Beyond fond memories of Thrasher's fries and drugstore vanilla Cokes, Mary Emmerling's recollections of childhood summers in 1950s Rehoboth Beach, Del., are of simple beach cottages filled with straw mats, wicker chairs and painted tables.
Something about that snug and unpretentious way of life helped launch Emmerling on a decades-long search for the many faces of down-home American regional style. For 22 books that have sold more than a million copies, the magazine editor, designer and style-setter has traveled the country chronicling and championing charm on a small scale.
Her first book, American Country (1980), appeared three years before Ralph Lauren's first home collection and nine years before Rachel Ashwell made shabby so chic. Emmerling's laid-back blend of twig furniture, camp blankets, weather vanes, jelly cupboards and anything with an American flag on it has had an enduring influence on readers' dreams of cottages, urban lofts and suburban bungalows.
"We made country comfortable," Emmerling says.
Her latest book, Mary Emmerling's Beach Cottages (Clarkson Potter, $32.50), is a glossy coffee-table book shrunken to beach-bag size. Extolling the carefree pleasures of coastal living, it was written by someone whose hair is always sun-bleached and who always keeps a bathing suit stashed in her car.
"There is something you remember about the beach from your childhood, your honeymoon or some fabulous vacation. It's a look associated with good memories," says Emmerling, 65, who has bought, lived in and left behind beach places on such far-flung sand spits as Key West and Sagaponack, N.Y.
"She's fascinated by all the different ways Americans live," says House Beautiful editor-in-chief Stephen Drucker, who recently put Emmerling on his masthead to scout homes in the West. "Mary is a very modern person. She's always moving forward and seeing how things are evolving."
Here's solid evidence of that: Right now, Emmerling is eager to check out the homes of the lead characters in the Sex and the City film.
"Great movies always influence what our houses look like," she says.
Emmerling was born in Washington. Her father died when she was 7, and the family moved every few years after that. ("I think that's why I've bought and sold so many houses in my life," Emmerling says.)
She attended George Washington University before moving to New York in 1964; she worked her way into a job as decorating editor at Mademoiselle and took classes at New York School of Interior Design. She married in 1969 and had two children. To escape the city, the family spent weekends in Vermont, where she started collecting old pieces at rural auctions.
Her resume is impressive. She has worked at a string of magazines, including Country Home, Country Living, House & Garden and Self, where she shared an office with Drucker 25 years ago. Mary Emmerling's Country magazine ran for seven issues, and she hosted the HGTV show Country at Home.
There were licensed collections of furniture and wallpaper and then bedding and housewares for J.C. Penney. She owned antiques and folk-art shops in the Hamptons and Manhattan.
The books began rolling out when Emmerling's Upper East Side apartment was photographed for House & Garden in 1977.
"It was one of the first published spaces that marked the move from stiff early American to American country," Emmerling says.
The magazine spread showed that quilts, ironstone platters and four-poster beds need not be limited to weekend places or historic homes. Emmerling painted her walls white and put in stripped-pine mantels. She mixed rustic furniture with comfy sofas with loose-fitting slipcovers.
"I hung old wooden checkerboards on the wall because I could not afford portraits," she says.
The decor captured the imagination of consumers tired of post-World War II plastics and industrial aluminum, and propelled Emmerling to her first book contract with Clarkson Potter.
Avid fans of her laid-back approach have followed her nomadic life from job to job and house to charming house, each move prompting another book on cowboy style, flea market finds, picket-fence gardens, and American flag decor. (Her Laguna Beach, Calif., getaway forms the first chapter of Beach Cottages.)
Emmerling has never become a household name like her friend Martha Stewart, whom she knew back when Stewart was a fledgling caterer selling bread on the side.
"I didn't want to be famous," Emmerling says. "You don't have a life. Sure, you go on the road with book tours and speeches, but you do your thing, and then the people in that town go about their business. And there you are again in the hotel or airport, alone, calling your own family."
With her children grown, these days Emmerling is spending a lot of time on her iPhone, shuttling across the country scouting for House Beautiful, where her 33-year-old daughter, Samantha, is a senior editor.
And home, for now, is a 1960s townhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., that she shares with her second husband, a long way from any waves.
In this house, she has created a "tribute to Frida Kahlo" by painting her back exterior wall hot pink and installing a turquoise pool surrounded by cactus and oleander. Pink and aqua beach balls float in the pool.