Alumna Decorator Makes a Summer House Feel Like Home

Alumna Decorator Makes a Summer House Feel Like Home

Viviane Rowan melds her interior design and retail expertise in her Cape May businesses

Summer is the busiest time of year for Rutgers alumna Viviane Rowan's interior design business, based in Cape May.
Photo: Gerald Meccia

Operating her charming home furnishings boutique – White – out of one of the oldest retail spaces in Cape May, a pharmacy that opened in 1840 to aid the sick, Rutgers alumna Viviane Rowan breathes new life into homes in this popular shore town. White is also the colorful calling card for her ancillary interior design business, Viviane Rowan Design, which has also resuscitated many houses.

Rowan (née Schoorl) is celebrating her 20th anniversary as an interior designer, having decorated houses from Maine to Florida, though she works primarily in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York City. And she has decorated her share of summer homes (and a few Cape May inns and restaurants, too). For Rowan, the Labor Day weekend caps her busiest time of year, an occasion to celebrate the season.

Shore houses speak to her in a particular way, where the accent is on casualness and comfort, family and friends. So, she likes to design using a lot of the family’s personal effects. There is nothing worse, she believes, than a house that looks like nobody lives there.

“There is more frivolity in decorating a summer home,” says Rowan, a 1980 graduate of Rutgers College who shoots for a timeless look, mixing the old with the new. “Often, the summer home is larger than the year-round home. So, it always begets a larger kitchen table and more bedrooms because of all the guests. Clients might not spend as much on antiques and high-end furniture as they would their other home, because you are at the beach and the house gets lived in.”

Rowan moved nine years ago to the southern New Jersey beach resort to live year-round with her husband, Kenneth Rowan, who also graduated from Rutgers College in 1980 and with whom she has two grown sons, Brandon and Jordan.

Anyone who visits White quickly realizes that Rowan has quite the eye for home furnishings and jewelry. And those fortunate enough to enlist her to decorate their homes know that Rowan not only has an aptitude for color and texture and space, but also an all-too-rare talent to listen.

“I develop a relationship with my clients, and my job is to listen to them carefully because they often can’t quite articulate what they want,” says Rowan. “So, I have to translate what they are saying into what it is they want. I want people’s houses to look like them.” On the other hand, the collaboration doesn’t mean that Rowan, who studied psychology and English at Rutgers, is there just to be a yes person. “You are not hiring me to say, ‘Oh, that’s so pretty. Let’s do whatever you want.’”

Ideas for the home, beautifully arranged and curated, are on display at White, located on the sleepy corner of Ocean and Hughes Streets. Rowan came across the historic vacant storefront seven years ago while on a walk; she just knew she had to open a store. Her husband, who has been a pilot for Delta Airlines for 32 years, thought she was out of her mind. But Rowan was onto something, and her retail business, which is open year-round, has grown every year, with more than 60 percent of her clientele being repeat customers, she says. Some of them will drop in daily during their vacations, just because Rowan has new items arriving every day.

Rowan makes it a point to carry lamps, tables, pillows, ceramics and other home furnishings that people won’t find anywhere else, not even on the internet. She goes to Atlanta twice a year for three days of gift shows to find unique furnishings and travels to Europe frequently. “I am a hunter, and sources are everything,” she says. Much of the jewelry at White is made by local artisans who have come to know what Rowan likes and what she knows will sell. “My store and my decorating business are separate worlds,” she says. “The shop is where I get to do what I want to do. It’s rare to have carte blanche in somebody’s home.”

Rowan, a native of Long Island, has always had a knack for sales and selling herself. She met her future husband at Rutgers at a Kappa Sigma party and pretended she didn’t know how to shoot pool. Rowan teamed up with Kenny, who spotted her for the ringer she was, and they held the table all night long. After college, during which she made good money as a bartender, she worked as a buyer for Abraham & Straus and had several stints in retail sales. She made the transition into interior design when she curated a booth of antiques and home furnishings in a Lambertville, New Jersey, consignment store. Soon, Rowan got her first commission to decorate a home and she has been blissfully busy ever since.