Tour a Southampton Home Where East Meets West
With her cascading blond hair and radiant smile, Heather Mnuchin is the archetypal all-American beauty—so much so that a few people find her fascination with the Far East perplexing. “My gardener asked me one day, ‘So what’s with all these Buddha statues you have everywhere?’” she says. “I told him, ‘It’s such a comforting image—the idea of a man who doesn’t talk back!’”
Her cheeky iconoclasm is refreshing, as it’s rare to find someone who can take the pursuit of Zen seriously and also keep her sense of humor about it. Mnuchin comes to her eclecticism naturally. “My mother was a big old hippie,” she says, describing her upbringing on the Upper West Side. “When I was still a child, Mom would drag me along to someone’s apartment, where we’d do yoga in the living room. Later, when I traveled in Nepal and India, I discovered I was happiest when I was stretching out in all directions.”
Freedom to stretch is clearly evident in Mnuchin’s designs for Aziam, her popular line of yoga clothing (the ribbed sleeveless tank top is called a “wife-lover”), and also in how she has decorated her house in Southampton, which overlooks Coopers Neck Pond and the Meadow Club. At the end of a long drive, shaded by an allée of elms, stands a classic shingle-style house with multiple gables and mullioned windows—de rigueur in these parts. But inside, the aesthetic is altogether contemporary: high meets low, sacred blends with secular, and serious art goes completely ignored by a dog named Maya and Twix the goldfish.
Although Mnuchin, her husband, Steven, who is the chairman of OneWest Bank, recently moved to Los Angeles, they still summer on the South Fork. Previously they lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and spent weekends in Washington, Connecticut, near the Mayflower Inn & Spa, the luxurious resort built by Steven’s parents. But in the early 2000s they began to come out to Southampton, which is when they first saw their current house, then owned by friends.
“We’d come over here for dinner, and I was struck by what a peaceful feeling this place had,” Mnuchin recalls. When it was put on the market in 2006, they didn’t hesitate to buy. To decorate the house, she solicited the help of her longtime friend Tracy Bross, a New York–based interior designer, and set about making the five-bedroom property (there’s also a one-bedroom pool house/guest cottage) her own.
“Heather did not want her house’s interiors to look like the exterior,” Bross says. “She envisioned a more funky look—a beach-y vibe, but not East Coast beach-y. She was thinking a bit more exotic—like Indonesia, Bali and India.”
Both women admit that they didn’t have much of an overall design scheme when they began the project. Rather, their impromptu decision to give the dining room an “underwater feel”—with Lucite chairs and site-specific glass sculptures that resemble air bubbles rising from the deep—set the tone for the rest of the decor.
In addition to her beloved Buddhas, Mnuchin brought in Hindu deities like Shiva and Ganesh. There are Tibetan prayer chairs, tables inlaid with mother of pearl, hammered-tin ottomans, Moroccan rugs and a magnificent Indian daybed designed by John Robshaw. Most of the Raoul Textiles fabrics throughout the house are hand-blocked on Belgian linen.
“We weren’t worried about things matching,” Bross says. “Nothing really goes together, but everything kinda goes together!” To keep things in check, nearly all curtains and most walls, ceilings and moldings are done in subtly different shades of white. This neutral palette provides a fitting backdrop for the family’s growing collection of contemporary art, which includes pieces by Teresita Fernández, Vincent Desiderio, Mark Innerst and Lisa Yuskavage. It also, Mnuchin claims, makes parenting easier. “Listen, I gave birth to three children in two years,” she says, “and that could easily create lots of noise, fights and chaos. But I truly believe that less clutter, and not a lot of crazy colors or patterns, creates a soothing environment that calms kids down.” So, in this house at least, when East meets West, the result is peace. It’s a happy thought: détente through decor.
A version of this article appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of HC&G (Hamptons Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Now and Zen.