From a perch atop Old Hill in Westport, it’s easy to conjure the vista architect Royal Barry Wills would have encountered in 1946 when he was commissioned to design a house on it.
One of the country’s most popular architects after World War II, thanks in part to his abundant and cheeky books on the topic, Wills would have come upon a New England mesa of sorts: a wide, flat plot, ringed by a stone wall and tall pines, some of them now 100 years old or more, that sloped downward away from the road. At just under an acre in size, the site might have dwarfed the Cape Cod style for which he had become known, and so instead he designed a Colonial, with a nearly double-height portico, broad clapboard flanks and strong bones.
It is precisely this pedigree that drew Andrew and Harriet Mays Powell to the house, in the spring of 2006, roughly two years after their return from a five-year stint in London where he, an Englishman, worked as a globe-trotting travel journalist and she was the fashion director at Tatler magazine. Upon arriving back in the States they had enjoyed renting a Victorian in Rowayton, once home to a fishing captain. Harriet, who hails from the fourth generation of a clan woven into the historical fabric of Westport and Fairfield, recalls that when she saw the property, just a few miles down the road from where she’d grown up, the trees reminded her “of all those pine trees in Provence.”
“The air is really divine at this place,” she says. “It’s noticeably cooler and cleaner and it gives off that South-of-France sexy feeling.”
The couple moved in on July 1 of that year, and by July 4 were hosting a pool party, demonstrating the characteristic “whip-it-into-shape” gusto that Harriet no doubt brings to bear on the two annual fashion issues and two editions of Look—as well as numerous weekly pages throughout the year—she now produces as fashion director at New York magazine. (Her most notable work of late, perhaps, was the photo essay by Bert Stern and Amanda Fortini that captured actor Lindsay Lohan reimagined as Marilyn Monroe in the famous series known as the “The Last Sitting.” The cover of the issue, in February of this year, featured a provocative portrait of the wayward starlet, nude, with her mane tucked under a platinum wig, peering with come-hither eyes from behind a veil of pink chiffon).
With few objections from Andrew, Harriet (known as Hatsy in her inner circle, she is the fifth Harriet in the family line) set to work envisioning a home for her family of four, applying the keen eye she honed over the years in the flea markets and ateliers of Europe. Only when she acquired a zebra-skin rug for the den did he declare that the house was “not a museum.”
“I knew that this was not the biggest house in Westport,” she says. “I’m raising my kids just as my mom raised her kids and my grandmother before her. I knew that it had to be more personal, more intimate, and given what I do for a living, with everything changing every six months, it had to be much more modern. It’s about infusing something new into an old frame.”
For Harriet, a runway show regular who lists the rarefied designs of Lanvin’s Albert Elbaz and couture houses such as the new Yves Saint Laurent amongst her many personal influences (and don’t forget Nina Ricci, Miuccia Prada and Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquiere), the program was rather straightforward.
She painted everything white, covered the mocha-colored kitchen cabinetry in a shiny black lacquer, ebonized the floors and garnished each room with dollops of bold color. Furnishings, she decided, would be a well-edited combination of mid-century modern collectibles and family heirlooms.
“Home is an inch to the left of what I do anyway,” she says, adding that decorating her house is akin to “styling for life.”
Tributes to a past fondly recalled are everywhere. In the master bedroom, above a diminutive old chest that displays a vintage silver repoussé dresser set given to her by her mother, hangs a black and white photograph of her as a baby in her mother’s arms. Local artist Enid Manro’s portrait of her as a young girl hangs in her daughter’s bedroom, and needlepoint pillows, commissioned by her mother at a local Christmas fair, add texture and color to a squared-off Eileen Gray sofa from the 1920s or 1930s.
A palpable adult chic dominates the living room, a setting that invites glamorous parties with tumblers full of clinking ice cubes. A Biedermeier bench, with scrolled ends, takes center stage beneath a red and orange late-Impressionist landscape by Doug Johnson, an American who lived in London. There is a 1930s glass coffee table mounted on a wood block, soft brown velvet and chrome armchairs by Thayer Coggin and a black-lacquered rectangular side table.
The gleaming propeller from a World War II-era airplane, similar to the one Harriet spied in the Roger Vivier showroom in Paris, strikes a sculptural note that evokes Brancusi. After tracking down the dealer through the Vivier creative director, she gave one as a birthday present to her husband, who is fascinated by flight.
As she whirls through the house, rattling off the provenance of each piece she touches, one can’t help but think of Diana Vreeland, the renowned former editor of Vogue, firing off urgent memos on subjects like Pearls! and Hosiery! from behind her typewriter. There is the antique lace fan presented to her great-grandmother in 1884 as a wedding present by Mrs. Astor; the Royal Crown Derby plates she bought because Andrew’s family is rooted in the Midlands; her grandmother’s silver that she uses every night; a French gilt-framed sunburst mirror; the brass fish from Egypt and woven baskets from Cape Town. But items like these, she is quick to point out, are what have also inspired her husband’s droll label for their abode: The Westport White House.
Through a generous bank of windows on the rear wall of the Westport White House light streams into the dining room and bounces off an early 20th-century French chandelier. The brass and crystal fixture hangs above an Italian tapered cherry-wood dining table the couple found in London and paired with a set of mod leather and chrome chairs. Additional accents include a red painting by the 1970s photographer Joe Gaffney and a four-paneled neoclassical screen by Fornasetti.
Upstairs, a sunken master bedroom makes a tranquil redoubt. A mini-shag carpet and a fur throw by Adrienne Landau are among the luxurious touches. Regal curlicue monograms adorn the oversized shams on a bed dressed in white and toast-colored bedding from Leontine Linens. An armchair features a pillow sweetly hand-embroidered in Paris with the names of her immediate family members.
Outside, a bluestone pool deck accommodates a wrought-iron dining set, the chairs covered in Pucci prints. Harriet planted pink spirea around the pool, fuschia impatiens around the perimeter of the yard just inside a border of cypress trees, and on the patio, with her daughter’s help, dahlias and lilies in big pots. “This spring was all about color,” she says, ever the fashion director.
Aero, New York City, 212-966-1500
Antique & Artisan Center, Stamford, 203-327-6022;
Dovecote, Westport, 203-222-7500; dovecote-westport.com
HB Home, Greenwich, 203-629-499 and Westport, 203-226-8777
KD & J Botanica Floral Design Studio, Westport, 203-226-0202; kdjbotanica.com
Lillian August, Norwalk, 203-847-3314
HB Home, Greenwich, 203-629-4999, and Westport, 203-226-8777
Leontine Linens, New Orleans, 800-876-4799; leontinelinens.com
Tracy Stillman Home, TK, 203-913-9788; email@example.com