Vacation House Rules – Sullivan’s Island, SC

Marshall Erb proves he’s first in his class with the design of a single-family, second home on Sullivan’s Island—and schools us on interior architecture, remote design and that Lowcountry lifestyle.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the people with vacation homes are winning. So while you’re flipping through the pages of Architectural Digest, taking notes on the flawless second homes of celebrities and the well-heeled worldwide, remember one thing: All enlisted an interior designer—all of them. And most leveled up with an interior architect, too. “Interior architecture is what real interior designers do, everything from the glass on in,” says Marshall Erb, lead interior designer and architect at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “That’s when you get the best design. Before you get into the fabric and furniture selections, it’s the framework of the interiors—the floorings, the millwork and moldings, the doors and beams—that determine the classification of a home.”

Erb’s reputation precedes him: He’s an ASID award-winning interior designer whose work has been lauded by publications like LUXE, Décor and Traditional Home. But for those who have followed his canon of work closely over the last 22 years, it's the number of repeat clients that reveals his true salt. One client in particular, a power couple based in New York City, holds the Marshall Erb Design title for multiple projects. “We first met 20 years ago, when I designed her gal-about-town apartment in Chicago,” shares Erb of the family’s matriarch. “Fast forward two decades, and I’ve now designed nine total homes for the family from New York to Charleston.”

So when she and her husband purchased an oceanfront property in 2015 on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston County, South Carolina, with dreams of building a forever family vacation home along an elite stretch of the Atlantic coastline, Erb was on speed dial. “If you live in Charleston, and you have the means to have a house on the waterfront, you typically go to Sullivan’s Island,” says Erb. “It’s this magical little barrier island that’s only accessible by a single road; an authentic beach community where people have summered for generations. It’s the equivalent of the Hamptons but with southern civility, just minutes from historic downtown Charleston.”

For the 6,000-square-foot home that would ultimately boast six bedrooms and five-and-a-half baths, the client brought on Beau Clowney, the award-winning, Charleston-based architect with a posh pedigree, to come up with the conceptual design. “When you drive around Sullivan’s Island, the best of the best homes are by Beau Clowney,” says Erb. “But unlike so many of the nearby homes, the client didn’t want shiplap- and pecky cypress-clad interiors—the usual suspects for beach homes. She wanted something more modern but still in keeping with the  traditional Bahamian-style, vernacular beach cottages that pepper the area.”

And while beauty is paramount to Erb, equally so is endurance and practicality. Thus, the first order of business was balancing the client’s directives with the island’s restrictions for building—and working with exterior materials that could contend with the elements (steel and concrete, dense pilings, metal roofing and impact windows) without sacrificing an ounce of style. “Salt, wind and water are constants at the beach,” says Erb. “If you don’t invest in weather-abating materials at the onset, you’ll constantly be doing upkeep—and no one wants that level of maintenance at their vacation home. They want to show up and be able to relax the moment they walk through the front door.”

Daly & Sawyer Construction carried out the extensive build, including six porches, exposed rafter tails, cedar shingle siding, mahogany louvered shutters, and cable railings. For the roof, Erb opted for copper, a tried-and-true metal with timeless impact that he carried to the colonial-inspired gas lanterns from Carolina Lanterns. Perfectly placed palm trees, courtesy of landscape architect Wertimer + Cline, further elevate the facade.

Ever the opportunists, Clowney and Erb saw an opportunity for the dead space under the house. “Every home on Sullivan’s Island has to be built 10 feet above the ground to clear the floodplain,” says Erb. “Most people use the space as a garage or storage, but we created these amazing outdoor living spaces underfoot.” A dermatologist, sun exposure is a steadfast concern for the client. “It’s 2,000 square feet of shaded recreational space,” adds Erb. “Think two, wood-burning fireplaces, two lounge/dining areas, and a pool that starts under the house and extends out toward the ocean. You can swim under the house if it’s raining or you want to avoid the sun, and at night you can sit in the jacuzzi beneath the stars.”

Arched openings, hardwood flooring, and built-in bunks are a few of the delightful interior details that give this home its easy-going yet elegant, beach house vibe. But it’s the specialty spaces that truly bring home the personalization, including a hidden bar painted in peacock blue (the Mrs.’ favorite hue) and a butler’s pantry with glass cabinetry and polished-brass hardware that’s meant to tarnish and patina in the sea air. “At Marshall Erb Design, we pride ourselves on our ability to create personalized environments that are as unique as our clients themselves,” says Erb. “I worked closely with Clowney on the materiality for these spaces, creating custom moments through intentional design.”

Another cool example of customization at its best can be found in the main-floor powder room, where a portal-shaped window perfectly frames a palm tree out back. “When you’re looking in the mirror, the tree and the ocean beyond is reflected over your shoulder,” says Erb. “It’s a lovely little reminder that you are on vacation.” Marshall Erb Design also painted several of the home’s ceilings in a lacquered white paint executed by Susanne Allen Studio. “It’s a technique that’s used in New York a lot to reflect light and make rooms look larger,” adds Erb. “But at the beach, it reflects the view, casting ‘waves’ and ‘blades of grass’ right on the ceiling.”

The layout for the entire house was a meticulous endeavor. The kitchen, appointed with La Cornue and Miele appliances and slate cabinets by Sauder Woodworking, is accessed from two points of entry from the foyer. The living room, adjacent to the bar and kitchen, flows effortlessly onto the 450-square-foot, screened-in porch through mahogany-framed, glass sliding doors from Stewart Brannen Millworks. The guest rooms all have independent access from the outside. And all of the rooms play to the breathtaking views of the dunes, sea grasses and horizon. “Even from the butler’s pantry, you can see all the way out to the ocean through this giant, circular, waxed steel-encased window,” says Erb. “The flow of this home is incredible and allows for the inhabitants to choose their own journey as they wander through the spaces and enjoy the vistas that are framed by all of the windows.”

For a project of this caliber, one might think that Erb had to relocate to Sullivan’s Island to manage it all. But that was far from the case. “The client assembled a great group of people who understood each other's respective visions, and who respected each other’s roles in the design,” says Erb. “With professionalism, organized communication, integrated software, live-time meetings and virtual site visits, spectacular remote design is possible. This house is a shining example of how long-distance design can happen with the right people in place. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Luxury is the product of a job well done.”