The Founder of Hamptons 20th Century Modern Owns this Southampton Home

Eugene Futterman's mid-1970s design gets directly to the point.
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The house comprises two dynamic volumes: one mimicking the hillside, the other reaching for the trees. Photograph by David Mitchell.

Architecture is often described in powerful terms. “When we build,” John Ruskin wrote in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, “let us think that we build forever.” Constantin Brancusi is said to have described architecture as “inhabited sculpture.” And there’s the oft-quoted Mies van der Rohe maxim, “God is in the details.” In day-to-day practice, however, few architects wield such license. They are in fact service providers who depend on satisfied clients to stay in business. And staying in business means shifting priorities and aesthetics to keep pace with trends.

Eugene Futterman was one such shape-shifter, first working as a modernist early in his career in the 1960s and ’70s. His 1975 design for the Southampton weekend residence of IBM manager Nancy Ford and her then-husband, advertising executive Charles Balestrino, was emblematic of how deftly Futterman handled that era’s prevailing vernacular. Sited on an acre that had been peeled off a larger estate, the three-bedroom house “has really sharp, defined lines, but it’s a completely livable home,” says the Australian-born interior designer Tim Godbold, who has owned the structure since 2019 and is the founder of Hamptons 20 Century Modern, a nonprofit that aims to preserve important modernist houses and save them from demolition.

The building comprises a dynamic pair of triangular volumes, in which one wedge mimics the hillside that ultimately descends to an arm of Peconic Bay; its mate is narrow and spiky, seemingly breaking through the tree canopy. Ford says she remembers wanting to “put the house back off the road for privacy,” and Futterman obliged by positioning construction high up on the acre and minimizing windows on the project’s street-facing elevation. Futterman gave the secluded residence a very public identity thanks to geometry alone.

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Works by Rainer Andreesen and Elliot Purse, among other artists, line a wall of another guest room. Photograph by David Mitchell.

Inside, the architect achieved yet another balancing act, reconciling an open plan to Ford’s desire for vignettes by stacking the space over four levels. “The house is often described as a staircase among the trees,” Godbold comments. In his recently completed modernization, Godbold made Futterman’s layering more legible by inscribing the living area with a slanted wall. He also installed several counterpoints to the original design, such as a ziggurat-shaped fireplace and an integrated planter that he describes as an homage to other late-modernist architects such as Paul Rudolph.

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Belgian linen curtains from the Shade Store can be drawn to close off the sleeping area in the primary suite. Photograph by David Mitchell.

In his book Weekend Utopia, Alastair Gordon identifies Futterman as an early proponent of 1980s-era Shingle Style architecture and tells of a 1983 commission for which he replicated drawings of a Southampton cottage from an 1897 issue of Harper’s. Two years later, Futterman was hired to design the revivalist house that replaced Robert Motherwell’s celebrated home and studio in East Hampton, which the Abstract Expressionist artist had adapted from a Quonset hut with French architect Pierre Chareau 40 years earlier.

So why did Futterman turn his back on his earlier modernist impulses? He died too soon, at 51 in 1987, to share the reasons directly. But the homes that remain from the first part of his career demonstrate how, in the right hands, modernist architecture could relate to nature in an unprecedentedly energetic way. And how most architects, even very talented ones, sometimes decide to switch gears.

The print version of this article appears with the headline: On the Edge.