A fashion professional takes the plunge into modernism when EOA/Elmslie Osler Architect renovates his house in Southampton, New York, and Charles Riley Associates chooses the furniture
Lygeia Grace -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
When Jack Alexander bought a 1960s cottage perched on a hillside in Southampton, New York, friends joked that the best thing that could happen would be if the whole house fell into Shinnecock Bay below. "It was depressingly ugly," he says. "It was shingled with a cement foundation. It had pink-and-gray bathrooms. There was no connection between spaces." The one advantage was a bay view—but even that was obscured by a warren of hallways and a lack of windows.
Alexander was not discouraged. A producer of fashion shows and events for Oscar de la Renta, Balmain, and Saks Fifth Avenue, he had a vision: "A modern glass house on the water." So he called in an old friend, Robin Elmslie Osler of EOA/Elmslie Osler Architect, who immediately recognized the house's potential. "The site was fantastic, just waiting to be exploited," says the architect. "A lot of my design was driven by the landscape and opening the house to the view."
Osler's first move was to gut the 2,000-square-foot interior, leaving only a central floating column containing fireplaces upstairs and down. She then aligned eight new aluminum-framed 8-foot-square windows to create cross-axial views. Thus, on the staircase landing, a visitor can turn left to see the front yard or right to see the woods. "You are constantly looking from one side of the house to the other and through to the landscape," says Osler, pointing to the bedrooms as an example. "They are well proportioned but on the average-to-small side. Because of the fenestration, they feel bigger."
To add still greater dimension to the second floor, Osler removed the ceiling and exposed the roof trusses. "We had to work with what was there," she says of the budget, which prohibited changes to the roofline or footprint. "Tearing out the Sheetrock and painting everything white gave the living room height." The decision to relocate the kitchen to the ground floor was another breakthrough. In addition to freeing up square footage in the living room, the new placement near the garage and pool blurs the boundaries between inside and out. "It makes the kitchen a very porous piece of the house," says Osler.
Landscape not only dictated the house's structure but also influenced the architect's choice of materials. To reference the sky and water, Osler put a white cork floor upstairs, in the two bedrooms and living room, and a blue one downstairs, in the guest bedroom and kitchen. "The material is very reasonable—and comes in great colors," she says. Unlike marble and hardwood, cork offers visual depth and softness as well. "Jack knew he would be in bare feet," she continues. The blue tile she specified for the bathrooms, kitchen, and deck evokes water in a similar manner. "The tile starts as a strip in the kitchen and spills under the steel door onto the deck," Alexander says of the Italian glass mosaic. "It's glamour plus."
If any one material is defining, however, it would be the cement-board that sheathes the exterior. "It simplified the texture," Osler says of her unorthodox use of an industrial staple. "Before, Jack had a woolly little house with funny suburban windows. The cement-board makes it crisp and clean." And it shows up again on the fireplace surrounds in the living room and kitchen, providing what Osler calls a "tactile connection" between the interior and exterior. Aluminum pipe also makes multiple appearances. Outside, it takes the form of guardrails on the deck, master bedroom balcony, and living room terrace. Inside, a white enameled version serves as a railing for the staircase.
The quiet and restraint fostered by the limited materials palette is a radical departure for Alexander, who previously spent his summers in a Victorian cottage filled with patterned rugs and wallpaper. To complement the cool mood of the new house, he sought interior designer Charles Riley's help with furniture. Riley's carefully edited selection of pieces includes Raymond Loewy's outrageous orange-and-red chest of drawers in the master bedroom and the living room's curved 1970s sofa. "Robin created a gallerylike space. The modern furniture almost becomes sculpture," say Riley. Alexander embraces the change. "I work in fashion, which is driven by newness. You have to keep moving forward," he says. "I think more clearly here. Now I'm not living with distractions. I'm living with simplicity."