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A Wickford artist puts a spirited spin on coastal cottage decor

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Wickford homeowner Nancy Rafi is someone who acts locally and decorates globally. As an activist and artist, she’s known in many circles for passions both civic and creative. Rafi has organized everything from the New England Quahog Festival and Sea Creature Parade to raise funds to renovate her town’s beach playground to founding the Rhode Island Women’s March to having her richly decorated home receive international recognition.

“I used to be a real neutral kind of person, but now I’m attracted to deep jewel tones and washed out and faded blues,” she says, describing the aesthetic of the waterside home she shares with her husband of 21 years, Brian Hennessey, and their tiger cat Kashmir. Originally a fisherman’s cottage built in 1958, the house has morphed into the three-bedroom ranch in which the couple has resided for over eight years. 

While it’s not outfitted with typical coastal trappings, there are cues all around the Poplar Point house that let you know you’re close to water. “Since we live at the beach I like to have elements with that beachy vibe, but not in a traditional way,” says Rafi. “I have a bright red sign that was originally at Misquamicut Beach and blown down after Hurricane Sandy, and my husband just bought me a lamp that I’d been coveting at YES! Gallery in downtown Wickford that’s a nautical map held together with driftwood that I absolutely adore.”

Like one of her works of art, Rafi’s room designs begin with a blank canvas – walls throughout the home are painted a soft white to allow furnishings to stand out. Describing her style as Eclectic Boho-meets-Grandma’s Attic, she cites accents such as antique furniture reclaimed with coats of paint and pattern, global textiles like Persian rugs and kantha quilts, and piles of pillows and books as go-to items. “I have a tendency to layer things because there’s something really wonderful about peeling them back and discovering the opulence of embroidered fabrics or running your hand over chippy layers of paint,” she says, noting a preference for tactility. “I love things that are worn and loved, that don’t have that ‘it’s new, don’t sit on it’ feel.”

Nearly everything in Rafi’s home has a unique story, as many furnishings are handmade or altered by herself or someone local. A lampshade she constructed using old 35mm slides is her favorite project, noting that when lit it resembles stained glass, but up-close is actually many small photographs. Rafi likes to display local art, and in addition to shopping around her home at places like The Wickford Collection and YES! Gallery, she heads to Sea Rose Cottage in Bristol for Annie Sloan Chalk Paint and across the state line to Mystic, Connecticut, to MINE, a trove of quickly rotating antique and vintage finds. “I find it hard to pass any kind of vintage shop without stopping in and poking around,” adding, “and seriously? Who doesn’t love HomeGoods?”

While Rafi loves to decorate and refresh her home with new finds, she uses what she calls “a revolving door” system to maintain a streamlined feel: when something comes in, something else must go out. This process keeps interiors ever-changing. “My friends call it Musical Decor - but it’s one of the ways I like to express myself as an artist and it’s fun!” she explains.