Look Inside The Leather King, Mitch Alfus’ Hamptons Home
An idiosyncratic home in Wainscott seduces a thoroughly modern nomad.
The first time I touched a calfskin, in a tannery in rural Argentina, my reality shifted. My father was living in Buenos Aires, where he was making women’s clothing, and I was immediately drawn to the leather and curious about where it came from. So my father set me up on a day trip to visit tanneries with a chemist from Holland. Clothed in our white lab coats, we went from tannery to tannery to learn about the process of tanning and finishing skins. On the way, we drove past slums and over a bridge.
It was late 1977, and if you made eye contact with guards on the bridge, you had to pay a bribe to pass, and if you didn’t pay, you were imprisoned or thrown into the river. It was the wild west—untamed, gunslinging—and I fell in love with the food, the women, and the leathers.
That first tannery was an epiphany. I saw what happened to the byproducts of the meat we all consume mindlessly, often not considering the source beyond the grocery store shelves. I was awed by the artful process of turning a leftover hide into something gorgeous. Rather than discarding it into the trash after packaging the meat, one can create something that could bring people joy and make them feel beautiful.
Today, I sell these skins. Draping them, feeling their texture and sensuality, inspires me artistically. I feel the grain and stretch while I consider cuts and connections, and that includes the way I employ the material in my own home in Wainscott.
My design and architectural aesthetic is deeply influenced by unexpected life turns and lots of travel. I was 19 when I decided to take a year off from Wharton and backpack through Africa, Italy, France, Turkey, Sweden, and Brazil, often sleeping under tables in the street. Returning a year later, the University of Pennsylvania campus felt strange. I had been the Quakers quarterback and also played on the championship tennis team. I quit both, and quit Wharton, and decided to study architecture and art history. I trained with Buckminster Fuller, John McCoubrey, and Louis Kahn. Their impact on me is pervasive and enduring, resonating in every nook, bend, and line in my home.
I bought my house in the early 2000s and immediately felt a connectedness with the land—the airy, open two acres, its extraordinary trees, and the magnetic energy of the ocean only a mile away. I could smell the salt from the sea and hear the hum of the nearby train, and I knew the dilapidated 1950s teardown could become my nirvana. A New York City boy, my life was about to change.
Although houses in the Hamptons are often largely white and cedar, mine has a clean-lined, black exterior and natural pine interiors, an almost earthen approach that’s similar to my respect for an animal’s spirit and life force. I wanted my home to be a manifestation of my imagination, so I sketched and built everything without the help of designers. I had custom furniture made in Bali and fought with builders to stick to my unorthodox blueprints. Everyone advised against the cement countertops and brick wall in the kitchen, but these are among my favorite details.
The “viscera” of my home is rooted in primal elements: leather, shearling, wood, cement, and metal, all tactile and embodying energy. The decorative pieces include artifacts, objects, and antiques found during more than four decades of travel across South America, Africa, and Europe. Just like the cycle of life that I see in animal hides, antiques have their own rhythm, passing through humans, generations, and civilizations, representing tangible memories of important times and places.
My backyard pool bar, the “Pick Up,” is a replica of a shack I stumbled upon in Mexico. I had asked for a drink from a “waiter” who turned out to be Sting—something I think of every time I glance out my window. It took five different washes to get the patina on the exterior just right.
I look forward to embracing the evolution and erosion of time on my property, similar to the way I watch new details emerge on my leathers after years of age and wear. Just like the skins that I collect and sell, my house is always changing. It’s rough, raw, and unique.
The print version of this article appears with the headline: Mitch’s Place.
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