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Breathing Lessons

Passionate collector and designer Leslie Cohen transforms a Westport home into a light-filled space scaled for her family’s comfort—and her favorite things

When Leslie Cohen first noticed the 1920s-era Greens Farms home, set back on one of the neighborhood’s loveliest old roads, something about it made the designer look more carefully.

At the time, Cohen was living in a larger home in Westport on a big piece of property. “That house had more land and more landscape than we really needed,” Cohen says. “So perhaps the fact that the Greens Farm house was on a smaller lot is what drew me in. In any event, it wasn’t very long after that when I bought it. And then I proceeded to regret it,” she says with a smile.

What brought on her buyer’s remorse? After hiring a team to help her rehab her purchase, Cohen began to realize the scope of the work required. She toyed with the idea of simply doing a quick renovation and reselling the property. But circumstances intervened.

Her builder, Ward French, had begun work on what was already a major renovation, but he uncovered more substantial, unanticipated problems with the structure.

“One day I drove by the lot and saw that the frame had been taken down. The old house was gone, and we had to start from scratch and do a rebuild on the existing footprint, says Cohen. “There was no turning back at that point.”

By necessity, Cohen took the unexpected turn of events as an opportunity to refine her ideas of what the house might become. She visualized a farmhouse, modernized. The original building had the lower ceilings of its era, but now, with the help of French and architects Richard Ward and Jonathan Wagner, the designer could literally raise rooflines and ceiling heights to accommodate a more contemporary floor plan.


“We were also able to add things that may not have been possible in the old house: more sustainable systems and materials that save energy,” Cohen explains. “We used natural finishes and insulation and tried to make everything as green as possible.”

When the frame came down, it turned everything around for me. It was a painstaking process to get the details right, but ultimately everyone involved was able to get all the elements in line with the vision that I had.”

An open plan with plenty of natural light was essential, as were wall areas of sufficient size to accommodate the large paintings in Cohen’s collection, and open shelves to display the many beautiful objects she has accumulated over the years. Achieving the right balance of space, light, and finishes required careful orchestration of her team and the chosen materials. Oak flooring used throughout the house received nine different stains to develop its soft patina. Beautiful Venetian glass mirrors, each one a unique find, grace many of the home’s baths and the first-floor powder room.

A simple palette for surfaces also contributes to the overall effect.

“The main paint color in the house is Benjamin Moore’s Gray Owl,” notes the designer. “The other walls were done in Venetian plaster by local artisan Randy Young.”

For the kitchen, Cohen chose Havilande Whitcomb to interpret the simple space she had visualized.

“She perfected my design with her beautiful details and methodical work, to get it just right with my builder’s cabinetmaker,” says Cohen.

 Preferring the look of open shelving to display her assortment of white tableware, Cohen specified single, massive slabs of Italian Calacatta marble as backsplashes for the cooking center and for the shelves. The fabricators also constructed countertops, as well as the open shelves, with equally generous, two-inch-thick rectangles of the same stone. The result is a balancing counterpoint to the modern cabinetry, providing a simultaneous feeling of light and strength.

To illuminate the cooking center and island, Cohen searched for just the right pendants, choosing transparent, oversized glass globes that flatter the glowing filaments of the Edison bulbs inside.

“The globes are reproductions of originals, which I found at the Antique and Artisan Center in Stamford,” she notes. “Edison lamps are made with bulbs in different sizes and shapes, so we can change the look by installing different bulbs.”

Both the public rooms and private spaces are suffused with light; large openings filled with divided-light windows provide natural
illumination for the interiors and maintain the home’s traditional farmhouse appearance on the exterior.

Cohen’s gift for editing furniture and accessories amplifies the luminosity in each room. She uses just a few carefully chosen objects to accent each space, and most of these are lightweight, transparent, or reflective. Assemblages of her caches of mercury glass, oversized corals and shells, and sparkling crystal pieces create a glow without overwhelming the light-as-air environment.

Textile choices also complement each arrangement. In the living room, Cohen recovered favorite sofas—purchased “very long ago” from John Rosselli—in an Italian linen fabric, reverse side out. She likes the sheen that this unusual treatment provides for the room. It’s a space that shimmers with glass and mirrored objects and furnishings.

Her penchant for collecting is an inherited trait; she can trace its beginnings to her childhood in Miami Beach.

“My mother loved beautiful things,” she recalls. “She has wonderful taste and an eclectic sensibility, mixing antique and modern furnishings in light-filled spaces. My own aesthetic is very much influenced by hers, and we both appreciate quality over quantity.”

Cohen is a careful collector, looking not just for what she loves but also for the best examples of her favored styles and forms. This quest has led her on shopping excursions that span an international range of showrooms, antique stores, flea markets, auctions, and even the dewy fields of the Brimfield antiques fair, which is best scouted for treasures early in the morning.

Not one to leave her finds behind, Cohen has graced her home with many pieces acquired in years past; some upholstered chairs and sofas have been lovingly redone, repeatedly.

“I started collecting when I got my first apartment in Miami,” says Cohen. “And I have taken everything with me, wherever I go.”
With three family homes, including the Greens Farms rebuild, to her credit, Cohen has set her sights on a fourth: a seaside home on the Westport shore.

“I loved growing up by the water, and it’s always been a dream of mine to have a place by the sea. So now that I’ve finished this house, I find myself moving on, again.”

As before, she’ll bring family, furnishings, and collections along.

Leslie Cohen, 203-247-5859
Jonathan Wagner, AIA, 203-454-1825; jwaia.com
Havilande Whitcomb, 203-984-2607
Randy Young (Venetian Plastering), 203-913-2552
Nautical Needles, 860-399-9754
Bungalow, 203-227-4406
Circa Antiques, 203-222-8642; circantiques.net
Dovecote, 203-222-7500; dovecote-westport.com
Mandarin Collection, 203-454-4030
Waterworks, 203-869-7766