Before a friend introduced me to Katharina Otto-Bernstein, a patron of the arts on the East End and a Southampton resident, I knew of her only by reading about her as the mother of two young gentlemen, Nicholas and Jonathan, now aged 15 and 13, but 13 and 11 when they were challenged with a life-threatening situation.
Ms. Otto-Bernstein and her prestigious New York City art-gallerist husband, Nathan Bernstein, were returning home to Taylor’s Creek, their Southampton estate, “when we spotted a
fire truck, an ambulance and various police cars outside the house,” she recalled earlier this month.
“Our hearts sank and the first thought was that something must have happened to the children. When we came closer, however, it was not the boys, but our nanny, who was being placed on the gurney. She had had an epileptic seizure, her first, in our pool and had gone under.
“The boys pulled her over to the step, to safety,” Ms. Otto-Bernstein continued. “Jonathan revived her with CPR, while Nicholas called the ambulance.
“It was extraordinary how calm and collected they went about saving their nanny’s life,” she concluded.
“Me and my brother were both afraid she was going to die,” Nicholas had told The Southampton Press at the time. Their heroism was acknowledged with a plaque, of course, and it stuck in this writer’s mind.
So at the Parrish Art Museum’s annual Summer Gala this year—where Ms. Otto-Bernstein and her mother, Maren Otto, were the honorees, in part due to Ms. Otto-Bernstein’s 10-year stint as co-chair of the event, along with Beth Rudin DeWoody and Debbie Bancroft—I was really more excited to meet the two rescuers. “They’re right over there,” their mother told me then.
The Parrish summer party is sort of a family affair, she said later. “Four days after giving birth to Nicholas I co-chaired my first event.” Talk about dedication to a cause!
The following year, this time seven months pregnant with Jonathan, Ms. Otto-Bernstein was again at the gala, which that year featured the extraordinary Aretha Franklin. “Seeing me walk around in my advanced state, she most graciously offered me the seat next to her, and I had an unforgettable evening talking to ‘The Queen of Soul,’” Ms. Otto-Bernstein said.
Ms. Otto-Bernstein briefed me about Taylor’s Creek, too but, as is so often the case, seeing is believing. On a first look at the bayfront home—the ocean is across the street—it was hard to get a fix on what the architectural/design vibe is. There is lots of white with what looked to me like a Provençal blue trim.
Well, the next bend in the learning curve is that I had never heard of the Island of Sylt.
Ms. Otto-Bernstein summered as a youth there. Her family is from Hamburg, in the northernmost tip of Germany, near the border with Denmark. “Hamburgians venture to the Island of Sylt on weekends, which has often been compared to the Hamptons because of the vast dune landscapes and the wide, open beaches. The houses on Sylt are built in a very specific style, white stucco, with blue trim and thatched roofs.”
A cursory Google search has me seeing Taylor Creek’s Nordic roots. Here they’ve replaced the thatch with shingles for practicality. The property is believed to be the guest house and carriage house of the Pershing estate. “Houses of the Hamptons: 1880-1930” author Anne Surchin explained that the Pershing label comes from Frances Warren Pershing, the son of a World War I leader, General John J. Pershing. But the estate, called The Shallows, was built by Lucien Hamilton Tyng in the early 1930s.
Now we call carriage houses garages, of course, but this one, with its proud and shiny wood doors, has a Nordic touch, plus there’s nifty guest quarters upstairs … banish me to
the garage here, anytime.
A stone and stainless steel sculpture, “Hermit III” by Jaume Plensa, greets and announces that art lovers live here. It’s a spooky bust, melting into jumbled letters and symbols on a rock orb—sort of a semiotic reminder that we all deteriorate into drips and bits of what we once were.
The dazzling, vast water views provide an austere tableau, both inside and out. The front doors are mirrored by another set leading to a porch that provides a house-through visual.
Inside, Mr. Bernstein’s expert art eye is on display, but against a simple, simple backdrop of cool colors.
The backbone of the design is that all the walls are either pale gray paint or tan raffia, an idea that was inspired by Ms. Otto-Bernstein’s pal Robert Wilson.
Maybe it is time to insert here that Mr. Wilson, founder and visionary, of course, of the Watermill Center, met Ms. Otto-Bernstein here in her bathroom while she was sneaking a smoke during a “bring all your houseguests type of party, and then there was this tall dark stranger asking for one [cigarette].”
That was in 1998, after a four-year film project she directed, “Beautopia,” a look at the sometimes dark world of modeling and fashion, had wrapped.
So she and Mr. Wilson forged a bond and set off on what became a six-year odyssey resulting in “Absolute Wilson.” It’s a kaleidoscopic biopic that immerses viewers into the world of Mr. Wilson and his works, including his seminal “Einstein at the Beach,” which was first shown in 1976 and has been staged many, many times since.
Back to the decorating.
Again, the interior was designed to work organically with the landscaping and the views. “The decision to keep the interior colors so unified came from something Robert Wilson said to me a few years ago in regard to his way of creating a production,” Ms. Otto-Bernstein said: “‘Creating a production is like building an apartment building. There is an overall structure that pulls the building together. Although every apartment may be decorated in many different ways, there is cohesion, because they share the same architecture.’”
So, gliding through these pale and simple rooms, adorned but not overpowered with meaningful artwork, the vastness of the bay views, the simple pale colors, well darn if it isn’t just so … pleasant.
Does it help that Ms. Otto-Bernstein’s family business is Crate & Barrel? Well sure. A divan in the master bedroom is covered in a linen-cotton nubby fabric that hints of the raffia walls.
From here you can sit and look out over the pool, which was part of the original estate, with saltwater plumbing fed by Heady Creek that dates back to 1925—and understandably is now vestigial—and view the vista of the creek, as well as the infinities beyond that waterscapes suggest.
If you wanted to, maybe, you could see Denmark.