In the enormous, silent studio—surrounded by the complex, exuberant Abstract Expressionist paintings that have made him a major figure in 20th-century art—Willem de Kooning delights in recalling the building of his studio/home on eastern Long Island in the early 1960s. “I knew what I wanted, and designed the house myself. A friend of mine who is an engineer made sure that I placed the beams correctly. The workmen were very good indeed.”
Elaine and Willem de Kooning visited East Hampton, New York, in 1948 as weekend guests of artists Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner. By 1961 Willem had purchased a house not far from the Pollocks’ in a densely wooded area still favored by artists and preferred by De Kooning to the luxurious estate section of the area because he finds the underbrush “biblical.” In addition, says Elaine, “The land, so near the water, and the quality of the light reminded him of his native Holland.” Elaine, herself a well-known painter and sculptor, maintains her own studio nearby.
“All the years I lived in New York [City], I lived and worked in lofts I fixed up myself,” Willem says. “They were large, but nothing like what I have given myself here.” He gestures at the butterfly ceiling that arches overhead. “I was lucky. A local lumberyard had a catalogue of steel trusses that were just what I needed to hold up this ceiling. When I ordered them I decided, almost arbitrarily, on the size of the studio.”
The wall of glass on the room’s northern exposure reveals the sheltering pine trees given to the painter by art collector Joseph Hirshhorn. Extra-wide doors on the south wall open to allow the removal of completed works. A skylight over Willem’s easel—a simple wood scaffolding—spans 40 feet of the studio’s width, providing the balanced light that was a major concern in planning the studio as a whole.
Willem’s meticulous working habits reflect his early apprenticeship to a commercial art and decorating firm in Rotterdam, as well as his schooling at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. The white walls of the studio still wear their initial coat of paint, applied when he started working in the studio in 1964. In the cavernous basement he cleans his brushes at a large sink—actually a bathtub set into a wall at waist level—he designed for the purpose. Unlike most maîtres peintres, he does not allow assistants to perform this nightly chore.
The domestic wing of the building is set at an angle to the studio, so that the structure resembles a variegated butterfly. The two-story living area recalls the lofts of Willem’s Manhattan years, but there are important stylistic differences. Free of the strictures of rented space, the design is as unpredictable as the artist’s paintings. Except where floor and wall meet, there appear to be no right angles anywhere. Walls are broken up and subtly angled; ceiling beams converge; windows appear unexpectedly—all challenging the eye.
Willem sketched plans for his new home while still living in Manhattan, more than five years before actual construction began. Stories of the many changes made in the more than two years it took to build the studio/home are legion in artistic circles. “They say I made a lot of changes, but I didn’t really change anything at all,” he firmly and politely insists.
Intrinsic to the basic design is the dominating influence of the studio. The upstairs rooms abutting it have glass walls that allow the studio space to pervade even the sleeping quarters. The dramatic overhang, floating over the studio much like a sport-fisherman pulpit, proves useful to Willem when he prints lithographs. “I run upstairs and can look straight down at the lithographs on the studio floor.” The graceful curving stairway seems to thrust itself out into the main-floor living area, calling attention to the large open doorway leading to the studio. The maple casing of the stairway, varnished to a boat finish, is one of the many nautical ideas in the house. Most of the finished detailing, such as the quarry tile used in the living quarters, and the butcher-block dressing tables in the bedrooms, tends to be low-key and utilitarian, albeit handsome. Wide built-in maple benches border the walls of the studio and living room, providing storage space beneath. “I got the idea from the benches on the Staten Island ferry,” Willem explains delightedly.
“The decor is artless,” says Elaine in explanation. Indeed, much of the furniture was casually bought in local stores as the need arose, or was given to the artist and his wife by friends. In addition, there are countless pieces of art and memorabilia brought to the house by fellow artists and admirers and perched on shelves and ledges. Also scattered throughout the house are carefully saved paintings and other artwork created by the painter’s daughter, Lisa, now studying art in New England. The quiet seclusion seems to succor Willem de Kooning completely and provide everything he wishes. Indeed, he once said, “It would be very hard for me, now, to paint in any other place.”