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Robert McKinley has one rule when starting a new project: Decorate according to how you want people to feel. “My ideal guest is someone who loves the beach, loves to cook, loves design, loves to spend time with their family and friends,” he tells Domino. “I want them to feel that exhale when they walk through the door. I want their shoulders to come down and for them to get that little grin that they get when they’re a bit excited because they’re finally at a place where they can just enjoy the things they love.” 

The creative mind behind such buzzy hotels as Montauk’s Surf Lodge and, more recently, Laguna Beach’s Hotel Joaquin aims to encourage this attitude with his breezy boho beach aesthetic that’s part airy and part nostalgic. 

This week, he and his wife, Kate Nauta, opened a fully shoppable vacation rental in Montauk. It’s the couple’s second property, modeled after the success of the original McKinley Bungalow, which opened in summer 2018. The four-bedroom home showcases McKinley’s signature style: whitewashed walls, natural textures, pops of color, and a healthy dose of personal mementos, such as vintage National Geographic magazines, collected straw hats, layered rugs, and the like. The sleek chef’s kitchen conceals a few clever high-low hacks, and, as with every other McKinley project, a moody book-filled nook breaks away from the home’s airy palette. 

Here, the designer shares his secrets to creating a welcoming weekend escape.

To Find Extra Space and Light, Go Up

Photography by Nicole Franzen, Design by Robert McKinley

Located in Montauk’s Country Club Estates, the 1971 bungalow hadn’t been updated in a few decades. McKinley and Nauta had to bring a lot of the structure down to the studs, which was an opportunity to use a few clever hacks to make the space feel fresh and airy. “We have little tricks that we do when we come into these ranch homes,” explains the designer. “When they have attics, we open up the ceilings to the rafters in the living room and dining space.”

“I want [guests] to feel that exhale when they walk through the door.”

To emphasize this newfound sense of height, they also painted the whole bungalow white and treated it to new windows, trims, and moldings. The brick fireplace got a facelift as well with a white plaster finish.

Don’t Shy Away From a Good IKEA Hack

Photography by Nicole Franzen, Design by Robert McKinley

Photography by Nicole Franzen, Design by Robert McKinley

At first glance, the bungalow’s kitchen appears to be a high-end custom project, but below the surface lies a genius low-cost hack: “The kitchen is all IKEA base cabinets with Reform fronts and cover panels,” explains McKinley. “The Pitt stove is cut into the platinum travertine stone countertops, so it’s a really fancy stove and refrigerator mixed with IKEA cabinets. It looks good and works well.”

The kitchen is also totally open to the living and dining areas, another way McKinley gave the space a sense of community and togetherness. Next to the cooking space, a small dining nook is built from the same wood as the kitchen’s open shelving.

Strike the Right Balance Between Vintage and Modern

Photography by Nicole Franzen, Design by Robert McKinley

McKinley approached the furnishings with the same rigor and formula as he does a hotel, while still prioritizing a layered look dotted with personal details. “We made sure there was always a mix of high and low and new and vintage,” he explains. “I think vintage is always really important. It just makes things very relevant, grounded, and rooted to another era that reminds you of other things.”

In the living room, the designer mixed a color-blocked Marni rocking chair found at Salone del Mobile in Milan with timeworn books and knickknacks. “I have vintage copies of The Old Man and the Sea, The Iliad, and The Odyssey, and I always get the collection of The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau. I have it in almost every single home I did out here, including my own,” says McKinley.

Give Guests a Mini Hotel Room Experience

Photography by Nicole Franzen, Design by Robert McKinley

Photography by Nicole Franzen, Design by Robert McKinley

McKinley’s experience in designing hospitality projects came in handy in the guest rooms. He gave each a mini hotel room treatment, complete with reading lamp, good clean sheets, closet space, and a luggage rack. “We have to remember that a lot of our guests are there for a few days,” he explains. “They don’t need giant dressers, but they must have nice closets where they can store their luggage and hang up a few shirts or dresses.”

The couple also ensured that the linens in each room match and there are ample towels for everyone, but McKinley is also mindful of keeping things simple. “You don’t want it to seem like you are coming into someone’s home with too many personal things around, as if you’re intruding.”

Always Add a Cozy Nook

Photography by Nicole Franzen, Design by Robert McKinley

“The number-one thing for us is safety,” says McKinley, but he’s not referring to guard rails and fire extinguishers. “I remember when I was a kid, going to people’s homes and finding a little nook. I would think, Wow what a great little area, I just want to get my toys and nestle, read a book, or watch TV here. Finding these safe little corners where the light and the height is right is really where it begins for us, with how we want people to feel.”

For the designer, every home (and hotel!) should have a cozy nook where visitors can retreat from the world. In the bungalow, this alcove comes in the form of a moody green limewashed library, which includes a Moroccan-style daybed and a wet bar. With a few corners to curl up in and plenty of ocean-related literature, there’s no doubt this is the ultimate beach getaway.

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