"I always knew I'd end up living at the shore…but figured that I would know when the time was right."
In the spirit of the lazy, beach-filled days of summer, we took a quick trip to the tiny, nautical-inspired beach bungalow of Steve Olszewski. Steve is a stylist at Urban Outfitters, and commutes 80 miles each way from his home in Villas, New Jersey to UO's Philadelphia home office—a schlep, but one he considers well worth it to live in the history-filled, 550-square-foot beach house he's completely restored in the last two years. We talked with Steve about beach life, DIY renovations and tips for making the most of a small space. Photography by Michael A. Muller.
More than just an escape from the city, Steve's beach house is the realization of a childhood dream: the house originally belonged to his grandparents, and Steve grew up spending every childhood summer in the house he now lives in. "I always wanted to live at the shore," he explains. "I remember fantasizing about living in my grandparents' beach house as early as when I was nine or ten years old."
Two years ago, he started making steps toward leaving the city and retreating back to his roots. He sold the house he owned in Philadelphia and bought the beach house from his cousin. "It was really a surreal moment of all the right things happening at just the right time," he says.
He started renovating last January. Within two months, he and a friend had completely redone the interior. "I had originally intended to just spruce things up," Olszewski explains: "Embrace the 1970s wood paneling…[but]these things do tend to snowball. And just because you get nostalgic over a memory of playing Chinese checkers on the front porch addition of your grandparents' house—complete with shag carpeting, dropped ceilings and dark wood panelling—doesn't mean that it's something that warrants preserving." Above, coats hang on a wall made from reclaimed cedar fencing.
Throughout the renovation, he also kept in mind that he was converting a summer home into a full-time home, and made steps to have it be "comfortable for summer visitors but also functional as my home when they were not."
Above, a nautical mirror in the living room that Steve can trace back to a provenance inside his grandmother's shed. ("I always loved it!") When his mom tried to sell it in a yard sale, "I made sure it didn't get sold," Steve explains. "It sat in [storage] for years as one of my 'I'll have a house at the shore one day' belongings and just recently saw the light of day for the first time in over 20 years when I hung it on my wall." To continue the nautical influence, the mirror hangs over a displayed U.S. Navy blanket from WW2.
To make the most of the small space's limitations, Olszewski installed these paneled doors so the heat can get through.
On living with less, he says, "I accumulated so much stuff while I was living in Philly and had to let go of a lot of things...living in a small space forces you to have less. The bedrooms in my spot are pretty tiny—this place was built for someone to drop his things and go fishing and then stumble home to sleep…space and comfort were the least of the worries of the people building these houses."
Steve makes up for quantity with the quality of objects he keeps around: The house is packed with relics from the home's history that Steve has preserved and re-realized to fit into his own aesthetic. Above, vintage fabric used for bedroom pillowcases.
Steve gutted and rebuilt the entirety of the tiny bathroom after discovering a leak buried beneath three layers of tile and concrete. "There were days this winter where there literally was no floor," he explains. "All you saw was the dirt in the crawlspace underneath the house; I referred to it as my litter box."
Details on a cedar wood shelf, constructed from the same reclaimed cedar as the wall in the front room.
"This is my Great Aunt Mary passed out in a hammock." On his collection of vintage photos, Olszewski says he eventually wants to create "an installation of photos of people relaxing and having summer fun."
Steve's future plans for the beach house extend outside: painting, building an outdoor shower and planting a garden.
"It always drove me crazy when I saw people ditching their beach chair in the trash because their butt ripped through the seat," Olszewski says. "I always thought, 'It's a perfectly good chair! It just needs new fabric!' Over the past few years, I've been grabbing beach chairs with good solid salvageable frames and refurbishing them with new fabric."
Steve's tips for small-space living:
1. Figure out what you will need space for, and plan accordingly
"You really need to consider how you are going to use a particular space, how often you plan on using it and form your plan around that. For example, I knew that I would only eat at my table when I had friends over, and also that when I have friends over, we pretty much spend most of our time out on the closed-in porch. So, moving the table out there in order to have a more open space in the kitchen was a no-brainer. Same goes for the second bedroom…I'll not have guests way more than I will have guests…so it only made sense to utilize the room as an extension of my bedroom (but leave enough space for a really comfy air mattress)."
2. Be inventive with storage
"You have to utilize every nook and cranny for storing things. Don't just have a coffee table…have a coffee table that’s actually a giant old trunk with all of your extra sheets blankets and pillow cases in it."
3. Keep things clean and bright
"As for keeping a space seem open and larger, I always stick with light, bright colors and avoid too much clutter—put your stuff away! I also painted the entire house one color so that things didn't feel separated at all. I wanted it to feel like every room was an extension of the next."
A nearby escape — Steve's two-block walk to a quiet stretch of beach.