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Modern Love

For a couple who owned and designed several popular Manhattan nightclubs — whose lives revolved around cocktail lists, DJs and a flurry of requests by fashion magazines to shoot in their trippy lounges — the word “suburbs” can seem dirty.

David Baxley, a lawyer, was the force behind the Tenth Street Lounge, Café Aubette, Drinkland and Centro-Fly in New York City, all of which saw a bright heyday in the early 2000s. He met his wife, Sally Bennet, an artist, when she signed on to do the decorative painting on the walls of Café Aubette. She then designed the interiors of Drinkland and Centro-Fly, filling them with ’60s- and ’70s-inspired furnishings: vinyl banquettes, bright carpets and hand-painted op-art wall motifs.

But after dividing their time between the city and their home in East Hampton, having two children (Ella, six, and Ruby, five), and tiring of the long commute, the Baxleys moved to Westport in 2001. They rented first, testing the waters of Fairfield County.

Now, they own. Their house is on a quiet, dead-end street in Weston, and their property backs up to the girls’ school. The couple’s latest project, The Spyglass restaurant in Westport, has a full menu instead of a full dance floor. It is a familiar timeline from the days of urban apartments to a house in the suburbs. A proper, roomy, traditional house.
And yet, the Baxleys veered off the map a little. For starters, they bought a 2500 square foot, 1956 mid-century modern house. And the master bath is lined with disco mirror trim.

“A modern house made sense to us because it’s open,” Sally says. “And maybe it was a little bit of rebellion against the typical center hall colonial.”

Some might have seen a retro wreck upon first glance, given the house’s plywood paneling, maze of oddly situated rooms and linoleum floors, necessary for the radiant floor heating. “It was completely falling apart in every way, shape and form,” Sally reflects. “But it was a bargain. And we thought it was pretty special because it was an original, flat-roof, mid-century modern house.” She saw promise in the structure, a light-filled open living space waiting to be teased out of a dank wooden one.

The Baxleys worked fast, gutting and rebuilding the interior of the home in less than six months. Down came the plywood paneling (“Dave kept trying to hold onto it, until it was in just a small part of the ceiling in the living room that he said reminded him of a boat. Eventually I got rid of it all.”) Up came the linoleum. They found Boen of Sweden, which gave Sally the white ash wood floors she wanted while accomodating the complications of the heating system.

Needing help designing the kitchen, the Baxleys bid on a consultation with Westport architect David Abelow in a silent auction at their daughter’s preschool. They won, and after their initial meeting, hired Abelow to create the room. He suggested one wall of shelving and cabinets, all from Ikea, reaching almost to the 18 foot-high ceiling—a suggestion Sally originally thought wouldn’t offer enough storage. “I remember saying there was no way I’d be able to put all of my stuff on one wall,” she says. But a ladder, cleverly hidden in a narrow cabinet, allows her to reach the high shelving when necessary. And the design left more room for a huge white-topped island, plus the of cabinets across the room that hold Ella and Ruby’s copious art supplies.

Other than the living room, part of the open main room that expands into the kitchen, the rest of the house is situated along one hallway with bedrooms down the side like a dormitory. “It’s a great house for small kids because you can always hear them, wherever you are,” Sally says.

Experienced working within fiscal limits—“Nightclubs don’t have enormous budgets,” she says—Sally used her own talents as an artist and former interior designer to give the inside of the house a distinctive modern look, without starting from scratch or splurging on new furniture. While the family was still renting a house in Westport and finishing the renovation on this one, Sally painted the bold, flower-patterned wall that now defines the entryway while her children were asleep. Stripes and polka dots in Ruby’s room and a chocolate brown lattice pattern behind Sally’s dressing table that resemble wallpaper are, in fact, Sally’s patient handiwork.

She found a way to use almost all of her mid-century modern pieces from her home in East Hampton, reupholstering some and tying together the living room with accent pillows and colorful rugs from Target. Resourceful? Sure, but also enviable. Sally bought most of her furniture seven years ago from scant mid-century dealers at flea markets in Manhattan, before the look became so popular (and expensive) and knockoffs became ubiquitous.

There is also detritus from their bars finding a happy second home in Connecticut. The plastic pod chairs on the patio, which resemble an enormous thumbprint into a ball of glue, had a former life at Café Aubette, as did a painting of a smoking dog, which now hangs in the kitchen. A white leather sofa in the living room, a striking Knoll imitation by Segal Liviu, was commissioned for Centro-Fly. “We needed four for Centro-Fly, but I had him make five,” Sally says.

Sally now spends less time painting her walls and more time painting canvases in her studio in the garage. With her girls in school, “It allows me to come out and paint without paying a babysitter. It’s been really nice.” Of course, with Spyglass up and running, she doesn’t have a bar to decorate, no blank canvas on which to spill all of her creative juice. “If we don’t open another restaurant or bar soon, I might have to buy another house. Or do an addition,” she says. The couple would eventually like to add on to the ’50s gem, creating a master suite and a big playroom. “We’d like to do a U-shaped addition that would enclose a center courtyard, but have it be modular. We’d have it built in Minnesota and put on a truck to come here,” Sally says. Not your typical suburban scene, but, nonetheless, right at home.