An old farmhouse, not too close to the road, in upstate New York: These were some of the things on the checklist when Manhattan-based couple Valentina Akerman and Joe Bradley set out to find their perfect vacation retreat. After spending what felt like every weekend for a year looking at a million houses upstate, they found their dream home—and it wasn’t upstate at all. It was a block away from the beach in the East Hampton hamlet of Amagansett.
It all happened very quickly. Bradley, an artist, had a show in Amagansett, and Akerman, with their 4-week-old newborn in tow, went along. At one point, Akerman found a local house for sale online and thought, “Oh my god, this is incredible.” The family went to see it that weekend, loved it, and bought it that same month.
Although the circa-1972 home was in great disrepair—“it was not the house [people] want to buy when they buy in the Hamptons,” says Akerman—it had a strong architectural pedigree. The Snell House, named for the original family that lived there, was designed by Franklin D. Israel, a Frank Gehry mentee who would go on to build his career in Los Angeles designing private residences and offices for film production companies (plus sets for movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture) that advanced the region’s distinctive postmodern flourish. This Hamptons beach house was Israel’s first commission, and it was precisely its design “naivete” that appealed to Akerman, who had trained and worked in architecture for many years.
“It is the house of a young architect... but it has some grand gestures,” says Akerman. She’s talking about two big square shapes in the floor plan that play off each other to define the rooms of the house, as well as the way the fireplace and kitchen counter are positioned to divide up the space. And then there are the ambitious, massive windows on the second floor, which are framed to immerse inhabitants in the sky à la a James Turrell Skyspace. “There was a lot of beauty and a lot of purity in [Israel’s] approach,” she says.
At the same time, the house needed some big changes, and the couple enlisted a trusted family friend, local architect Jeni Erbes-Chan of Wythe Studios Architects, for the job. The brief? To preserve the architectural integrity of the space as much as possible, but make it more contemporary, more “user-friendly.”
The renovation list was long, starting from basics like thickening the walls and redoing the exterior from plywood board and batten to vernacular cedar cladding that had been treated to a silvery gray. Interior changes focused on the layout and lighting experience. The ground floor originally had a public half and a private half in what Erbes-Chan called a “warren of tiny rooms,” a section that she knocked out to create a cohesive open plan.
She also focused on bringing in more natural light and continuing the “logic and rhythm” of existing windows with additional windows and skylights. “Regardless of where you are in the house, you had views to the outside,” says Erbes-Chan.
When it comes to interior decor, it might seem surprising that a designer and artist’s house is all blank walls. “For me that was really just enough,” says Akerman. “Joe, too, he was very emphatic, he didn’t want to have anything there. I was like, ‘Can we just do drawings, maybe?’ and he was like, ‘No, no, no, let’s just be in a space that feels very Zen and very quiet.” (The family’s place in the city has art on the walls and “things everywhere.”)
“We wanted [this home] to be really empty in a sense, but very comfortable,” she says. That’s why, for example, they went with a big, cozy white couch that was modern enough but didn’t overpower, and that was clean both visually and through its eco-friendly materials.
“I just love the sparse quality of [the space] and how the light bounces off every single surface,” Akerman says. “We wanted that to be the show.”
Still, the house has a few “louder” moments, like the whimsical terrazzo surfaces in the kitchen and on the custom-designed dining table. The material, called Marmoreal, is a wonderfully graphic engineered marble from British designer Max Lamb, and Akerman was intent on having it after coming across it in her travels.
“At the time when we were looking at [Marmoreal], there wasn’t any way to look at samples in person, so it was a leap of faith to specify that,” Erbes-Chan says. “The colors in real life are much more muted and subtle than what you see on the computer screen, and it worked really well with the red oak kitchen.”
The dreamy pink bathroom upstairs, on the other hand, involved more trial and error. It started out as a quest for a material with the right look, feel, and durability for a vacation home. Akerman was originally interested in terra cotta, but that turned out rather lifeless in person. Erbes-Chan says they also looked into tadelakt, a waterproof plaster, before coming across the beautiful blush cement tiles.
“Oh I love [the pink bathroom],” says Akerman. “I’m from Latin America, so I wanted something very earthy...I wanted it to be warm. [The color] reminds me of Luis Barragán and Mexican architecture that uses pink so well as a neutral.”
Since renovations completed two years ago, the family has spent summers in the house and returned on weekends through the winter.
“We spend a lot of time in front of the fire in the winter, just lounging,” says Akerman. “We love the terraces in the summertime, because it’s so private. You can sunbathe naked on the upstairs terrace... on the downstairs terrace, we do a lot of outdoor eating and cooking. In the fall, we always make crafting projects outside.”
Last year, the family did a lot of planting to better hide the home from plain view, which they’ve wanted to do for a while. The only other thing Akerman would add? A Japanese soaking tub.