Meet the Interior Designer Who Spends Summers in LBI’s Smallest Abode

The high-spirited Thom Sweeney takes on large design projects, but he’s content in a tiny bayside shack several months of the year.

thom sweeney
Thom Sweeney surrounds himself with treasured items at his LBI shack, including the “Poor Helen” sign off his family’s former boat. Photo by Marla Cohen

My introduction to Thom Sweeney came not as a reporter for this magazine, but as a lifelong Long Beach Island vacationer and ephemera enthusiast. I’d been drawn to a poster-sized print of a 1920s-era fisherwoman hanging in Beach Haven’s Blue Water Café, and, after a few visits, grew desperate to obtain a copy.

When I approached a restaurant server about the print, she recommended I reach out to Sweeney, a local interior designer. I sent an e-mail and he responded the same day, eager to provide the backstory of the uncredited photo. He chastised himself for misplacing the original—which graced the cover of a commemorative LBI booklet he’d unearthed at a flea market—but promised to follow up if he ever found the “darn thing.” However, a copy of the print, he added, hung in his Barnegat office; he texted me a picture, regretfully acknowledging the glare on its glass covering. I was “more than welcome,” he offered, to pay a visit and try photographing it myself. “Your interest in having it is palpable,” he wrote, “so I would be delighted.”

With a bit more sleuthing, Sweeney’s clues helped lead me to a high-quality scan of the print. When I e-mailed him about my find, Sweeney was over the moon. “You will NEVER tire of looking at that print,” he replied. “And that’s the way it should be. Life is much sweeter when one is surrounded by treasured items. Enjoy every minute of it.”

Those initial e-mails from Sweeney were a window into the sensibilities of an ebullient character. The owner of a design studio—Thom Sweeney Interiors—Sweeney is also a passionate artist and curator, propelled by the joys and challenges of conjuring beautiful things and satisfying aesthetic impulses for his clients—and the occasional complete stranger.

When, over a year after our first exchange, I stepped into his studio to interview him for this story, he gestured grandly toward the framed fisherwoman above his mantel. “There’s our mutual friend!” he exclaimed, beaming beneath his mask.

***

Sweeney, 83, splits his time and his treasured finds between two homes: his main residence in Leisuretowne, an active-adult community in Southampton, Burlington County, and, from late April to October, a tiny shack in North Beach Haven—the smallest home, in fact, on all of LBI.

Throughout his three decades in the design business, Sweeney’s projects have mostly been based in the tristate area, though he’s also done work in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida. He has designed “everything from elite Manhattan brownstones and Palm Beach mansions to low-income housing for seniors,” noted a 2018 article in Bay, an LBI magazine.

As he designed a high-rise apartment complex for homeless veterans in Perth Amboy years ago, Sweeney was simultaneously working on a Loveladies mansion—then the largest home on LBI—with 14 bathrooms. “Talk about diversity!” he says.

Some of Sweeney’s area projects have included interiors for developer Chris Vernon’s grandiose Hotel LBI and wedding venues in Manahawkin and Allentown. “Thom has truly brought our business up a few notches,” says Vernon, noting Sweeney’s devotion to detail, eye for the unexpected, and ability to “push the envelope and stay current.”

Sweeney gets credit for the striking red roof on Vernon’s Mallard Island Yacht Club, which greets visitors at the entranceway to LBI. The idea traces back to Sweeney’s early paintings of the “unforgettable” red-roofed Riverton Yacht Club on the Delaware River, which sold faster than he could complete them. Vernon remembers the Mallard Island decision, which involved “a lot of hand-wringing and heated discussions.” At the end of the day, with Sweeney’s advocacy, the Nantucket-red concept won out. “The outcome,” Vernon agrees, “was just phenomenal.”

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Born in Philadelphia and raised in the Burlington County borough of Palmyra, Sweeney did not set out to pursue design. An avid painter since adolescence, he had hoped to attend art school; at his father’s urging, he earned a university degree (psychology at Villanova; “I loved it”). After graduation, he married his high school sweetheart, Helen. Together, they raised three boys in Moorestown. (After 59 years of marriage, Helen passed away in February 2020.)

