Shelter Island, N.Y., a sylvan splash of land positioned between the tines of Long Island’s North and South Forks, is only a 10-minute ferry ride from Sag Harbor and the rest of the Hamptons. And yet, with its weather-beaten clapboard houses and unmanicured lawns — and its lack of tony boîtes and traffic lights — it feels much farther away. The potter and designer Jonathan Adler and the author and fashion commentator Simon Doonan have been visiting the island since they met 25 years ago, and it’s here, on the northern shore, that they built their summer house in 2011.
A serene 2,300-square-foot pavilion designed by Gray Organschi Architecture, the house combines the midcentury Southern California Modernism of Richard Neutra with wabi-sabi naturalism: There are contiguous glass walls that wash the rooms in East End light, slate floors the color of the brackish Peconic just a few steps away and natural wood ceiling panels that echo the sand dunes buffeting the property. At first glance, the washed black corrugated steel facade, inspired by the couple’s travels to Japan, might look inscrutable here — too modern, too brutal — and yet it seems perfectly at peace among the tall grasses, Japanese black pines and Hollywood junipers that were planted by the local landscape designer Vickie Cardaro and undulate in the breeze coming in from Gardiners Bay to the east.
Inside, the property is an effervescent universe filled with a happy, slightly unruly mix of new designs being test-driven for Adler’s furniture and home line, which is known for its kitschy ebullience, alongside pieces contributed by the couple’s friends and thrifting finds that fall just this side of zany. In addition to a Deco sunburst lamp from a thrift shop in Phoenix, Ariz., for instance, visitors will find a giant head-shaped planter by the functional artist Nicola L. and an outsize acrylic foot by Adler that shifts in color like a mood ring. “I’ve always loved art in which ordinary objects are made huge,” he says.
He and Doonan worked on the house around the time Adler was commissioned to design the interiors of the Parker Palm Springs hotel, and the home inherited some of that project’s breezy 1950s louche quality in its open floor plan and the fact that it has more seating than would seem strictly necessary (nothing being more luxurious than options). But above all, the space is attuned to the needs and diffuse tastes of its owners, and a sense of free-flowing ease prevails.
The main living space alone contains half a dozen studies in scale and texture, including a concrete fire pit, curved steel Warren Platner-designed armchairs and a modular aerated concrete screen for which Adler was inspired by the organic Modernism of Reform synagogues. And the tone is as likely to shift as the references, with the earnest sidling up to the cheeky. In the bedroom, a small ’70s-era abstraction by the American painter Robert Natkin is in conversation with an etching of George Washington picked up from a thrift store and given a Pop Art-style defacement (which includes an eye patch and a medallion bearing Prince’s love symbol) by Doonan; on the bed is an embroidered suzani textile and, above it, a 1970s Sergio Bustamante brass rhino head sculpture (its giraffe counterpart is installed in the pair’s apartment in the Greenwich Village).
Adler’s wide array of handmade vessels runs along a shelf that skims the ceiling like a frieze in what he describes as the “teensy-weensy kitchen,” which is set off from the dining area by a fantastical mural of ospreys, a common sight around the island, as they plunge into the water, by the American artist John-Paul Philippe. (Philippe, a friend whom Doonan, in his former role as the creative director of Barneys New York, conscripted to make Modernist fixtures and murals for the store, is well-represented here; one of his organic abstract steel sculptures stands sentry outside.)
Still, about 90 percent of the décor is by Adler. “I’m a very selfish person,” he says. “When I design something, it’s usually because it’s something I want to live with.” To Doonan, this is only natural: “It’s suspect to me when you see a designer and they’re not wearing their own stuff. It’s like, hang on, you want everybody else to buy it?” he says. Does he ever tire of living inside Adler’s design process? “People always ask us that,” Doonan says. “I think they think of two gay men strangling each other over fabric choices. I’m happy to defer to him in terms of interior design, because that’s his profession. I don’t believe in doing things by committee anyway — it never works.” Which isn’t to say Doonan is sitting idle. “Simon is unbearably prolific,” Adler says. “He writes about 85 books a year. He’s like Barbara Cartland.” Currently, Doonan is working on two books: one on Keith Haring, and the other a self-help book titled “How to Be Yourself,” due out from Phaidon in October.
Despite all this industriousness, the house cultivates a sense of freedom, both from the crushing clip of city life and what the writer A.A. Gill called “perfection anxiety,” which Doonan thinks is very much on display back on the mainland. “I’m looking at our backyard, and our oak tree has big, dead branches that look fabulous, and some of the grasses are overgrown into the pathways, but it all looks kind of groovy,” he says. “I think people design houses with resale or presentation in mind, but those things weren’t on our radar. Our neighbors walked in one day and said, ‘Wow, you’ve made a house for yourselves.’”
He and Adler have, on account of the lockdown, been living in the house full-time since March, the longest stretch they’ve ever stayed there. They watched their cherry blossoms bloom and fade as spring slipped into summer — the first time, says Adler, that they’ve been present and still enough to fully appreciate the property’s natural charms. They also have a lone fig tree in the entry courtyard. “Because we’re usually only here a couple days a week, every time we see a fig that’s about to be ripe, by the time we come back, some bird has eaten it,” says Adler. “Now, though, I think we’re finally going to be able to enjoy the figs.”