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Embracing Island Life in a Condo By the Sea

A New York-based attorney side-steps convention and takes his Newport home is a modern direction

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When Alan Pilla and Kim Fontaine first met, it was clear the two would become fast friends. So when Kim took a sledgehammer to his walls, he didn’t bat an eye.

It was on his honeymoon that Alan first fell in love with Newport. It’s relaxing vibe, unbeatable vistas and warm community lured the Bronx-born attorney to its sandy shores. “As I got older, I had less tolerance for planes, airports, trains and travel,” says Alan, who at one time found himself jetting abroad frequently. “I’m like Cliff from Cheers, I want everyone to know my name.” The couple had found a condominium set on an estate that offered a welcoming impression which would be perfect for weekend escapes from the Big Apple. It’s iron-gated entry and stone pillars hinted at a deep history, despite the condominium being built circa 1985.

Though its location across from First Beach and steps from Cliff Walk were idyllic, the floor plan of the condo left much to be desired with choppy living spaces, limited natural light and cramped bathrooms. Despite its obstacles, the couple focused on the positives and didn’t embark on any major changes. After an amicable divorce, Alan decided it was time to restructure his second home to make it more functional, especially if he was going to be spending a little more time in the City by the Sea.

Friend and interior designer Kim LaFontaine had Alan to dinner at her home a number of occasions when he commented one evening on how much he liked her home’s aesthetic. “He said he loved my style,” explains Kim, and the conversation soon turned toward to the possibilities of his Newport home. “I knew it would be a unique situation,” says Kim. “He asked how it all would work because he’s in New York and I said I could be the general contractor on the entire project and he was very excited to hear that because it’s very hard to do a major renovation when you’re not here.”

Though being just steps from the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean, Kim decided to eschew the all-too-familiar coastal-inspired design and embrace a contemporary meets chic aesthetic to better match Alan’s persona. “I think it really helped to get to know him first; his personality and his personal style. When you think of a condo literally across from the Cliff Walk, people automatically think coastal and beachy, but the more I thought about it and his personality, he’s very contemporary. He has a very Manhattan appearance; very polished, and it made more sense to me to do clean lines and low maintenance; very contemporary.”

While the overall style was identified, Kim’s project was much more than new couches and paint colors. Knowing Alan’s penchant for cooking and entertaining, Kim redesigned the floor plan to make the kitchen and dining room one contiguous space that was open and inviting. To do so, they would need to remove two walls that divided that area while ensuring the home’s structural needs were still being met. Kim turned to Justin Zeller of Barrington-based Red House Custom Building to make her vision a reality.

“As a custom builder, I have a real hard time with a lot of the condos here in Rhode Island and even in Portland when I lived there,” says Justin. Subpar craftsmanship and materials, unimaginative design, and even ignored basic design principals are just some of the obstacles. “Once we got everything where we wanted, I was good from there,” he says about Alan’s project. Oftentimes, says Justin, when a builder starts opening walls, they’ll discover even more challenges, but in this case, he made an advantageous discovery: a “double” wall that once removed, would give them even more space for both the master and guest baths.

Having never together worked before, Justin had some reservations about working with Kim in terms of the scope of this project, but it was soon clear that she was the right woman for the job. “I don’t give that trust away lightly to anyone,” he says. “But the homeowner really wanted to use her and because I never worked with her and the vision was in her head, I didn’t know what it was going to look like in the end.” He soon learned to cast those fears aside. With a construction background, Kim spoke Justin’s language, and the two tackled the project from start to finish as a team.

“Now I walk into the place and I want to move in,” laughs Justin. “It’s a bachelor pad in a lot of ways, but it’s the kind of décor I think anyone would enjoy – fresh, contemporary but classic at the same time.” After the experience, Justin says he hopes to work with Kim as much as possible, and today considers Alan and Kim good friends.

“It’s nothing I would have selected,” laughs Alan about his home, and he means it as a compliment. Though he has indulged his passion for music by having every room wired for speakers as well as having a television in every room so the voracious hockey fan will never miss a game, Alan’s home is decidedly polished while also offering a hospitable vibe. “When we first started, I thought everything was going to have to be powder blue and very Coastal Living magazine.” Much to his delight, the space is sleek and chic with subtle coastal nods, including the handmade driftwood coffee table crafted by local artisan, Chris Cobb.

The biggest challenge, says Kim, was the master bath, where Alan had requested a large, glass shower and a separate Jacuzzi tub. “We were able to find a Jacuzzi tub small enough for the area that still allows for a nice size vanity and it came out way beyond my expectations,” she confides. “I found tile that lent itself to the contemporary feel. It’s definitely my favorite bathroom I’ve ever done – certainly not the biggest, but it just delivers.”

Today, after a morning surf session across the street, Alan can simply walk back home, shed the salt water in his comfortable contemporary bath and embrace all the things that made him fall in love with Newport in the first place. “It all starts when I cross that bridge,” he says.