"An artist born and bred in Texas and a British ceramist find that a pair of rustic barns in Amagansett makes the perfect family home—but only after designer Richard Mishaan steps in to add his inimitable flair.
A century ago, potato fields and agricultural barns were as common on the eastern end of Long Island, New York, as seagulls and swallows. Most of that land was later sold off for residential development and golf courses; nowadays, original barns on the South Fork are nearly extinct. But 41 summers ago, when artists John Alexander—at the invitation of Willem de Kooning—drove his 1970 El Camino from Houston, where he was teaching, to the Hamptons, barns still existed—for rent and sometimes for sale. In short order, Alexander uprooted from Texas and moved into a SoHo loft, made a name for himself on the downtown art scene, and started renting summer places out east. In the mid-1980s, Alexander learned that a pair of old barns on a two-and-a-half-acre property in Amagansett would soon come on the market. He envisioned the ideal startup for an artist: He could paint in one barn and live in another. No matter that someone was renting the property that summer and the homeowner wouldn’t let Alexander inside the converted, connected buildings. He bought the barns sight unseen. (The late-1960s bathroom, with its mirrored walls and sunken tub, would not have been a deterrent.) ‘It was perfect,’ he recalls. ‘I could move in and have a studio immediately—I didn’t have to miss any work.’ When he wasn’t painting, Alexander, who grew up in East Texas, worked on cultivating the land. He planted lots of trees (‘I didn’t want to see the road, and the road didn’t want to see me’) and, with the help of water lilies, cattails, and flowering plants, made the pond on the property look like the Gulf Coast swamps of his youth. ‘The pond is my baby. It’s an integral part of my art,’ he says. ‘I fell so in love with gardening and being outdoors. My paintings softened because of that.’ Other than removing a loft area in the main barn to create more open space and jettisoning the bathroom décor, Alexander sough to retain the rustic simplicity of the structures, which date back to the late 1700s or early 1800s. The spartan aesthetic lasted until he married Fiona Waterstreet, a vivacious, color-loving, pattern-happy Englishwoman, who came into his life with her young son, Harrison, two decades ago. ‘I brought my English sensibility,’ says Waterstreet, a ceramist. ‘I wanted boxwoods and lavender, that kind of thing.’ Florals and botanicals of a different sort began to infiltrate the interiors in the form of textiles, which Waterstreet passionately collects. When, over time, her affinity for boldly upholstered antiques and patterned pillows threatened to upend the barn’s raw spiting, the couple called on their interior-designer friend Richard Mishaan, who had previously helped decorate their SoHo loft (Elle Décor, September 2014). Mishaan, who has a weekend house in nearby Sag Harbor, made a barn call. ‘Fiona told me to get rid of anything, and I said, ‘I’m going to disappoint you in a funny way’—I wanted to keep so much,’ Mishaan recalls of the charming vignettes that the couple had assembled throughout. ‘John said, ‘If anyone comes in my house and describes it as fancy, you’ve not done your job.’ In the end, it was up to me to hash out what was best for them.’ A gifted mix master and serious art collector, Mishaan has a special knack for crafting eclectic, layered interiors that always look balanced and orderly. Often, he lets the art dictate the order. For the barn’s living and dining area, for instance, a painting by Alexander of a field of poppies informed the palette. Mishaan introduced a beige animal print and upholstered a pair of sofas in emerald green velvet to play off the painting’s foliage. (When Waterstreet found them too bring for summer, slipcovers were made from an embroidered Mexican fabric.) The couple’s dining chairs were refashioned with floral backs but given plain fronts because, as Mishaan explains, there was already a lot going on in the living area: ‘We took it just to the limits of where John was going to start to scream.’ In the process of the redo, Alexander moved his painting studio to another place down the road, and the second barn was transformed into a spacious family room, with a guest bedroom above. It’s Harrison’s wing when Waterstreet’s now 27-year-old son visits from Los Angeles, where he works at the talent agency CAA. It retains all of the character of a rustic 200-year-old barn, despite the polished look of a well-considered seating arrangement and the gallery effect of the artist’s works. ‘Richard helped create a calmer, much more organized environment, even though it’s very colorful,’ says Waterstreet of the spruced-up home. ‘I created clutter,’ she adds with a laugh, ‘and he cleaned it up.’”