“Frédéric Fekkai and Shirin von Wulffen relish their downtime at a country house where big city chic embraces rural comforts.”
“Once Frédéric Fekkai discovered the tiny New York Village of Millbrook 12 years ago, there was no way the celebrity hairstylist and creator of a line of eponymous hair products would establish his home anywhere else. “I’d had enough of the Hamptons,” Fekkai recalls, referring to the Long Island beach towns that attract upscale throngs. Granted, Millbrook, 80 miles north of Manhattan, has it’s share of famous and fabulous residents – Liam Neeson and Mary Tyler Moore among them. But there, Fekkai explains in the sunny accent he acquired growing up in Aix-en-Provence, “It’s calm and rural. There are two streets in the village and no fancy stores. People aren’t trying to compete, they all have pick-up trucks.”
Fekkai rented one cottage after another, heading to Millbrook as often as his busy life and demanding travel schedule allowed. Then in late 2003 he met Shirin von Wulffen, now the director of communications for Tom Ford North America, and soon asked her to join him there one weekend. Born in Iran to German parents, von Wulffen grew up on a thoroughbred farm in Virginia. “I am very much a combination: I’m a country girl who likes New York City,” she says. And although she admits she harbored assumptions about Fekkai, whose clients include Debra Messing and Martha Stewart, she says, “When I saw him in Millbrook, I understood who he really was. I realized that if he liked this simplicity he was the right person for me.” The couple married in May 2006.
By that time they had already bought their own Millbrook property – “a little old farmhouse,” as von Wulffen calls it, with four barns and a 27 acre lake on more than 350 acres. “Frédéric and Shirin had a vision,” says Cynthia Filkoff of Di Biaze Filkoff Architects, the regional firm that renovated the place. “They saw this 150 year old building painted red with white trim and imagined it could be a jewel.” Mindful of the structure’s integrity, Filkoff transformed its exterior with a coat of white paint and removed an ungainly extension containing the previous kitchen. She knocked down a wall to create and expansive kitchen-and-breakfast room out of what was a dark, cramped space, exposing wood beams overhead and a brick wall above the large restored fireplace. Two sets of French doors in the kitchen open to the garden and “made sure the house was connected to the land and the light,” Filkoff says. She also carved out a mudroom and new bathrooms on the first and second floors and blackened original pine floorboards with a rich ebony stain.
It was then that interior designer Selina van der Geest stepped in. An outdoorsy Briton with impeccable taste, van der Geest operates her stylish showroom, NL-GB, in the nearby town of Bangall. The couple had visited her store as well as several homes she decorated – van der Geest’s own included. “they wanted the same kind of relaxed European feeling in their house that I have in mine,” the designer says. And that is exactly what she delivered.
Inspired by the kitchen’s exposed brick and beams and wood pieces the couple already owned – chief among them the dining room’s 17th century Italian credenza, Renaissance revival chairs, and an 18th century Italian painted architectural panel – van der Geest picked what she calls “natural linen colors”, from off-white and taupe to plum and cocoa, for the curtains, shades, and much of the upholstery. Referencing Fekkai’s love of hunting and von Wullfen’s fondness for rugs, she filled the house with kilims and nods to his hobby: a striking shed-antler chandelier and Edwina Hunt leather-and-alpaca lamps in the dining room; wildebeest pillows and a Hunt deerskin-covered stool in the living room; and a mink coverlet in the master bedroom.
The latter is one of the most luxurious items the decorator selected for the house. “I don’t think it’s always necessary to spend a lot of money, and Frédéric is very much of that feeling,” explains van der Geest. The linen fabrics all cost about $20 per yard and though antiques abound, many items came from catalogues, such as the large glass jars (the Conran Shop) and reproduction French steel chairs (Sundance Catalog)in the kitchen breakfast area; metal bedside cabinets (Anthropologie) in the master bedroom; and the desk (Design Within Reach) in the bedroom of Alexandre, Fekkai’s son from a previous marriage. All blend easily with perfectly pitched one-of-a-kind pieces van der Geest brought in, from a bright and sophisticated pumpkin-velvet sofa she designed for the living room to an antique Moroccan rug under the dining table.
The house feels spacious, bright and unpretentiously elegant. European, yes, but rooted in the rustic simplicity of Millbrook. “There’s nothing complicated here,” declared von Wulffen. “You can come in, drop everything, and just relax.”