This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Architectural Digest.
Well over a decade ago my now-husband, designer Jonathan Adler, and I purchased a humble but cool 1960s A-frame cabin on New York’s Shelter Island, a short ferry ride and a long psychic leap from the Hamptons. In our minds, the house was it—a dream getaway/future retirement pad where we happily anticipated spending the rest of our lives putzing about the yard. As is so often the case with real estate, though, things did not go quite as planned. Gradually, we began to suffer from what I like to call The Jeffersons syndrome: a strong and irresistible desire to move on up.
And so four years ago we put the place on the market and bought a larger piece of waterfront land on the opposite side of the island, with panoramic views of Gardiners Bay and Orient Point. The plot spoke to us. “You must build a one-story compound, part modernist fantasy, part rustic beach retreat,” it cooed. “Now step on it!”
Our wish list was reasonably straightforward: Arranged around an inner courtyard were to be three bedrooms, three baths, one fabulously louche open living area, and a gym. We had a number of more specific ideas, too, including an indoor fire pit, skylights a-go-go, and a groovy Palm Springs–style pool pavilion. To realize this nuanced scheme, we hired Lisa Gray and Alan Organschi of the Connecticut firm Gray Organschi Architecture, in addition to Hamptons builder Carlos Routh.
Like reality television, construction projects often entail nail-biting suspense and gruesome hissy fits, but ours would have made for lousy entertainment. Other than the time I accidentally slid into the muddy abyss that would eventually entomb our septic tank, there was zero drama. The architects were kindred spirits who shared our passion for Case Study houses, Scandinavian country homes, and natural materials; Mr. Routh brought unflagging enthusiasm and intelligent objectivity to the job.
As our low, sculptural, rectilinear dwelling neared completion, we took a cue from the Rolling Stones and decided to paint it black.Our choice got the whole island talking. (One neighbor likened the result to Darth Vader’s coffin—finally, a frisson of unscripted scandal!) Having spent jonathan time in Japan, however, Jonathan and I had repeatedly observed single-story charcoal-color structures melding seamlessly with their surrounding gardens; we were confident that, given the right landscaping, our new home would do the same.
To this end, local landscape visionary Vickie Cardaro of Buttercup Design Group encircled the house with berms of imported sand and small groupings of evergreens, including eastern red cedar, Hollywood juniper, and Japanese black pine. In between swaths of crushed quahog shells she wove a mélange of ornamental grasses—Elijah blue fescue, Mexican feather, and pink muhly among them. Erelong, our lovely crib nestled right into the coastal terrain.
Gray Organschi Architecture devised the single-story house and separate pool pavilion.
Jonathan, meanwhile, set about decorating, juxtaposing the austere exterior with warm and idiosyncratic interiors. The exact vibe was to be a blend of Big Sur bohemian and rich Ibiza hippie, two of our favorite adopted personas. To achieve it, he mixed furniture and rugs of his own design with diverse vintage finds—from a starburst mirror framed with spindle legs to industrial ceiling lights to suspended rattan lounge chairs. Ever the potter, he devised ceramic tiles for the kitchen, living room, and master suite. We also commissioned decorative art from various friends. Painter and designer John-Paul Philippé created a mural inspired by local birdlife for our kitchen island, while set designer Andy Harman conceived a giant macramé owl, which is now displayed on the indigo brick divider separating the entrance and the telly-watching zone. For my part, I added some photographs taken by a roster of pals and professional collaborators: a candid fashion image backstage at a Dior runway show by Roxanne Lowit; a wicked child-pageant portrait by Susan Anderson; a haunting truck-stop bathroom interior by Henny Garfunkel; and a picture of Jonathan and me leaping off a yacht in the Mediterranean by Jonathan Skow.
The final touches come from especially close to our hearts. We incorporated various curiosities from the estate of Jonathan’s überchic maternal granny, including an early Robert Natkin oil painting and a strange painted-metal hanging sculpture of unknown provenance that we lovingly refer to as “Granny’s Dangler.” Then we brought in works of art by Jonathan’s late lawyer dad, Harry, whose creative passions consumed his nonworking hours and motivated Jonny to stick his little paws in clay at the age of 12. The addition of these crafty heirlooms made the place feel like home.
On sunny summer days Jonathan and I now paddleboard back and forth in front of our new dream getaway, staring at it with a mixture of delight and amusement. It’s hard to imagine that we will ever again be stricken with The Jeffersons syndrome—but never say never.
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