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Soigné Song

A beach hideaway gets a Zen treatment that's also luxurious.

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Vicki White is, unwittingly, the perfect accessory for her beach house — slim and casually chic and as calm as low tide. Her two-story cottage is without a lot of objects — candles, glazed pots of branches and gilded artisan lampshades are the sum total of her accessories — and this makes the petite woman stand out even more against powerfully minimalist surroundings.

Her glowing welcome fills the rooms instead. And instantly it's clear that the absence of things allows a different decorative quality to emerge — one that's the essence of relaxation, where people fill in the blanks and where, not insignificantly, there's very little dusting. Which leaves more time for play.

Vicki and her husband, attorney Eric White, bought their Virginia Beach cottage 10 years ago "for next to nothing, really," she says, recalling its humble, almost ramshackle appearance. The former rental unit was tucked onto a driveway behind larger houses owned by other Richmonders, "and for years we kept it the way it was — just the tiniest beach cabin that was fine while the boys were growing up."

Now that sons Alec and Michael are young men, the cottage has shed its rough-and-ready attitude. A year of demolition, construction and interior design has made it unrecognizably new, with a sophisticated adult persona still being fine-tuned as the couple selects a painting or two — and perhaps disconnects the telephone.

Already there's a green-lacquered, but purposefully empty, mailbox out front. No mail is delivered, "and we don't want any," Vicki says, smiling. And the sometimes-brutal drive down Interstate 64 is another casualty. "We've been going [Route] 460, taking a quieter way," she says, "listening to music, shifting into another gear. Alone time in the car helps wipe away the work."

What waits at the end of the drive from Richmond is a Zen-inspired, low-maintenance retreat that's used year-round, inside and out.

An upstairs entry porch with black wicker furniture and zinc planter boxes set the stage for a dramatic turnabout from typical beach décor. The Whites and their decorator, Martin Rubenstein of Carytown's Martin Interior Design, deliberately worked against predictable themes, beginning the process by re-examining both the way rooms were used and where walls and windows could be added or subtracted.

"We needed to give their rooms new meaning, to come up with a better use of the space," Rubenstein says. "They were very gutsy and willing to go along with it. They had all the faith and the money — the truth is, without it, you can't do what they did — to turn it into something more enjoyable that they have earned, especially at this time of their life."

Rubenstein, beloved by his clients for his candor, knows that decorators must first convey their vision: "We sell a lot of the scent of the perfume. Long before the clients get it, they plunk down money and there's a lot of faith involved. We don't do it if we don't believe in it, and it's exciting to look at something and consider what we can do to make it wonderful."

In this case, that meant overhauling the structure from bottom to top, adding sleek bathrooms, an immaculate kitchen and matching bedrooms, hotel-style, for the boys upstairs. Sliding bamboo panels frame new windows and set off rustic Chinese tables and chests that are boldly scaled and nearly indestructible. Soft upholstered seating and lustrous bedcovers are resort-worthy yet low maintenance, making the cottage accessibly elegant but still casual, if not beachy.

On the lower level, where a carport and crumbling porch once stood, a serene master suite with a glass-block yoga studio (where Vicki practices both yoga and qigong) is bathed in diffused light and opens to the outdoor shower, container gardens, and the sound of waves and gulls. Exotic accents like the gilded-tile vessel sink in the vanity and silver mesh sconces over a mirrored wall in the yoga room are unexpectedly glamorous, a far cry from the "before" photos of the cottage's midlife crisis.

Now, throughout the house, textures take the place of pattern. Black tile, celadon silk, distressed wood and straw-colored, vinylized wallpaper with a linen look are inviting to the touch and a unifying force of calm — precisely what the family hoped to achieve when they launched into the project.

And now that it's complete and easily maintained, Vicki and Eric have found more time for each other.

"We walk. We do more yoga. We're starting to kayak on the bay. We go to the beach, take bike rides, have meals together. We use it as a place to reconnect with each other and really relax," Vicki says.

"And what's great about it is you can clean it in about an hour," she says. "I don't want a big place — how much stuff do you really need? Here, it's just important for us to relax and be grateful and enjoy time together."

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