The Look of the Lowcountry: Interior & Exterior


Lowcountry architecture a half century ago set the standard for the next two decades: simply-designed contemporary ranch homes with wood shingles, screened porches and wide overhang eaves positioned on expansive lots surrounded by towering pine and live oak trees and natural landscaping pruned to perfection.

These small, earth-toned homes in Sea Pines Plantation, Hilton Head Island’s first planned gated community, blended in with the environment and created a design style that went unchanged until the late 1970s.

Kert Huggins, vice president of Kermit Huggins Architecture & Design Inc. on the island, credits Sea Pines visionary Charles Fraser for his pocketful of new ideas for community land-use guidelines and naturalistic appreciation in home building.

“There was lots of glass to bring the outside in, taking advantage of the views and looking carefully at the lot,” the South Carolina native said. “The home would not overwhelm the landscape; the home let the homeowner take advantage of the landscape.”

The simple contemporary home style that began in Sea Pines soon appeared in the other early island plantations like Shipyard and Palmetto Dunes, said architect Mike Ruegamer, a partner in Group 3 on the island.

“You saw very little traditional style that you see in other areas like Atlanta,” the Long Island, N.Y., native said. “The typical southern style was not here.”

Maybe gone but not forgotten were the traditional southern Lowcountry homes with wraparound porches, shutters, overhangs, exposed rafter tails and tin roofs. Think Old Town Bluffton and take a glimpse today at what once was, Huggins said.

Over the many years, although both the traditional southern home and Sea Pines-inspired contemporary home were sent to the back-burner of architectural planning, each has been making a comeback over the past decade.

exterior2“It’s a good comparison to Savannah and Charleston,” said Ruegamer, addressing both architectural styles. “We have more of the porches, double porches, traditional details, shutters. ... Hilton Head was so different back then when it was first developed. It was considered much more contemporary. … But now we see a lot more of that influence in the last 10 years and from the (Caribbean) islands.”

Added Huggins, “(The contemporary design) was real strong on Hilton Head for a fairly long time and still is to some degree. We still do a lot of houses like that.”

Not only are “contemporary” and “traditional” back in the architect’s vocabulary again, so is Fraser’s mantra of blending each home into the environment.

“If you look around the country, you see very interesting out-of-the-box architecture,” said Huggins, whose father, Kermit, founded the company. “Here on Hilton Head, I think we’ll always be influenced by that original concept of having the house really blend into nature, whether it be a shingle-style house, whether it be a stucco house, whether it be wood siding, we’ll always be aimed in that direction.

“It will all be some version or another of a home that blends in with the environment and takes advantage of what the environment has to offer.”

Despite the resurgence of the past into our present now, changes in the 1980s and following decades forced changes in architectural design. There was also a demand for permanent homes; rising property values; nationwide attention to Hilton Head as a resort and place to call home; the migration of new residents from the Northeast and Midwest; and a surge of transplanted architects from around the country, Ruegamer said.

The demographics changed. So did home design. Now, in addition to the return of retro, are a plethora of Mediterranean-style designs, New England-style shingle designs and the West Indies influence.


Small homes 50 years ago became much bigger homes 20 to 30 years later, many of them teardowns, and have since leveled off in size between 3,500 to 5,000 square feet on average.

Open floor plans with direct sight lines to the great room and informal dining room surplanted compartmentalized rooms with walls in older home styles. Stucco, extensive use of windows, bonus rooms and lighter hues emerged. Enhanced outdoor living space with open-air patios and terraces now showcase outdoor kitchens, covered lanais, fire pits, fireplaces and comfortable outdoor living with splendid views. Smart-home technology is now standard.

While there is no dominant trend in architectural design these days, all is good in the aesthetic landscape in this Lowcountry.


Interior design styles in the Hilton Head area are as individual and diverse as the homes and homeowners are themselves.

“The typical features of a Lowcountry home today have differed tremendously from what they used to,” said Debi Lynes, owner of Lynes on Design on the island and an interior designer for 30 years. “The broad spectrum answer today is there is no such thing as a typical Lowcountry home. A typical Lowcountry home now is defined by the personality and lifestyle of the person who lives in it.”

Sometimes, there can be a variety of cross currents in color, materials, fabrics and textures, all under one tiled roof.


“I just finished a house that almost defies description,” said South Carolina native Dean Huntley, who has been showcasing her interior design talent at Plantation Interiors for the past 26 years. “It has a little bit of an Italianate look outside, but you walk in and it’s a combination of beautiful workmanship, stone walls, forged metal transoms … all sorts of things.”

“There is nothing that is so homogeneous that it fits everyone or everything,” said Lynes, who also is a psychologist. “A Lowcountry home feels the way that family lives.”

These days, the relaxed Lowcountry lifestyle means wide open interior space and comfort, in both furniture selection and fabric durability.

“I think comfort is what it’s all about,” Huntley said. “The days are gone when we do a room just for show and look.”

“Comfort is No. 1,” said Joni Vanderslice, owner and president of J Banks Design Group, which she founded on the island in 1986.

Because today’s homeowners, their families and friends live an active resort lifestyle and “use every room now” in the house, furniture comfort and fabric durability are essential.

Certainly informality has replaced formality and yesterday’s avocado greens and harvest golds have given way to today’s “soft grays, soft tans, soft blues, soft greens, more of a softer palette,” Huntley said, noting that “trendsetters say you’ll be seeing more reds, vibrant yellows and vibrant oranges.”


“Trends have gone from a more homogeneous design in the past, where there were a lot of wraparound porches, heavier draperies, certain kinds of woods, traditional Southern furniture, and that has broadened and evolved into a much more holistic, lifestyle-driven, person-driven business and industry called your home,” said Lynes, an Ohio native. “There’s a lot more diversity here now, and I like that.”

“I think in the ‘70s, ‘80s and probably the ‘90s, when we thought of interior design on Hilton Head, it had a palm tree and bamboo motif and lime green and lemon yellows, more Florida,” Huntley said. “Since then, probably in the last 15 years or so, we’ve really come into more of our going back to what this area is about in the Lowcountry … which is simple. We’re not Florida and don’t want to be.”

What we do want is to create a “coastal” look and feel into our homes, one that is “eclectic and less serious” and lighter in colors for fabrics, stains, finishes, cabinetry and furniture, Vanderslice said. That coastal look can “cross over” from any architectural style, whether it be New England, Mediterranean, California or contemporary.

One niche that Vanderslice created was designing “transitional” upholstery and casegood pieces to “bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary design styles," which she showcases in her retail J Banks Collection. She also is designing and will be launching an outdoor fabric line nationally next spring in collaboration with industry leader Kravet Fabrics in New York.

All three professionals agree that the Lowcountry environment and its natural beauty have always dictated interior design decisions … and always will.

“Even though you might have a Tuscan-style home or a country French or a Lowcountry, in this area, we don’t exclude the outdoors even if the style is different,” Huntley said. “You always bring the outdoors in and don’t cover the windows with draperies and things like that.”

“From a Lowcountry point of view, there’s a lot of influence here,” Lynes noted. “There’s a lot of Caribbean or Bahamian influence, a lot of Gullah influence, indigenous and natural plants that you took from nature and brought in. … The Lowcountry design captured a lot of what was naturally surrounding it in nature, and that hasn’t really changed.”