The Simple Life: Eileen Fisher - My House, Myself
It's the kind of house that makes you feel as if the rest of the world doesn't exist. Maybe that's because of the mesmerizing view of the Hudson River, which draws you in as soon as you cross the threshold. Or perhaps it's the pale, utterly unadorned walls or the precisely placed furniture. Whatever the reason, there's something here that makes even the air seem cleaner, fresher, more limpid. You want take a deep breath, reach for the sky, and let all the stress within you evaporate. That's exactly the effect Eileen Fisher had in mind.
"People get a feeling of calm and peacefulness from this house," says the fashion designer and entrepreneur, who is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her company this year. In building the house she building the house she shares with her two children—Zachary, 15, and Sasha, 11—Fisher applied the same rigorous discipline she brings to creating her minimalist clothing designs. "Simple is hard to do," she observes. "But when you get there, it's so liberating. It means taking away things to arrive at just the right elements. I have a chaotic brain, but here I feel calm and organized. It's a relief."
Several years ago (and, as it happens, shortly before her divorce in 1997), Fisher bought property close to her office in a quaint riverfront town just north of New York City. The purchase was part of an effort to streamline her life. "I had been seriously thinking about ways to both integrate and separate home and work," says Fisher. "This was a really perfect spot."
While the site may have been perfect, the existing house decidedly wasn't. And so, after a chance meeting in a local restaurant, Fisher enlisted Earl Everett Ferguson— an architect with whom she had worked as a graphic designer some 30 years earlier—to help renovate the place. But the architect and his client couldn't agree on a new plan. "I realized too many rooms would always be without a view of the river," Fisher recalls. Eventually, Ferguson says, they decided to tear down the house and build an entirely new one, "a custom design for Eileen's lifestyle, a New England cottage tucked around evergreen trees."
The rambling 9,000-square-foot building is modeled on a traditional farmhouse, but its graceful, fan-shaped layout is only one room deep, which means that nearly every window has a river view. The exterior lifts elements from a range of American vernacular styles, including New England Waterfront, Shingle Cottage, Greek Revival, and Carpenter Victorian. "It's all mashed together," Ferguson explains, "a modern plan in a classical package with a bit of whimsy."
Fisher was adamant about having all the rooms open and compatible with one another. "I love nature, the river, sunsets, the Shakers—nothing stuffy or serious," she says. The central meeting place is the large kitchen, which is sandwiched between the glass-enclosed dining room and the more formal living room. Fisher is pleased when visitors feel immediately comfortable and gather around the long dining table (which was inspired by a traditional quilting table), perch at the kitchen counter, or relax on the deep linen-covered sofas that flank the fireplace and its distressed-cherry wood mantelpiece.
The house clearly reflects Fisher's fashion creed, which she says is "all about simplicity, ease, comfort, and freedom of movement." The house is also a direct reflection of Fisher's own personal style: straightforward yet informal, luxurious yet unpretentious, spare Ferguson worked with Fisher on the fan-shaped design of the house, which borrows from a number of vernacular styles and is only one room deep, so nearly every room has a view of the river, without being austere. After consulting with Susan Anthony, an interior designer based in Irvington, New York, Fisher decided that every wall would be painted in a neutral color from a palette of "bone or stone" (one room was matched precisely to a raincoat in her clothing line). The dark wood benches, chairs, and tables— some antiques, some reproductions—were chosen because their distinctive shapes contrast with the pale walls and upholstery.
Fisher worked closely with Ferguson on the design of the Shaker-inspired cabinetry and the two cherry wood staircases, which feature elegant, asking-to-be-stroked banisters. "We borrowed the details and proportions for the staircases from a book on 19th-century Shaker craftsmanship," Ferguson offers. Always in the habit of touching things and experimenting with different textures, Fisher is keenly sensitive to how people feel when they wear her clothes or walk through her home. One of her main goals, she says, is "to have a relaxed environment, because that's what's needed to be creative." (That strategy certainly works for her: She recently held a staff meeting while floating in the indoor pool off the entrance foyer.)
Although her home holds universal appeal, it is not without idiosyncrasy. For one thing, the air-conditioning is never turned on; when the weather is warm, the windows are left wide open and the ceiling fans whir overhead, adding to the feeling of airiness. "Cross-ventilation was a big part of the design," Fisher says. "Otherwise, you feel as if you are hi an office building. I like real life. When the house gets sealed up, you lose contact with nature."
Nor is there a tub in the master bathroom. "I like to take showers," the designer confides, "and I swim in the indoor pool. Not putting in a tub was about being honest with what I really needed."
And shockingly, there is absolutely no art on any of the walls. "I think space is a backdrop for people," Fisher says, adding that seeing the shapes of others moving through the rooms is her idea of art. So, too, is the spectacular Shaker-inspired spiral staircase. "That's sculpture," she says, "a free-floating shape that adds to the fluidity of the house."
The sense of movement—of having enough space to run and dance around the rooms—reminds Fisher of her childhood in Des Flames, Illinois. She remembers growing up happy in a place she calls "Anywhere, USA, with seven kids and two adults in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom." She pauses to look out at a sailboat drifting down the river. "I always liked to dance for fun in front of a picture window," she says. "I guess, somehow, I've just recreated my childhood here.