Hamptons Cottages & Garden July '11, "Decorating With Art"
pages 62-71 Written by Michael Lassell, Photography by Peter Murdock
When designer Joe Nahem and his partner, Jeffrey Fields, first saw their house near the border of Amagansett and East Hampton, it was not the roomy, wide-open and sophisticated summer place that it is today. Rather, the 1950s cottage was “a nothing house on a great piece of land,” says Nahem, who knew that the deep lot stretching to the dunes and the ocean beyond was brimming with potential.
After trying to shape the existing structure while living in it for six years, the couple called in friend and frequent Nahem collaborator Steve Chrostowski of Alveary Architecture/Design. Together, the men decided to replace the original home with a 5,400-square-foot, five-bedroom, three-level house, plus a 95-foot-long deck, a swimming pool and a pool house complete with a fireplace. “It’s bigger than the two of us need,” Nahem concedes, “but in this neighborhood it’s considered a small big house…or a big small house.”
The new Nahem/Fields home boasts spacious rooms with as much visual and physical access to the outdoors as possible. The grand gesture of the design is a two-storey stacked stone fireplace that divides the 20-by 35-foot living room into two zones – one more formal, for entertaining; the other more casual, for relaxing in front of the TV.
The size, scale and overall flow of the interiors are utterly contemporary, but the house is built of traditional materials. Most walls are clad in painted clear-pine tongue-and-groove planks or pecky cypress (pickled or painted); ceilings are white-washed knotty pine; floors are reclaimed oak; and all the doors and windows, custom made by Marvin, feature mahogany frames. The duo even commissioned a George Nakashima Workshop countertop on solid walnut for their kitchen.
To furnish the house, the men installed a variety of new, vintage and antique modern pieces. Designs by Fox-Nahem Associates, the Manhattan decorating firm founded by Nahem and the late Tom Fox, include a living room sectional and the king-size bed in the master suite, purposefully built high to take in the views from strategically placed windows. But what really gives the house its most obvious modern identity is the art collection.
Nahem has been collecting since he was 21, but he did not design the house for specific pieces. “I knew enough to leave wall space for big paintings,” he says, “but like most collectors we move art around a lot. I have designed spaces for specific pieces of art for clients, usually for extremely large pieces that require extra ceiling height. Luckily the Thomas Ackermann painting in our master bathroom just about fits!” To light the art, Nahem relied largely on Mother Nature – only one piece has a dedicated fixture. “I’ve worked with clients who want museum lights on every piece and that’s fine. But we have ocean views in this house, and we love seeing and being outdoors too.”
At nearly every turn, the house reveals compelling artistic juxtapositions, like the sizable Dirk Skreber painting in the living room, which hangs near a selection of seven diminutive photographs of African children by Dutch artist Ruud van Emple. “A group of small pieces can easily balance a large canvass,” says Nahem, who does not believe in the notion that white is the only background for hanging art. A case in point is the foyer, painted in a soft bluish gray that echoes an untitled multimedia work by Richard Prince. There’s art hanging everywhere, it seems, from the bright green kitchen to the pickled pecky cypress in the master bedroom; even the powder room and guest bedrooms include substantial pieces hanging on beautifully papered walls.
Most important to Nahem is enjoying his home as much as his art collection. “Every time I notice the Dirk Skreber painting in the living room, I remember how much I like it – and so does everyone who sees it,” says Nahem, who’s just as excited by a new acquisition, a George Condo painting that he plans to hang on the chimney breast. “But I love the views of the ocean, too. I love art, but this is a home, not a gallery.”