Montauk Magic

A Design Arbiter Reveals all. Sort of

The photos make it seem like a breeze. You buy an old Montauk bungalow and transform it into an Instagram-worthy vacation rental. For every layperson who thinks they could paint like Jackson Pollock (if only they tried), there is an armchair interior decorator who believes design glory can be theirs through a combination of good taste and Pinterest. Until, that is, the contractors’ estimates start coming in. Then, if they’re like most people, they will abruptly change tack. They’ll do the bare minimum and describe their surf shack as ‘minimalist’. Scrap the plan to raise the ceilings, forget about replacing the small inefficient windows, say good-bye to the floor boards with radiant heat. Just rip out the stained carpet, paint everything white, and call it a year.

The 1800-square-foot bungalow in the photos that has both launched and dashed countless redo dreams was designed by Robert McKinley, whose firm, Robert McKinley Studio, designed Montauk’s Surf Lodge. It’s the third in a series of beach cottages that McKinley and his wife, Kate Nauta, refurbished as buy-to-rent properties in Montauk. McKinley’s renovation process offers a window into how a designer sees and thinks.

For example, where some might have dismissed the single-story flat-roofed structure as a mere concrete box, McKinley saw pure potential. “Some houses have too many structural problems” says McKinley. “They might have framing issues or poor foundations. We really don’t want to tackle those.” But not in this case. The house, located a block from the beach and within walking distance to the center of town, had been well maintained by the seller, its original owner.

One of McKinley’s first moves was to increase the usable space by gutting a car port and a studio, both to the east of the house. Where those structures once stood, he added a capacious master bedroom with an en suite bathroom. For the latter, he chose white porcelain Duravit fixtures because he liked their European feel. He also installed skylights, a new roof outfitted with solar panels, Crittall-style windows and doors — fabricated from wood and fiberglass rather than steel — and polished concrete floors. The color of those floors is a warm gray which evoked, for him, “the beautiful dark color of wet sand when the tide recedes.” 

The decor is a reflection of the couple’s relationship to both Montauk and the wider world. “The interiors are an expression of how we live as a family and how we like to decorate our own homes,” says McKinley. “We love to travel and we love hotels, but we also love renting houses. So when we decided to buy vacation rental properties, we thought, let’s make them really special.” For the couple, that means mixing vintage pieces with new and found objects. The antique Tuareg floor mats work perfectly with the furniture he designed for the bungalow, including a plush linen sofa and a window seat. Such carefully considered choices strike an earthy tactile note that adds warmth to the decor. McKinley appreciates the “grounding quality of natural materials that aren’t overly finished.”

“I’m a very emotional designer and my wife is a creative person and we share a need for timeless things that age well.” Many of those items are available for purchase. McKinley explains, “It was my wife’s idea to do shoppable homes. We thought, let’s let people in on how we find and do things.” To do that end, the couple has a list of design resources on their McKinley Bungalow website. But McKinley isn’t giving away trade secrets. “What I don’t share with the public are our inspiration boards. The formula for getting there is infinitely more precious to me than the final product.”

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