With the Help of Designer Larry Laslo, a Lifelong Collector Puts Her Unerring Eye to the Test

For Alice Netter, walking into her new Hamptons beach house in 1977 required vision—as well as a tool belt. “It was pretty bad,” she says. “There was a turquoise floor and metal valances with pompons. For the first two months, I walked around with a screwdriver in my pocket, taking everything down.”

Netter and her late husband, Richard, set out to rehabilitate the 1890s shingle-style home from the ground up—literally—by first replacing logs supporting the house from underneath with steel beams, while also clearing the landscape to reveal a rolling lawn dotted with maple trees, crape myrtles, and a planted berm that anchors the pool and pool house. 

Decorator Larry Laslo worked with Netter to update the interiors while maintaining the home’s historic integrity. “The house is iconic,” Laslo says. “Alice has a fabulous collection of folk art, and a wonderful sense of style. Working with her was about updating, more than reinvention. We even left a few things, such as the Indian fabric wall covering in the dining room, intact. It has a patina you cannot re-create.” The six-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bath home has long been an oasis from the city for Netter and her family. For years, Netter ran a Manhattan shop, Touchstone Antiques, where she honed her curatorial eye for American folk art, immediately in evidence in the house’s foyer. Here, 13 vintage iron top hats—originally used as signage for hat shops—perch jauntily on a wall, giving the entryway “a degree of dimension,” Netter says. 

Beautifully arranged assemblages of objects and antiques catch the eye virtually everywhere one looks: Vintage utensils and cookie molds hang on a wall in the kitchen; a cluster of decorative bowls adorns one corner of the dining room; antique brass shoes—given to young brides in Victorian times as a symbol of fertility—sit above the headboard in the master bedroom. Netter’s husband, a book collector, also left his mark on the house, in the form of a vintage book press that “weighs seven tons,” Netter quips, a bookstand, and a page turner. But his wife was the true collector. “My poor husband had to live with all this,” she adds with a laugh. “‘You always have to find all these things!’ he would say. But he still liked to go antiquing, and we traveled throughout Europe doing so.”

Other family members have learned to appreciate Netter’s antiques acumen, even if her vision occasionally hasn’t paralleled theirs. Netter recalls the time she found an old Danish sleigh and enlisted her sons-in-law to bring it home and install it on the sun porch. “I said, ‘I’m making it into a glass-topped coffee table with a shelf underneath to put plants on,’” she recalls. “They looked at me like I was off the wall.”

When it was Laslo’s turn to update the decor, his design proposition was to anchor everything with white—from lacquered floors to canvas slipcovers for the sofas. “White is like sterling silver—it should always look polished, and stay that way,” he says. Palm Beach pink and green are sprinkled throughout the sun porch and in the living room as accent colors, with a floral print on the throw pillows echoing the dahlias and tulips that grow in abundance in Netter’s cutting garden. Netter had always dreamed of having a toile-bedecked master bedroom, which materialized here in a berry red that matches yet another collection, an array of cranberry-colored glass displayed on a side table and a secretary.

Gardening is a deep passion of Netter’s, and she has worked on the property with landscape designer Denise Puccinelli since 1981. The cutting garden, an herb garden, and a rose garden with hybrid tea roses are now maintained by Keith Acken, Jr., of One Love, and all, Netter says, are well worth the considerable effort they require. But standing out the most is a towering green beech tree, planted when it was just eight feet tall, that now dominates the middle of the circular driveway in front of the house. In addition to being a real beauty, it bears witness to nearly four decades of nurturing, attention to detail, and love. 

A version of this article appeared in the December 2014 issue of New York & Cottage & Gardens with the headline: Antique Notions.