[Decor] Hampton’s Paradise
“I wanted it to read as American, without an a at the end,” says James Huniford of his smart weekend home on Long Island’s south shore. Tanned, barefoot, and boyish in worn jeans and a surfing T-shirt, the designer, better known as Ford to his friends and colleagues, couldn’t look more the part himself.
To ensure that final vowel stays banished, there’s not a flag, whirligig, weather vane, or braided rug in sight. Windsor, wingback, and wicker chairs do show up, not to mention a ship captain’s trunk, a tractor belt cover, and a wall-spanning rusted-out sign from the side of a freight truck. In lesser hands, such pieces might court kitsch, but Huniford’s eye for the sculptural and gift for composition blot out any blatant Colonial references. Rather, the abandoned mills, stone quarries, and rugged farm equipment that formed the backdrop to his upstate New York childhood seem more pertinent—but here it is as if they are seen through the eyes of some iconic midcentury American artists.
In fact, a pair of Robert Rauschenberg lithographs flanking the living room’s bay window are Huniford’s talismans. Of the found objects he incorporated into his combines, Rauschenberg once stated “the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing.” Huniford borrows the concept and runs with it through the whole house; Rauschenberg’s influence is unmistakable in every room. Line, form, and texture attract Huniford. “More than anything I wanted a soothing interior, but I love creating pull and tension between pieces that are important and those that are not,” he says.
Huniford snapped up the 1865 shingled saltbox four years ago, charmed by its plainspoken purity. “At this point in my life, I’m happiest in homes that are calming and unfussy,” says the single dad of two young children who enjoy full run of the 3,500-square-foot house. In the living room, a lamp made from a piece of driftwood sits on an 18th-century Belgian jeweler’s table. A tangle of weather-worn buoys anchors a Huniford-designed chair. A quartet of steel welding disks over the fireplace commands as much attention as those Rauschenbergs.
Nothing pleases the designer more than the broad Corten-steel ceiling beam he discovered buried under layers of Sheetrock. Yes, it’s holding up the house, but the patina and unmistakable physicality recall a Richard Serra piece. In the dining room, a pair of anemone-like sculptures stands in lieu of candelabra on the vintage table that inspired the design of one in his new line of furniture. A half-dozen swordfish noses huddle under a rare English glass cloche. Giant springs, soil turners, and 18th-century glass bottles serve as lamp bases, and painter’s stools become cocktail tables. Wooden ceramic molds float on a kitchen wall, and bronze finials perch like cupcakes under a glass cake dome. Huniford even presses soapstone foot warmers into service. “They make great trays for cheese,” he says.
Upstairs, sections of a wood-slatted conveyer belt are transformed into ingenious bath mats, and a perforated bin lid marks the head of a bed. In another guest room, a pair of oars stretches across an otherwise bare wall, above twin beds rescued from a defunct monastery. Huniford saved the most dramatic repurposing for the master bedroom, where a 16-foot-long wood chain, taken from a schooner in the San Juan islands, rises from the floor like a charmed snake, vying for attention with an 18th-century tree trunk on an adjacent wall.
It all could have added up to a kind of folksy excess had Huniford not approached the decoration in a painterly way, using the ceiling, floors, and walls as his canvas. The designer concocted a custom white he calls “foggy summer squall” for its tints of gray and green, and then covered every wall in the house with it—bringing the objects, furniture, and art into graphic relief. In the absence of color, even the 19th-century hinges, hooks, and latches throughout the space and the unadorned rope-and-weight windows he devised read as sculpture.
Before he put brush to paint, though, Huniford reconfigured the layout to suit his family and a constant parade of houseguests. “There are times when almost a dozen people just drop by,” says the inveterate host, “and some end up spending the weekend.” Walls came down in the public spaces and went up in the private ones, expanding the number of bedrooms from three to six. He tore out the ceiling in a former ground-floor bedroom to make a vault-ceilinged den, then took his cues from a series of Agnes Martin drawings that hang there, curating the found objects and furniture into an elegant composition of lines and grids set off by subtle fields of color.
“I believe houses come to you when they should,” says Huniford, “and this one couldn’t better reflect where I am in my life right now.” Despite maintaining an enviable clientele that stretches from Manhattan to Marin County, launching a new furniture line, and raising two children solo, the affable designer insists he likes to keep things on the simple side. “You won’t find a suit jacket in the closet here,” he says with a laugh. Everything you will find in the house is thoroughly original, however. And it doesn’t get any more American than that.