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Renovation Resolution

A tale of wishes, conflict, collaboration and friendship… and a harmonious new dream space by the water



Photograph by Hulya Kolabas

This is not a story about a house makeover. It’s a story about a life makeover, and it stars a famous fashion designer who thought she was content with her life. But when she rubbed the genie’s lamp and made three wishes—for a house on the water, a life partner, and a new kitchen faucet—everything that had been missing was cast into sharp relief. As she started renovating her beloved house and seeing it reach its true potential, she found herself transforming, too. Today, almost two decades later, she is living in her dream house with her dream partner, more creative and fulfilled than ever—and, yes, the kitchen faucet is perfect. But this is also a story about friendship and discovering what happens when you stare down your fears and learn to trust.

In the spring of 1991, the designer was single and splitting her time between her loft in SoHo and summers in the Hamptons. She loved being near the water and decided to buy a place in the Hamptons. Then her mother fell gravely ill and, suddenly, the Hamptons felt too far away from her parents, who lived in Connecticut. When her Realtor sent her an aerial shot of a Westport neighborhood, she wasn’t impressed but decided to check it out on a visit to her parents. “I drove up one Saturday,” she remembers, “saw this view of the Sound, and that was it.” She came back Sunday night, put in an offer, and closed thirty days later.

From the day she moved into the seventies-era bungalow, she associated it with family. Her mother did not live to see it, but her father would come down and stay. “There’s always been something very calming about this place,” notes its owner. “I remember saying to my father, ‘If only I could meet a man who made me feel as good as this house does.’”                  

First wish—a house on the water: granted. The second came true when she met a ruggedly handsome photographer from California at a photo shoot in New York. “It was a big deal to bring a guy up here; they found it intimidating.” But for him, it was love at first sight, and that sealed the deal.

The couple came out for weekends for a few years before moving to town full time. She had no desire to change a thing—though she did acknowledge the kitchen would probably need an update someday. The couple loved to entertain and to collect art together, and slowly the house became a showcase for contemporary and indigenous art, sculpture, and art glass—as well as for her clutter, which didn’t fit the look but made her feel safe and connected to her past. “As a designer, my life is about change; every day is about change. I’m always looking for new and next and different, so in the rest of my life, I would hold onto things,” she explains.

 

But everything changed one winter, when the couple was traveling. Pipes burst, the faucet broke, and the kitchen floor was ruined. “We talked to some builders,” the designer recalls, “but we didn’t like what we heard. Then we met Bob socially, became friendly, and asked him to come out and give us some ideas.”

Westport-based architect Robert Jacobs came out and took a look—but his vision immediately went beyond the faucet. As the owner recollects, “He started looking around, and casually commented, ‘Did you ever think about expanding the kitchen into where the dining room is?’ At the time our dining room was a big open space with a big table in the middle of…”

“A broken-up space,” corrects Bob. “It was an intrusion into what should have been a big open space from an inside point of view. It was a nonconscious collection of spaces but no real feeling. As an architect, what struck me was how depressing the house was for such an interesting site. There was this downward-looking expression: heavy eaves, a tremendous amount of haphazard touches. It was a pastiche of funny things that had been put together without any architectural thought.”

“To me, the house was light, airy, and happy,” says the designer.

“And to me,” counters the third-generation architect whose father worked with Le Corbusier, “the house was dark and depressing. The overhang was almost a metaphor for lugubriousness. To me the story wasn’t about a new kitchen; it was about creating the lightest, simplest, most open background for their lives.”

Impressed with his vision, the couple hired Bob to renovate the kitchen, which led to a redo of the entire house. “But I made my husband take pictures of every nook and cranny because I didn’t want to do this. I said, ‘If I don’t like it, we’re going to tear it down and rebuild the old one exactly as it was.’”

The discussion that this comment sparked shows the connection—and humor—shared by the owners and their architect. She says, “I could have lived with the kitchen and the bath. And I didn’t mind that it was a galley kitchen without an orientation to the water. Everything was…”

Bob: “Haphazard…”

“Very modest …”

Bob: “Revolting.”

“We disagreed like this throughout the process about Bob’s vision of openness and my vision of coziness.”

Bob: “She had to be reprogrammed. For example, she had junk everywhere.”

“I did have a lot of stuff,” she admits. “It didn’t seem all that cluttered, but there was storage everywhere. I had extra chairs, I don’t throw things out. But now the house is a work of art. The art is the structure of the house, and what I learned in the process is that if you’re smart, you will give yourself over to the structure.”

“Now you’re getting it!” exclaims Bob. “The most important part is to create a structural background that suits the functional requirements of the owner and is an aesthetic expression that reflects their demands for the site. I’m an interpreter, a facilitator. I’m not here to impose or intrude on what the site should be. First create the structure; then, once it’s both designed and physically in place, it begins to speak to both owner and architect. And the dialogue among architect, owner, and house speaks and shapes the interior design.”

Even as the house began to emerge, there were mitigating factors. “Zoning considerations limited the amount of change we could do,” says Bob, who brought on J. Tallman Builders, “so we had to work within the physical footprint. It would have been easier to tear the structure down. But to a great degree, the charm of the house was enhanced by the constraints.” On top of that, the relentless sun made the living room painfully bright during the day. And that’s precisely what got the ball rolling.

“Like an oyster needs a grain of sand to build a pearl,” he continues, “there had to be an irritant, if you will, to start the process. In this case, it was the sun. Most architects don’t want that irritant. They want to just start doing their thing. One of the keys in designing this house was adding a brise soleil, which literally means “break the sun” and which functions like the house’s hat.”

The designer teasingly corrects him: “Eyelashes.”

“Not only does it keep the sun out,” Bob continues, “but it establishes a horizontal theme, which was essential to the design.”

“The only thing I was worried about,” she says with a sly smile, “was whether shadows from the brise soleil were going to mess up my tan lines.”

“Because of my classical training”—Bob again—“I had this classic vision of elevation, symmetry, and balance, but when I tried to impose it upon the façade, it didn’t work because all the windows were the same size. Then the owners made the suggestion to have different-sized windows, and it loosened up the whole design. The ‘preciousness’ of symmetry turned out to be a constraint, and abandoning it opened up other possibilities. It made more work for me, but I was happy to do it because it was the right thing.”

“We were lucky,” says the designer. “My husband and I would see things together—paintings, big masks, totems—and decide what we wanted in about thirty seconds. As much as I was a collector of what Bob would call junk, the house demanded less. I realized I didn’t have room; the house didn’t want it!”

Yet even as she was coming to an intellectual understanding, emotionally she was conflicted. “As much as I loved the new place, I was mourning the loss of my old life.”

“Getting rid of her stuff represented a real transformation,” says her husband. “She likes stability, old memories. Letting go was really tough for her.”

“Bob helped me see that all the junk was holding me back, that all the storage limited my living in the day,” she can now acknowledge. “Only when we got rid of all the boxes and saw that this was a living place to be lived in, did it become a home. Now I don’t want all that stuff. The memories, the process has been so amazing, and it brought us so close together. We’re family now.”

Leaning forward for emphasis, she adds, “I would have to say my biggest surprise was that I could come to embrace the change. That I could give up things I’d held so tenaciously. If I could have given up more things in the beginning, I could’ve saved a lot of money. But I guess some things just take a while longer to accept.”

Bob flashes a smile and says, “My mantra is, ‘You can live with cost overruns, additions to construction time, and inconvenience, but you can’t live with regret.’ In this house, there are no regrets.”