Attending To The Space
Laura Michaels transforms an old Montauk navy barracks into an ideal beach cottage
A visit to residential designer Laura Michaels’s Montauk cottage overlooking Fort Pond in Montauk can be dangerous. If you live in a big house, you might catch yourself wondering if you really need all that square footage. But if you live in a cottage, you may regret that your own home doesn’t feel as spacious and airy as her Michaels’ place does. And how did she manage to stain the reclaimed wood floorboards such a luminous golden hue? (“Hours of trial and error.”) In short, you’ll wish you could hire Michaels to make your place look more like her place.
“There were raccoons in the rafters when I bought it!” Michaels says from the open-plan living room of the 812-square foot structure that serves as her showcase. In 2008, Michaels, whose work incorporates green and sustainable design principles, was planning on building “a modern box” on a piece of land she owned just across the pond. But she scrapped that idea when a dilapidated old navy barracks, located just twenty feet from the bluff, came on the market. “I took one look at the view and thought, ‘I’m a designer. I can re-envision this cottage in a fresh way.’” Michaels likes to quote Frank Gehry, who attributed the source of his creativity to “a timeline and a budget.” So it was that she completed her epic redo within a year.
Tearing down all but one wall of the original structure, she maintained the footprint while transforming the space into the Platonic ideal of a beach cottage (high ceilings, staggering views, light bedazzled space). For the interiors, she sourced a mix of vintage and modern pieces, including a Ligne Roset sofa which she reupholstered in silver vinyl, the better to repel beach sand and the water left behind by guests who plunk down in still-damp swimsuits.
“I love to reimagine utterly decrepit things,” she says. For that reason, when a longtime client, a former investment banker who loves to surf, asked if she would work on the refit of a shack he’d just bought as part of a family compound, she didn’t hesitate. The house was built in the Forties and had not been lived in for about twenty years. Yet the place had one very attractive feature: it was situated at the edge of Fort Pond Bay.
The result is an example of a Montauk beach bungalow done right. Inside a waxed walnut dining table by Matthew Hilton surrounded by Eames chairs shares a room with an octagonal vintage sofa that she reupholstered in rugged Perennial green fabric and a compact modern-design fireplace for chilly days. And views of the bay are rendered large by virtue of the picture windows and glass sliders that Michaels installed throughout the house. Other clever moves that blur the boundaries between indoors and outdoors are pebble floors in the bathroom and driftwood nightstands cut from tree stumps which Michaels found at the beach. She retained all the home’s original timber and fashioned from it furniture of her own design, including the vanity in the bathroom.
What is most striking about the house is that it doesn’t look ‘designed’ in a generic way. Rather, it looks like the work of someone with a fabulous eye who truly attended to the space. Michaels, who tattooed the words “Be present” on the inside of a forearm, says that when she takes on a project, she spends a lot of time thinking about the interiors before she begins. “I try to persuade my clients to live in the house for a while with just the basics. Once you have a feel for the place, only then do you start layering.” She looks around at the cottage and gestures to a row of vintage glass vases, placed on a sideboard to catch and refract the pond light. “Good decorating isn’t something you can do all in one go.”