Discover Lisa Perry’s Onna House in East Hampton
HC&G’s Innovator Award honoree for 2023–24 transforms a modern marvel into a repository of work by women artists and makers.
“As I was scrolling through Instagram…” might very well be the current zeitgeist’s newest iteration of “Once upon a time.” At least this has been the case for fashion and accessories designer and art collector Lisa Perry, who found her latest venture, a modernist home in East Hampton that she calls Onna House, on TheCreativesAgent, an Instagram account which features mid-20th-century homes in danger of being demolished. “In the attached video a person asks, ‘Can someone please save this home?’ And that intrigued me,” Perry recounts. “The pictures reminded me of the house I grew up in outside of Chicago, and I told myself, ‘I want to save it.’”
The home Perry grew up in featured a Japanese-inflected façade with shoji screens oriented around an indoor pool. Onna House, designed by architect Paul Lester Wiener in 1962 for art collectors Ethel and Robert Scull, has a similar vibe.
“When I pulled up to the property, it was like the mini version of where I grew up,” Perry says. “I got this deeply physical feeling and knew it was my next project.” Perry bought the house and asked her longtime architect and collaborator Christine Harper to begin a restoration. “The bones of the house are beautiful. We only needed to change the kitchen and the bathrooms, whereas the main spaces just needed some love. The gardens needed the most love. Halfway through the project, I decided that I was going to focus on filling the house with art and design pieces exclusively made by women.” Not surprisingly, “onna” means “woman” in Japanese.
By the fall of last year, Perry was ready to open the doors to Onna House by appointment to aficionados of architecture, art, and design. With a goal of giving women artists more visibility, Perry uses the home to mount revolving exhibitions, and she purchases a piece from each artist she exhibits for her permanent collection. “We focus on some very young artists who are breaking out, but also on women of all ages at any point in their career who can benefit from the exposure.”
The bonus: Displaying furniture, sculpture, and art in the context of a private home, instead of a sterile white-walled gallery. “I like to show every aspect of my collecting,” Perry says, “and mix it all together. I’m fortunate enough to have people tell me that they love my taste, and now I have a place where I can share every step of the process, down to where I get the bath towels!” During the years when she was collecting vintage clothing from the 1960s, she adds, “I was going to fairs and shops all over the world and people would send me things. It’s the same now with this collection.” In true contemporary fashion, pieces come to her attention via a host of sources, from Instagram to her frequent travels to submissions to Onna House’s website.
The art and furnishings in Onna House largely adhere to the notion of form and function, from a dining table and chairs by Anna Karlin and a table/bench by Nina Cho to Graduated Pearls, a large sculpture by Jerelyn Hanrahan that appears to be tossed into the lawn adjacent to the swimming pool. The latter doubles as a seating piece where women can gather and share stories, while “reclaiming the pearl necklace from the nape of the 1950s housewife… and creating a modern power symbol,” according to text accompanying the exhibition “Pearls, Pills, and Protests,” which closed at the end of June.
Perry keeps an office in the house directly across the entry courtyard from the tearoom, her favorite space in the structure, where she can take a break to relax and look out over the zen-like moss garden. The kitchen, meanwhile, has been turned into an efficient command central for small gatherings and events. Here, she commissioned local artist Almond Zigmund to paint a mural on the wall and also stores thank-you cards and “beautiful teapots by women ceramists. Everything you see is by a woman maker, and it starts a conversation. I like to think of myself as the connector.”
The substantial lush gardens surrounding the house extend the Japanese theme further. Perry has added bamboo fencing along with tall grasses and mountain laurels, which complement established Japanese maples original to the property, as well as a weeping beech that extends “through the central entry courtyard and was planted at the time when the house was built.”
Like the Sculls, Perry is a passionate art collector and advocate of women’s rights. “The Sculls,” she says, “were great collectors and had the vision not just to build this house, but also to have parties and fundraisers there in support of women’s issues. People like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were often at the house, and I am hoping to use it now as a platform for women’s rights, for women makers, and for people who love architecture, design, art, and gardens. There is a lot to offer at Onna House.”
The print version of this article appeared with the headline: Onna House.