Low-Maintenance Living
- The New York Times, 08/05/2009

Instead of furnishing their East Hampton, N.Y., house with the overstuffed sofas and antiques favored by so many of their neighbors, Russell Groves, 45, and Neal Beckstedt, 32, took a different approach.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What’s the most practical, low-maintenance solution?’ ” Mr. Beckstedt said. “And it always came down to something that would be used in school.”

As Mr. Groves put it, “We always joke that it looks like a German boys’ school.”

The schoolhouse décor, which incorporates elements like linoleum, mop sinks and graffiti-covered classroom chairs, is their “tongue in cheek” way of countering “the excess we were seeing in the Hamptons,” he said.

“We must have seen 25 properties” in the search for the house, which took nearly six months, Mr. Beckstedt said. If a house wasn’t a mildewed tear-down, it was oversize — and overstuffed: “Simple shingle on the outside,” he said, and “on the inside, all floral sofas with fringe.”

“We didn’t want to come to a getaway home for a weekend away and have to worry about nicks and scratches,” he added. “We wanted something compact, efficient and casual.”

The couple, who run S. Russell Groves, a Manhattan architecture and interiors firm, finally found what they were looking for in the woods of Springs, N.Y., a town on the South Fork of Long Island. They loved its weathered cedar siding and simple H-shape layout — an airy central living room flanked by a master bedroom and kitchen on one side and two spare bedrooms on the other, offering privacy for weekend guests.

Best of all, Mr. Beckstedt said, the modest 1980s spec house, about 1,800 square feet, which they bought for $685,000 in 2005, “had no character at all, so we knew we could really put our stamp on it.”

After eight years of working together on projects like Scarpetta restaurant in the meatpacking district and the Fifth Avenue store for the Hong Kong fashion house Blanc de Chine, decorating their home was a process that felt “more instinctual than intellectual,” Mr. Groves said.

They gravitated toward their usual mix of organic and industrial elements, installing canvas roller shades on the windows and metal doors with ribbed glass inserts throughout the house, to allow light in but preserve privacy.

A 1950s classroom clock with a faded face and heavy black hands was bought on eBay to hang in the kitchen, and for the floor they chose seamless linoleum that recalls an elementary school cafeteria. They installed linoleum flooring in the bathrooms as well — a black-and-gray checkerboard pattern that works with the oversize mop sinks and white subway tiles to create the feeling of a janitor’s closet.

The neighbors may be appalled, but Mr. Beckstedt is a big fan of the affordable, much-maligned flooring. Linoleum is “very, very chic,” he said. “It’s like wall-to-wall carpeting, except it’s a hard surface and you can scrub it.”

For shelving in the bathroom, they found white metal medicine cabinets that Mr. Groves said reminded him of “the ones in the nurse’s office that she’d get the tongue depressor and iodine out of.”

After the kitchen and bathrooms were finished, they turned their attention to the living room.
They covered the wall surrounding the fireplace with brick, to introduce warmth and focus to the room, and combined ethereal pieces (a delicate Isamu Noguchi hanging lamp from the Noguchi Museum Store in Queens) with more substantial ones (a 1930s driftwood lamp found at the Gray Gardens antiques store in Stamford, Conn.).

Metal shelving from a wholesaler was filled with crates once used to ship ammunition, found on eBay, to create a storage unit. A set of eight graffiti-covered schoolhouse chairs was also bought on eBay, to provide seating in the living room and in the dining room, surrounding a Florence Knoll conference table.

Even the occasional splurge — like the $3,500 wall sconce by the French industrial designer Mathieu Mategot that Mr. Groves couldn’t help buying when he spotted it on 1stdibs.com — stayed close to their aesthetic. “We always came back to this industrial, institutional theme,” he said.

“Our rallying cry was ‘schoolhouse-Bauhaus,’ ” Mr. Beckstedt added, referring, in part, to one of their favorite eBay finds: six small, clean-lined lamps by Christian Dell, a Bauhaus designer, which they put in the bedrooms.

The master bedroom was one of the last rooms to be finished, a couple of months ago, and is a mix of high and low. A cashmere Hermès blanket is draped over the bed, but the Parsons desk is from West Elm and the black leather Harvey Probber dining chair was bought on eBay.

Now that the house is complete, and the couple are welcoming a constant stream of guests, upkeep is one thing they don’t have to worry about: Like the rooms in a schoolhouse infirmary, the guest bedrooms are outfitted with iron hospital beds bought on eBay for $100 apiece. In some places, the paint has flecked off, exposing the rust-speckled metal beneath.

“The patina really adds a level of character,” Mr. Beckstedt said. And if the guests get rowdy, he said, so much the better for the beds. “Hit them and they’ll have a beautiful dent.”