Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Set within the shimmering waters of Gardiners Bay and cradled by the outstretched arms of the northern and southern forks of Long Island, Shelter Island has a unique character all of its own. Compared to the pace of life in the Hamptons – which are just a short ferry ride away – Shelter Island feels so much more relaxed and tranquil. This really is a place to escape and unwind and to make the most of the verdant backdrop and the shifting seascapes. No wonder, then, that designer and potter Jonathan Adler and his English-born husband, Simon Doonan – writer and Creative Ambassador at Large for Barneys department stores – have been coming out here ever since they first met seventeen years ago [1995].

For many years they spent weekends and holidays at a small A-frame house dating from the 1960s, a world away from their home in Manhattan and Adler’s business base for a growing empire of stores dealing in his ever expanding collections of pottery, furniture, rugs and homeware. But then Adler and Doonan came across an irresistible opportunity to buy a plot of land right by the sea, looking out to Orient Point and its coffee pot lighthouse on the tip of the north fork. With yachts tacking across the water and the gentle rhythm of the ocean, it was an ideal spot to build a new home.

‘We loved the old house but when this spot came up it was just so perfect that we couldn’t believe it,’ says Adler, who had also been nurturing the dream to build a house from scratch for himself and his partner for some time. ‘The house was tilted to face the lighthouse and we feel as though we almost conjured up the lighthouse ourselves – it’s just so perfectly placed.’

Adler and Doonan knew from the outset that they wanted something very different from the grand beach mansions down in the Hamptons. It needed to be something informal and casual, something that fitted the character of the place and also harked back to the simple mid-century beach cabins of Fire Island, as well as drawing touches of inspiration from the house Adler grew up in: his parents’ modernist, Scandinavian-style home, which has proved a key influence upon his work ever since. There’s also a hint of the courtyard houses of Japan, where Doonan has spent a good deal of time in his Barney’s role, consulting on the look of the group’s Japanese stores.

Approaching the single storey house, designed in collaboration with architects Gray Organschi, the first thing you see is an enigmatic barrier of black timber pierced by a double gate, with echoes of Japanese-style charcoal walls. Stepping through the gate you find yourself in a courtyard garden, complete with a breakfast nook to one side, where Adler and Doonan usually start their days, together with their Norfolk terrier, Liberace. In front of you sits an orange front door – an entryway into a world that is distinctly Adler’s. 

Beyond the entrance hall rests a generous, open space leading out to views of the ocean and lightly separated into four distinct seating areas in each corner, with a dramatic bespoke fireplace with a conical hood right in the centre of them all. Rugs, chairs and ceramics of Adler’s own design mix seamlessly with mid-century classics by Warren Platner and others within a trademark combination of pattern, texture, colour and exuberance infused with a retro spirit of optimistic playfulness.

‘There is a lot of nostalgia in what I do,’ says Adler. ‘There was an optimism about modernism and design in the 1950s and ‘60s that I like, although obviously I try and do everything through a contemporary filter. Warm modernism was really the mandate here and we didn’t want any sheet rock walls here. It’s all about letting the materials be what they are.’

‘I love the eclecticism that Jonny evolved for his design of The Parker hotel in Palm Springs a few years ago,’ Doonan says. ‘It’s an eclectic mod vibe and Jonny took a lot of that and put it here in the house. It is super casual – very informal. We ‘re always trying to get away from formality in other aspects of our work and our lives, so it was natural to keep it all very informal.’

To one side of the sitting room, there are a couple of steps up to the dining area and the kitchen alongside, with display shelves and surfaces packed with Adler’s ceramics; the multi-facetted designer still describes himself as a ‘potter’ when pressed, although he is constantly extending his work into new arenas. The front of the kitchen island is decorated with a mural by Adler and Doonan’s artist friend John-Paul Philippé - one of many bespoke and integrated artworks in the house.

Adler himself has designed many pieces especially for the house. They include the screen in rounded, sculpted blocks of aerated cement that helps to separate the entrance hall from the rest of the main living space, as well as the beautifully crafted and textured tiles that form a backdrop in the kitchen and line the wall of one corner of the sitting room, where it meets the veranda. The pattern reappears on the outer wall of the veranda, which is expertly positioned for views of the lighthouse and a choice spot for lunch and dinner.

‘The shell of the house is quite serious and the tiles reflect that,’ says Adler. ‘I wanted to make tiles galore, because how often does one get the chance to build a house for oneself? But they are also a great backdrop for me to then layer lots of colour and playfulness. I do love all the textures of the house – the rough cut cedar siding, lots of plywood, Masonite, brick, tile, the wooden ceilings. The house has really informed a lot of my work – the cement screen and the tiles were made with this house in mind but now they are in the collection.’

The bespoke tiles reappear in the mater bedroom, over the bed, which is oriented for an ocean view. There are also two guest bedrooms and a modest gym, while outside the swimming pool is positioned at right angles to the ocean, with a pool pavilion alongside. Landscaping, by Vickie Cardaro, is low key but also full of rich textures, with evergreens mixed with grasses and circular stepping stones interspersed with a sea shell mix gathered from the beaches.

Adler and Doonan kayak and paddle board here. Doonan might catch up on some writing – he is at work on his sixth book, as well as penning a regular magazine column. They usually host a lunch or a dinner each weekend and have regular visits from family and friends. But for Doonan and Adler this is also a place to relax and recharge in a tailored haven all of their own making. They are here for the long term.

‘You would have to carry me out of here feet first in a wooden box,’ says Doonan. ‘We come in the winter too. In the winter it’s beyond fabulous. We lie in bed and look at the snow and the lighthouse blinking in the distance. It’s insane – I can’t believe I’ve dragged myself all the way from Reading to nirvana.

‘I have worked on so many design projects at Barneys over the years with major architects and designers and usually, even with the best people, there’s some screw up that you have to live with. But with this house I don’t think why didn’t we do or do that? It feels like it was always here. It has a great sense of place.’


Jonathan Adler –
Gray Organschi Architecture –