Inside a Water Mill Home for a Modern Traditional Family

A Modern Water Mill Home by John Bjornen

Nothing says vintage Hamptons farmhouse like weathering cedar shakes, storm shutters and gables crisply outlined in gleaming white. From a distance, the Water Mill home pictured on these pages looks like it could be the quintessential example of that storied East End style. In fact, the 6,000-squarefoot charmer was built in 2006, combining the local vernacular with all the creature comforts of new construction—each of the five bedrooms, for example, has an en suite bath.

It was the perfect choice for the “modern traditional family” that became the clients of decorator John Bjørnen, of John Bjørnen Design in Sag Harbor. Mom and Dad are committed to hands-on child-rearing—their three kids are under the age of ten—and staying close to their extended Midwestern relatives, who come to visit several times a year.

No run-down ruin in need of major rescue, the place was “stylish from the start,” says Bjørnen. The previous owner had worked in the fashion industry, and much of what he left behind was just fine. Still, Bjørnen and his associate, Adam Leskinen, worked in stages over three years in order to have their way with the compound, including the main house, a pool house and cabanas, and a garage with an apartment above the parking space.

During the first stage, they transformed the public areas. “Our clients wanted to be able to accommodate a lot of people and still have privacy and ‘getaway places’ for reading and relaxing,” says Bjørnen. The project did not involve expanding the footprint of the house, but 1,500 square feet of living space were gained by finishing the basement, which now boasts a game room, TV room, gym and guest suite.

“Adam and I tend to be very organized,” says Bjørnen. “When we make our first presentation, we bring a whole book with ideas and swatches and color chips. On this project, our clients came with a book of their own.” They also had some excellent furniture that they intended to keep from their previous home. “They wanted to balance the stylish and the casual, the elegant with the unassuming. And they wanted it to be comfortable for every age group.”

The updated traditional look the team devised for the house is a combination of freshly tailored English Country and Gustavian styles. Named for the aesthetically inclined 18th-century King Gustav III of Sweden, the latter is derived from French and Italian neoclassicism, but with a spare, rusticated Northern twist. As it happens, Bjørnen has an American mother and a Norwegian father and spent his formative years in Scandinavia, the perfect training ground.

Furnishings are a mix of antiques, reproductions and custom pieces, much of it acquired locally from sources like Mecox Gardens in Southampton, English Country Antiques in Bridgehampton and Fishers Home Furnishings in Sag Harbor. The freshness of the place involves playing on expectations: A traditional red, white and blue living room was morphed forward and upward with a pewter-y middle blue replacing the usual navy; the accessories mix finds unexpected harmonies among a Gustavian case clock, an antique mercury-glass wine jug and a Moroccaninspired red side table.

Bjørnen’s ten-year stint in the fashion world has been put to good use here, particularly his experience as a showroom designer for Ralph Lauren. “There are quite a few graduates of the School of Ralph in the design world,” he says, and it comes as no surprise to find a Ralph Lauren herringbone fabric called Seabeach Chevron in Tennis White on the custom living-room sofa or a pair of Noble Estate club chairs in the master bedroom.

Because the home is primarily a place for the clients to get away from the city, Bjørnen and Leskinen employed as many natural textures and materials as they could. The master bedroom, for example, is wrapped in a faux bois paper from Nobilis. “It’s so authentic you have to get right up to it to realize it’s not wood,” says Bjørnen. The white Oly Studio bed has a raffia headboard; the carpet is wool, the draperies are cotton and the three-drawer chests used as nightstands have bone inlays.

“When we first met,” Bjørnen recalls, “our clients told us they wanted the kind of house where everyone returns, the way you would to an old homestead that’s full of family memories. I hope we managed to provide that here.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15 2011 issue of HC&G (Hamptons Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: American Idyll.