This story originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
Four years ago, when Eric Hughes began designing a weekend house in Bridgehampton, New York, for actress Sarah Jessica Parker, he knew he wanted to create a place that could handle sandy feet, damp bathing suits, and lots of people. He was a California boy who grew up in Newport Beach, so he knew all about beachy weekend life. What he was not, surprisingly, was an interior designer. A recent refugee from Hollywood, he had given up his job as vice president of production at Universal Pictures, where he had shepherded hit movies like Bride of Chucky and Bring It On. So despite the fact that he and Parker had been friends for years, he was a bit nervous about the undertaking.
“I kept thinking, This is the house that Carrie built,” says Hughes.
But Parker, like all his friends, knew that Hughes had exquisite taste. He had informally helped her decorate a New York apartment, but nonetheless, “I was a little scared,” he admits. “This wasn’t just about putting up some paint and finding a toile sofa. But I think she felt comfortable knowing I wouldn’t decorate it to the nines in a movie-star sort of way.”
Just a bike ride from the beach, the house is one of the few places where Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick, can decompress with their nearly three-year-old son, James Wilke. It’s a respite from crazy shooting schedules and Broadway rehearsals. “For me and Matthew, it was important that the house not be too precious,” says Parker. “We didn’t want anything stuffy or showy. We wanted color and light, and comfort, comfort, comfort.” It’s a place where they can play Ping-Pong and entertain friends and Parker’s large family (she is one of eight children). In fact, the couple has come to love the area so much they’ve just purchased another beach cottage, nettled in the dunes of nearby Amagansett.
Finding this first house hadn’t been easy, however. For years, real-estate agents showed Parker places that were too fancy and lacked the local character that had been drawing her to Long Island as a renter for more than a decade. Then, by accident, she spotted a photo of a Victorian-era house that looked just right in a Realtor’s window. Within minutes she was walking through a cedar-sided, 19th-century farmhouse flooded with natural light and graced with high ceilings. She made an offer that afternoon.
“We didn’t want anything stuffy or showy,” says Parker. “We wanted color and light, and comfort, comfort, comfort.”
Parker and Hughes immediately agreed to add on an expansive front porch, creating an outdoor living space that could accommodate a porch swing and up to 20 people for meals. Inside, Hughes widened the doorways, opening up the living spaces and giving the house a more generous flow. He created a clean, crisp backdrop by painting all the rooms with Benjamin Moore Super White. “I wanted to let the architecture speak for itself,” he explains, “and then fill the rooms with punches of color and simple pieces with lots of character.” At Parker’s request, the kitchen cabinetry is a glossy tulip red.
Hughes took inspiration from one of his favorite designers, Billy Baldwin. With clients including Cole Porter and Kitty and Gilbert Miller, Baldwin had the kind of New York theater pedigree that made sense for two actors’ lives, so Hughes adapted Baldwin’s cues to the beach. He had a classic sofa upholstered in the designer’s favorite brown denim. He used Baldwin’s iconic splatter print for the window seat in the living room. He placed a linen-covered Karl Springer console in the couple’s bedroom and designed a dining room table inspired by the one in the Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner house in nearby East Hampton. But Hughes wasn’t afraid to mix in low with high style. He picked up several pieces at local tag sales and thrift stores and had IKEA Parsons tables painting to look like lacquer.
Best of all, Hughes added personal touches. “I kept thinking, This is the house that Carrie built,” he recalls, referring to Parker’s character on Sex and the City. So he called the show’s production designer and asked for an architectural rendering of Carrie’s apartment to mount on the sliding panel that hides the built-in television in the master bedroom. “It was a total surprise,” Parker says. “At first I thought, Oh, people are going to think I’m an absolute narcissist. But now that the show is over, I’m so glad he did it, but because I’m so sentimental about that time.”
The dining room has become her favorite place. “When it’s filled with people, they become pieces of art that make it even more beautiful,” she says of the room where she entertains friends such as Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes, Marci Klein and her husband, Scott Murphy, as well as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Now they’re all Hughes’s clients, too. “Sarah Jessica launched my career without even knowing it,” he says. “She saw in me the ability to do this when I didn’t see it in myself. That’s the real gift.”