Wood, Stone, Stucco, Glass

The materials chosen connect the house to the landscape
The architect broke up the horizontality of the front of the house, above, by using different materials and moving elements away from each end. Below, the rear is almost all glass, with a wide staircase between the upper terrace and pool. Joshua McHugh photos

If the architect Lee Skolnick has a signature style, it’s not how his buildings look. it’s the way he works with clients. And it makes no difference whether it’s a house for a family or an institutional client such as the Children’s Museum of the East End or the East Hampton Library, for which he designed a new children’s room.

During a visit to the Sagaponack house near the ocean that he created for Steve and Laura Riggio, he said, “They are fantastic people. I really love clients who have opinions and ideas and don’t just hand me $X million and say, ‘Call me when it’s done.’ My job is always to translate a client’s wishes into an experience. Why wouldn’t you want your home to be absolutely resonant with your life? Every project we do is very different.”

The Riggios had rented a house on the property for 12 years before buying it. After living there for another few years they decided it wasn’t meeting their needs. They asked Mr. Skolnick, a longtime friend, if he could renovate it.

“The house wasn’t built very well,” the architect said. “If we started to do surgery on it, the patient would collapse. So we all agreed to take the house down.” 

In its place sits a large contemporary house set horizontally in the landscape. To break up the horizontality, Mr. Skolnick used a layered composition of open and closed volumes rising skyward. Stone elements at either end anchor the structure, while the main living area, which is on the second floor and has walls of glass, seems to float above the site. 

“This family really uses the house. Every weekend it’s full of people, and that’s why we designed it the way we did. Because it’s all about food and sharing, the whole second floor is one big, open loft-like space. If you go to one of these McMansions with 10 bedrooms, you find there are two people living there on weekends.” The Riggio house has seven bedrooms, four for the family, three for guests.

While the architect acknowledges that his houses are modern, he doesn’t like using the word because for some people it connotes sterility and anonymity. “Modern houses can be warm and sensual when they emphasize materiality, space, light, views, and connections to the landscape,” he said, noting that all those elements are present in the Riggio house. He admires the work of some of the California modernists, however, among them Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and the Case Study houses.

The materials of the Riggio house are limited to wood, stone, stucco, and glass. The stone at either end is roughly finished limestone. Mr. Skolnick often brings exterior  walls inside; in this case the interior limestone has been smoothed. Set back slightly on the second level are the kitchen and Mr. Riggio’s music room, the exteriors of which are clad in Alaskan yellow cedar.

The front walk is travertine. Speaking of the materials, Mr. Skolnick said, “I used the travertine because it looks like sand. The tones of all the materials are very close to each other; there are no harsh moments. Before I began the design, I asked Steve and Laura to put their desires into words. They came up with sun, sea, sand, storm, and sky. I said, ‘That’s it. Now we can design the house.’ ”

The front door opens onto the ground floor. Sculptures by Toni Ross commissioned by Mr. Skolnick are set into a niche just inside. Mr. Skolnick said the Riggios wanted spaces created for artworks of different sizes. For example, a niche was customized to protect a woodcut on handmade paper by Helen Frankenthaler from sunlight. Among some of the other artists in the Riggios’ collection are Robert Mangold, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Costantino Nivola, Philippe Cheng, and John Baldessari.

A floating staircase leads from the ground floor to the second and is open to the ceiling. A geometric painting by Alexander Liberman at the top of the stairway draws the eye up to the main space and its abundant light. The colors of the interior furnishings, which were selected by the designer Robert Stilin, are muted, in keeping with other materials. Mr. Skolnick designed most of the millwork and cabinetry as well as the bathroom and other fixtures to continue the visual language of the house.

While the house is a block from the ocean, a hulking mansion of indeterminate style blocks the view from every room except the master bedroom, which is at the highest point of the house. That room is entered through a massive wooden door that pivots on an axis. When closed, the door blends seamlessly into the wall. A sitting area outside the bedroom affords a view of the sunset.

The master bathroom countertop is smooth limestone. A bench in the shower extends through the glass to become a shelf next to the toilet for reading material. 

Attention to detail is reflected throughout the house. The Riggios’ dog is an integral part of the family, so Mr. Skolnick designed several handsome dog gates that disappear into pockets when not in use, for example. 

On the west side of the house, a wing with three guestrooms was sunk four feet below grade to reduce the visible length of the building when viewed from the front. Each downstairs room has its own terrace, also below grade, and glass sliders admit light.

Sandstone was selected to surround the swimming pool because it doesn’t get hot, and its rough finish helps prevent slipping. The pool is accessed from the second floor by a grand staircase that widens as it descends. “I wanted it to be like the Paris Opera,” Mr. Skolnick said.

To the west of the pool is a curved retaining wall of textured limestone slabs that connect the house to the landscape while rising in height as it nears the house. The wall continues inside, ending in the master bedroom.

Mr. Riggio’s music room reflects the owner’s passion for guitars, which he plays and collects. While the walls don’t reach the ceiling, the space above them is thick glass, which admits light and contains sound. Mr. Riggio’s guitar collection is mounted on an entire wall, like an art exhibition, which is appropriate since it includes instruments formerly used by some of the giants of rock ’n’ roll. The amplifiers and speakers were custom designed.

Pride of place goes to a damaged guitar displayed on another wall in a glass case. “It’s the last guitar Pete Townshend smashed,” Mr. Skolnick said. Mr. Townshend, the lead guitarist, backing vocalist, and main songwriter for The Who, is a friend of Mr. Riggio’s, and he produced a song composed by one of Mr. Riggio’s daughters. 

Among the firm’s institutional projects elsewhere are the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island, the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in New York City, and Muzeiko, a children’s museum in Sofia, Bulgaria.

“Whatever the project, I’m always looking for the essence of the situation in terms of values, belief, mission, goals, and how can we find a starting point that comes from that and then filter every decision through that.” He noted that some architects he admires tend to apply the same visual approach to every project. “With us, you don’t know what you’re going to get, but you can be assured it’s going to be the right thing.

An Alexander Liberman painting leads the eye up a floating staircase.
A dropped slatted wood ceiling makes the dining and living spaces intimate, while allowing light to filter in. The niche for the wooden sculpture provides a view from one end of the house to the other.
The muted colors of the furnishings, selected by the interior designer Robert Stillin, are in keeping with the hard materials chosen for the house.
Steve Riggio’s guitar room is designed for displaying his collection as well as making music.
Stoneware sculptures by Toni Ross are in a niche next to the front door. Josef Albers paintings are to the left on the wall.
Lee Skolnick Durell Godfrey