Balinese Style in Sag Harbor
Carefree days and understated decor characterize the true spirit of stylish living in the Hamptons.
Some people like their homes to look like their favorite hotel rooms, and others like a lot more adventure in their lives. Transporting might be the word that best describes the experience of touring the Sag Harbor abode of decorator John Bjørnen and real estate broker Cee Scott Brown. Their unpaved street sets the mood before one even reaches the house, and a rough gravel parking court, encased by privet, keeps cars out of sight.
Enter through the vintage Javanese wooden gate, and you’re in another world, where the dark gray shingled main house lies enticingly between a pool and gazebo to the right and great clumps of bamboo bound by thick coir ropes to the left.
“It’s very much a Zen retreat,” Brown muses, “where your blood pressure drops several points, even though Main Street is only a few blocks away.” This different world is deeply informed by the men’s love of Bali, where they have often escaped to as a respite from their successful careers. Hints of the Indonesian island are everywhere, yet the house doesn’t read as kitsch.
Brown originally purchased the property 25 years ago with his then partner, decorator Thad Hayes. At the time, the house was a shell of its current self, having been owned by an artist couple who had lived in the circa-1938 cottage for more than four decades. (Elia Kazan once rented it, at the suggestion of neighbor John Steinbeck.) Brown describes it as “a waterfront cottage, with John Steinbeck’s large property to one side of us, and our house closest to the water, so that you don’t see any neighboring houses—you can practically walk around naked!”
When it came time for an update, Bjørnen recounts, the emphasis was on playing up the “original cottage details, but with a more modern spin.” Aside from a two-story tower addition designed by Sag Harbor–based architect James Merrell, Brown and Bjørnen acclimatized the sun porch, thereby gaining a dining room that overlooks the still beauty of Morris Cove, yet lies open to the living room—rather than being separated by a ye olde glass-paned wall.
The Balinese spirit generously provides for a “sort of fusion” approach to the decor, Bjørnen says. Consider the dining room’s Hans Wegner AT 309 table, its chairs topped with pillows made from vintage Balinese sarongs, all anchored by a rug purchased on a Rajasthani roadside. Additionally, the decorator adds, “We both have a passion for mid-20th-century French, Scandinavian, and Austrian design, and we’ve included pieces from our previous lives as well as custom items I’ve made specifically for the house.”
Throughout the redecorating process, the couple stayed true to the cottage’s rustic bones. Walls and ceilings are coated in Benjamin Moore’s warming White Dove, and “there’s not an inch of Sheetrock,” Brown notes. “It’s all horizontal cedar. Wood is brighter and has a different sound than Sheetrock, and it’s more forgiving to nail holes and dings.” It’s a homecoming of sorts for Bjørnen, who recalls “growing up in Norway, where all the little waterfront cottages in the fishing villages were wooden and painted white. It’s kismet, in a way.” Even the master bedroom in the new tower structure is anything but grand: Rather than a more expected giant room, it is a cozy 12 feet square, with the bed facing the window to take advantage of the stunning views.
The look is not for purists, but rather deeply personal, imbued with meaning in colors, textures, and artworks. “I’ve done the house over twice, using pieces we’ve accumulated from our travels,” says Bjørnen. “It’s a bit antique-heavy compared to projects that I’m working on lately, since the value of vintage and antique furnishings doesn’t seem to resonate with most people today. Sadly, there’s a lost art in the passion of cultural exploration and antiquing.” In their Sag Harbor home, Brown and Bjørnen have made it a point to stay true to their Balinese worldview and keep the spirit alive.
The print version of this article appeared with the headline: Serene Secret.