INTERIORS BY DESIGN
Before And After: Mecox Bay
Original Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Marshall Watson May 21, 2012
Can we get it ready by Memorial Day?” Peter warily queried.
Wrapped in scarves, down jackets, thick gloves and thermal boots, we huddled around the space heater, staring through dusty windows across the frigid tundra of Mecox Bay.
“I know it seems light years ahead, but in renovation and decorating terms, Memorial Day is right around the corner,” I warned.
Peter had recently inherited his parents’ beach house—a truly Bauhaus icon designed by renowned architect Peter Blake. The house itself overlooks a once pristine, underdeveloped stretch of Mecox where horizontal spits of land and inlet meet the greater dome of sky. A still wondrous view has now been interrupted by ever larger abodes—paeans to a once unfettered economy; proud beacons of healthy egos and a panoply of architectural opinion.
Despite the stratospheric price commanded by the looming shingle creations next door, Peter maintained an enduring affection for the beach experience of his childhood and his parents’ progressive vision.
Born of Russian and German immigrants who had fled the Third Reich, Peter was the child of a remarkably talented mother who was a celebrated fashion designer and whose face and couture flashed across the glamorous pages of Vogue during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. And so great style surfaced in his parents’ modernist Bauhaus retreat, sidled up next to the clamshell-covered shoreline of Mecox Bay.
However, time has not been kind to this cedar-clad structure, built with blackened lodgepole columns. Crisp metal had corroded, fresh woods had darkened and a crowded cluster of family detritus (albeit memorable) threatened one’s sanity. Rooms felt like stifling cubicles and a hopeless jumble of replaced appliances, fixtures and furniture cast-offs turned off even the most sentimental of retro-summer enthusiasts.
Real estate agents cried, “tear it down.” And friends said, “sell it.” But Peter saw something honest and special about his parents’ purist vision. So when we huddled together with his girlfriend, Carol, and friend, Dan, in that bone-chillingly cold living room, we reassessed what others would have had us toss away.
Admittedly, budget was primo on Peter’s and Carol’s list of concerns, so the art of decoration would have to supersede the art of renovation.
First we observed that the blackened lodgepole columns (now ominous) had once been thought of as an edgy contrast to the sleek glass. By integrating them into a black-and-white decorating scheme, they would reappear as structural interest rather than eyesores to be clad over. And the cinder block fireplace mantel would be retained, reenforcing the stripped-down industrial nature of the house.
The floors were an asset: simple strip oak but good quality—first growth—from the ’50s, and an amber color that could be integrated in with other natural straw colors, giving a warm glow to the rooms. The cedar ceilings, so fresh in the ’60s, needed just a sanding to bring out their original color and a bleaching to drift them toward a beachy relaxation.
Hollow core doors and cheap knobs were replaced by sound, solid-slab doors. Rough plywood walls were veneered with half-inch sheetrock. And all was painted a clean white.
Kitchens and baths are the bane of beach houses because they take the most abuse. The fixtures corrode and the muddy tiles foster wear. As the house was modest to begin with, and the non-pretentious wash-and-wear simplicity was paramount, materials that were both practical and budgetary seemed right.
In the bathrooms, crisp, modern white tiles were laid on the floors. Walls were painted shiny white. Shower curtains were changed and fresh white towels were hung. Straw baskets would hold shampoos, soaps and toilet paper; the natural fiber of the baskets would echo the amber wood floors and take the antiseptic sting out of the glossy white-on-white bathrooms. New chrome mirrors and lav sets were Carol’s lucky overstock discovery, and simple Hollywood chrome lights freshened the modernist outlook.
For the kitchen, a gray-and-white terrazzo tile floor with lacquered white Ikea cabinetry (surprisingly sleek) and a concrete countertop (a great find by Dan), literally countering the concrete block fireplace façade, fit the bill. Modern chrome light fixtures add a soupçon of glitter, and tubular chrome handles updated the kitchen cabinetry.
In the living room, fluffy white flokati rug carpeted the floor. A square-armed white sectional replaced the overstuffed round-armed sofa. And black-and-white print pillows graced the sectional, drawing a through line toward the blackened lodgepoles.
With the ’60’s scaled rooms—perfectly adequate for a summer beach house, but considered diminutive by today’s “surprise me” sensibility—I felt obliged to suggest large-scale modern mirrors to give an illusion of greater space and reflect as much as possible of that famous East End light. Mirrors—leaning in the hallways; attached to the backs of bedroom and closet doors; hanging above chests, desks and upholstery—not only expanded the visual space but inexpensively filled the larger blank walls.
With minimal square footage, I suggested that the minimalist color scheme of black and white appear to be pervasive in this house. Given that every bedroom was invaded by blackened lodgepoles and blackened i-beams, my thought was “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Thus, Carol bought simple white sheets with black coverlets, which worked their magic, along with black-and-white patterned pillows.
Modern wall-mounted bedside fixtures allowed for clean bedside tabletops, while floating beds without dust skirts gave the bedrooms more air to breathe. We gave thought to every piece of furniture, judging it not only for its function and scale, but for its sculptural attributes. With so few pieces needed, at least one in each room needed to steal focus and the others remain in the chorus.
Though the house was extraordinarily cluttered to begin with, I advised Peter and Carol to save all the art and memorabilia. Once the decorating was complete, we would instantly know what would work and what would help us re-personalize their home.
On an outside deck, we quickly placed every accessory, shell, photograph, sculpture and painting. We quickly placed many things guarding this new space’s lawful right to clarity and simplicity. We layered in these objects like memories and the house quickly grew into the home of Peter’s memory—fresh as the salt air off Mecox Bay, clear as our East End sky, yet still as memorable as the countless Memorial Day weekends when Peter’s mother and father reopened their beach house to family and friends and the much anticipated summer season.