Sweeney began his career in advertising in Philadelphia. Many of his clients were builders and developers. In time, he observed that several of their model homes were built according to universal trends as opposed to demographic tastes. He believed he could employ information gleaned from focus groups to design models that more closely reflected who customers actually were. His work took different shapes over the next 30-plus years, but started when he and Helen founded Moorestown Interiors and continued through his establishment of Thom Sweeney Interiors three years ago.

“I never had a design class in my life,” he says. His formula for success: good taste and good sources.

Although Sweeney enjoys working with new construction and starting from scratch (“It gives you the most leeway”), he especially cherishes any chance to transform older spaces or elements into more impressive ones. A sucker for “big, old, rusty stuff” and architectural fragments, he frequently scours antique shops and sales. “You walk into a room and see [something you love], and you say, ‘I can’t live without this! I will get this at any cost!’” he laughs heartily.

***

In 1980, an opportunity for the ultimate Sweeney transformation presented itself. After their family of five had spent several LBI summers living on a boat docked in Morrison’s Marina, Sweeney and his wife felt ready to spring for four walls and a roof. A close friend sent Sweeney a newspaper ad for a tiny North Beach Haven home on the bay. The headline teased waterfront property for under $30,000, deeming it “a fisherman’s delight.” She attached a note: “Thommy, this has your name written all over it.”

Sweeney called the agent, who acknowledged she had shown the home hundreds of times. “It’s like buying a motel room,” she warned. Sweeney insisted he was interested.

He and Helen, who was “right on board,” toured the decrepit space and began envisioning possibilities: The dropped ceiling could give way to a sleeping loft for the kids; glass sliding doors would flood the room with light. Back home, Sweeney started sketching out a design scheme. Shortly thereafter, they snagged the property for $25,000.

[RELATED: A Stunning Waterfront Home in Normandy Beach]

Affectionately known as the Shack, the 24-by-12–foot structure was slightly more spacious than their 9-foot-wide boat. “We felt like we were in a palace,” jokes Sweeney. They sold the boat, but later affixed the plaque bearing its cheeky name, Poor Helen, above their new front door. Inside, Sweeney worked his magic. Eclectic décor—and endless memories—soon filled every corner of the serene, airy oasis. “I can’t tell you how lucky we were to find that place,” he says. “It’s changed our family’s life.”

Of those many summers spent in tight quarters, Sweeney admits, “You have to really learn to tolerate each other.” The tiny space probably put a crimp in his boys’ teenage years: They still reminisce about Helen as a human “breathalyzer,” able to detect adult beverages on their breath after nights out. Decades later, his sons spend summers with their own families on boats docked outside the shack.

“I’m surrounded by them all the time,” Sweeney says. “I’m very lucky.”

***

The pandemic does not appear to have diminished Sweeney’s joie de vivre. The lease on his Lincoln ends in September, and he’s set his sights on a dreamy Porsche Panamera—a longtime bucket-list item. He’s also excited about the prospect of traveling again; his 8-year-old granddaughter, he says, is itching to see Paris.

In the meantime, he continues to curate. One of his latest finds: a men’s two-piece wool bathing suit, circa the 1920s, discovered at a favorite vintage spot, Royal Port Antiques in Salem. The 12,000-square-foot mill, “merchandised beautifully” with salvaged pieces by a “charming” husband-and-wife duo, is “the treat of a lifetime,” he raves.

Sweeney had the bathing suit mounted on burlap inside a shabby-chic frame. “It looks fabulous,” he says. “I’m so excited about it. I will sell it to somebody—hopefully down on the island. But in the meantime,” he grins, “it’s in my house.”

Thom Sweeney Interiors is located at 849 West Bay Avenue in Barnegat. Follow Sweeney’s design adventures on Instagram: @thomsweeneyinteriors.

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