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Retreating to Paradise

For designer Jonathan Adler, there was only one thing to do in COVID quarantine: Hole up in his Shelter Island bungalow, spending the hours sketching furniture and hanging with his husband, author and fashion commentator Simon Doonan. “I feel grateful every day I wake up on Shelter Island,” Adler dotes. “We’re surrounded by nature and during lockdown I found some of my greatest inspiration in the colors of the sunsets, the white egrets that flew by, and the animals I encountered on my daily strolls.”

Though the 8,000-acre island is a 5-minute ferry ride from the shoreline, it’s sometimes referred to as the “un-Hamptons” for its seclusion and modesty. More than 2,000 of its acres are protected as a nature preserve that’s home to 200 species of birds, including the endangered osprey. Its creatures often pop around the island, giving locals like Adler and Doonan a captivating sight. Over the years, the pair became true Shelter Islanders. They bought their first home there, a 1960s A-frame, in 2000 after visiting frequently after they met in 1995. They sold it in 2012 to buy the vacant waterfront property their current digs stand on now and worked with Lisa Gray and Alan Organschi of the Connecticut firm Gray Organschi Architecture, along with Hamptons builder Carlos Routh, to construct it. The one-story bungalow, with its cool exterior shrouded in black, is meticulously decorated inside and out.

The landscaping, by Shelter Island’s Vickie Cardaro of Buttercup Design Group, was inspired by the couple’s travels to Japan. It features imported sand and small groupings of evergreens, such as eastern red cedar, Hollywood juniper, along with Japanese black pine. The grounds are graced with ornamental grasses like Elijah blue fescue, Mexican feather, and pink muhly. The exterior’s piece de la resistance, however, is a sprawling, 2,300-square-foot pool pavilion.

Inside, Adler describes the home as essentially one large room facing the water. He designed each area so that no matter where you’re sitting, you have a view through the south-facing wall of windows. “The design of our home is really all about reflecting the beauty of the nature outside, on the inside,” he explains.

Over in the kitchen, an island displays a mural inspired by local birdlife by painter and designer John-Paul Philippé. Nearby, a floor-to-ceiling macramé owl from set designer Andy Harman resides in the living room where it watches them while they watch TV. 

As for whether the space received any updates while its owners have lived in it full-time during COVID, for Adler, its aesthetic is a never-ending project. “The truth is I’m a restless designer so I’m always updating something in my home,” he admits. “I road test all of my new stuff at home, and my poor husband never knows what he’s coming home to. But at least it keeps it fresh?”

So, what’s it like to quarantine in a secluded design sanctuary out East? For this pair, it’s productive. While Doonan churned out books, including his recent biography on the 1980s artist Keith Haring, Adler created two new furniture lines in 2020, each featuring work that evokes the sense of island life in lockdown. His Spring 2021 collection has work-from-home pieces that break out of the 9-to-5, with desks that also serve as sofa tables and vanities. It includes beachy dinnerware and beaded Audubon wall art. 

“I draw so much inspiration from my surroundings wherever I am,” Adler says. “Whether it’s a cloud I see on my paddleboard that inspired me to make a sofa in that shape or the foxes in my backyard that inspired my menagerie collection — inspiration is everywhere on Shelter Island.” That’s not to say life during COVID is without its struggles. Entire teams transitioning to full-time remote work was an adjustment for all, for example. But Doonan speaks of his experience with nothing but optimism and gratitude for his time on the East End.