much, especially about Sheila, who doesn’t like to sit still. She says, “To have clutter is against my nature, and why fight who you are? It confuses me.” David laughs as he tells the story of someone who came to visit with a friend. They were sitting in the living room, and David says, “The place was so neat and clean and devoid of any magazines or anything that he couldn’t wait to get out. Really!” David might not keep the house quite so tidy himself, but this is Sheila’s department. She says, “I oversee this house from bottom to top.”

If there’s something about the house that Sheila doesn’t like, she’ll change it to be more in line with her vision – the house is her own work of art. In the original landscaping, there were many trees on the hillside below the house, and the driveway ended right at the front door. It wasn’t what Sheila had in mind. She had seen the landscape-design work of Peter O’Hayer, before he became a house painter, and although he was too busy to come for months, she waited until he was available. She put the design into his hands, and without a plan, he created just what she wanted. Sheila says, “He just saw the whole thing. He’s such a visual person.” Where cars once parked, he created what he calls “a room,” like an enclosed garden. It’s bounded on three sides by a stone wall against the hillside, the house, and a separate workshop where David experiments with photography.

The slope in front of the house is now a wide expanse of lawn, defined by bushes, trees, flowers, and ornamental grasses with artistically placed boulders. A few years ago, Sheila realized that the only thing missing on their land was water. David says, “Sheila said, ‘Let’s have a pond,’ and I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever heard.” Despite his initial misgivings, she had fill brought in to create a plateau on the steep hillside below the house. Now there is a small pond full of water lilies in summer that surprises the first-time viewer, like coming upon a glacial lake on a mountaintop. And David is happy with it, too.

Running the photo shop is a full-time job for the Franklins, who share the work with Gavin, one of their three sons. Sheila does the buying, displaying, and bookkeeping. David usually is at the counter, helping customers with their photographic needs while dishing out a bit of humor. Gavin runs the production side of the business.

Despite the long hours at work, they find time to enjoy their house. On a recent Sunday, they spent the afternoon designing a side table for the living room. It will be made from metal, and David built a mock-up out of wood so they could see how they like it before sending the plans off to be welded.
After a lifetime of making a home together, the Franklins have created this one from its very beginnings, and they love the process. Sheila says, “I have nothing better to do than go to work and dream up all kinds of projects. And that’s what’s fun about a house. It’s just an ongoing project and I hope it never ends because that’s what I enjoy.”