First drawn to Camber, East Sussex, by kitesurfing, Sophie and JJ Lorraine soon discovered a slice of West Coast Modernism in a newly built community of beach houses. Words: Alex Reece. Photographs: Bill Kingston

As it was kitesurfing that first brought Sophie and JJ Lorraine to Camber, it is fitting that now, from their modern beach house behind the dunes, you can see if the wind is right just by glancing out of the window. ‘If the flags on the beach are fluttering, you can tell if it’s going to be any good for kiting,’ says Sophie.

Having got into the adrenaline sport while on honeymoon in South America, the London-based couple discovered this renowned ‘kite spot’ on the East Sussex coast one bank holiday weekend in 2005. ‘We fell in love with the beach,’ says JJ, an architect. ‘I grew up in South Africa, where all of my youth was spent on the coast. Sophie is from Essex, and a lot of her early memories are of going to the seaside, too. We enjoyed it here so much – having a beach as wide as Camber, with the dunes and the sand – that we decided to come back.’

And so began the couple’s fascination with this part of the world, which led to them buying a bijou flat above a bucket-and-spade shop on Camber Sands Beach that same year. From this base, they were able to indulge their passion for outdoor pursuits – such as kiting, land yachting and cycling on the marshes – while escaping building work that was taking place at their North London home. ‘We came down here every weekend,’ remembers Sophie, who runs an ad agency in the capital. ‘Friends would come, too – it was a real party flat.’

During this happy period, the two of them stumbled across a planning application for a community of beach houses on the site of an old pub in Camber. As an architect, JJ knew of the design practice behind the scheme, Knox Bhavan, and was excited by what he saw of the plans. ‘One of the big features of the development is its sustainability,’ says JJ. ‘For example, all the hot water is provided by solar thermal panels and the under-floor heating is from a ground-source heat pump. There are grass roofs, too.’

The California Modernist look of the build – all clean lines and cedar shingles – also appealed to Sophie, a fan of midcentury design. Through having a flat here, Sophie and JJ knew that there was demand for holiday accommodation on the beach at Camber, so they figured that the new house could be a good investment, both as a rental property and holiday home. Although buying off-plan felt like a gamble at the time, JJ admits, they were convinced by the project and, in 2007, decided to go for it. 

‘We were one of the very first people to buy, so we were able to get an “early bird” price,’ he recalls. ‘This is something I would recommend to anyone looking to buy off-plan: the sooner you get in, there should be a discount available as the developer tries to reduce their risk.’ Another advantage of purchasing at this early stage was that they were able to tweak the interior layout to their own specifications. The initial plans were for a two-storey, two-bedroom house, including a ground-floor garage and games room, with the kitchen and a separate living room on the first floor. By losing the garage and games room and creating a free-flow kitchen/dining/living area on the ground floor, Sophie and JJ gained a third double bedroom upstairs – with a quirky en suite overlooking the kitchen – and the kind of open-plan layout that best suited their needs as a growing family. (The couple now have two sons: Jacques, five, and Leo, three.) 

Once the build was completed, Sophie began sourcing furniture, fabrics and artworks that were in keeping with the 1960s/70s style of the house. Design classics, such as the Arco floor lamp in the dining room and the Mies van der Rohe daybed in the guest room, make up the bone structure of her interior design scheme, which she has fleshed out with seasidey finds from vintage shops in Rye and Hastings, and upcycled pieces she’s revamped herself. ‘I like sewing and making things,’ says Sophie, who fashioned the cushions for the daybed from a graphic-print fabric bought on eBay. She used a similar, green material to re-upholster a chair she found in a skip in London, which now stands in the master bedroom, chiming nicely with the Orla Kiely-print bedding and an original Sixties hanging chair.

The modern-retro theme is carried through the living/dining space, where Sophie has applied a wood-effect Wayne Hemingway-designed wallpaper to create a cabin-like feel, offset by moss-green sofas from Habitat. She and JJ customised the formerly white laminate kitchen cupboards by having them spray-painted in a surfy Dulux shade of petrol blue (a vintage board on top of these units adds an attractive swoosh of Americana). ‘We wanted this place to be holiday-ish, with nice bright colours and big bedrooms where you can drop your suitcase,’ says JJ of the finished result. ‘We have always been able to go into holiday mode as soon as we pass the sign for Camber – that’s when we turn off the phone and relax.’

Sophie adds that one of the unexpected pleasures of the house has been the communal garden area, planted with dune grasses, which they share with their neighbours. ‘All the kids run in and out of each other’s houses and it is a real community – like tonight, we’re having a barbecue with everyone outside,’ she says. ‘We normally book the bank holidays for ourselves, and we have a tradition that everyone comes down for Easter, so we have an Easter egg hunt in the gardens and that is lovely.’

She and JJ are able to offset the majority of their costs through renting out the property (‘it wipes its face,’ says Sophie), and value the spontaneity and simplicity of time spent here, in contrast with their busy lives in London – just under two hours away by car. Meanwhile, their boys, Jacques and Leo, love the freedom of being able to run around outdoors, jump in the sand dunes and play hide and seek. ‘What you want your kids to do is grow up with the feeling that this is their freedom house,’ says Sophie.

‘They get so excited when they know they’re going to the beach. And we do, too.’

Sophie & JJ’s perfect weekend in Camber

1. First thing Saturday, we’ll get up, go to the beach and have a sausage sandwich. Then later we’ll go for a cycle ride or, if the wind’s right, we go kitesurfing. Try Camber Kitesurfing or Rye Watersports

2. The Gallivant in Camber is nice for lunch and great for children. We also go to the Kit Kat Café, the best place on the beach for a tea, coffee or an ice cream.

3. If we’re eating in, we go to Rye Bay Fish in Rye, which is a little fish shop where you can get stuff that’s come out of the sea that day, like scallops and mussels. Salts Farm Shop in Camber is good for local meat.

4. For a Sunday trip out, we go to Hastings, where there’s the amusements, and the kids absolutely love them.

5. If you are an ‘archi-spotter’ and you like to find interesting modern buildings tucked away, there are three or four good ones at Dungeness. It’s a bizarre landscape and on a sunny day it’s amazing.