Not many interior designers have known their clients since childhood, but Phillip Thomas had a history with one particular family in Bellport, New York. As a boy, he spent many summers just down the road from Janet and Michael Foster and played with their three girls. When the Foster family began to expand with sons-in-law and grandchildren in the mix, they knew their house had to grow with them. There was no thought of moving to another Bellport property as this house was teeming with so many precious memories.
Naturally, the Fosters looked to Phillip for help. The New York-based designer immediately partnered with local architect Mary Knowles to bring out the best in the reimagined home in a way that speaks to the original architecture. “The Fosters wanted a similar house but bigger rooms, so we lifted up the roof to create soaring cathedral ceilings in the bedrooms,” says Mary. “We made sure to copy the roof pitches and shed dormers so that the exterior reads the same as before.” A more modern addition offers an open, family-focused floor plan with folding, floor-to-ceiling glass doors. “The doors allow the interiors to have a conversation with the garden and pool area,” Mary says. The space also has plenty of room for gatherings, which was a top priority in the planning. “We usually have 15 people for dinner—sometimes more— three times a week all summer long,” says Janet. “Now everyone can spread out yet still be together because of the open design.”
The Fosters also tasked Phillip and Mary with repurposing anything that could be saved and using local resources as much as possible. “We salvaged all the original pine wood flooring and used it for the millwork in a powder bath and the wine cellar,” says Phillip. The imaginative designer went so far as to take an original stall door with its inherent grooves from kicking horses and turn it into a powder bath vanity inside the revamped stable that now serves as an entertaining mecca.
With the architecture and materials in place, the decorating fun began. “We didn’t want to be too literal about the concept of a summer house with lots of whites, blues, or pastels,” says Phillip. “The family also didn’t want to fill the house with too many new products. They wanted to reuse the furnishings they already had, as well as items they had acquired or that had been passed down to them.”
Phillip reinvented many of their existing pieces, giving them whole new identities. In that vein, he took a set of Bar Harbor traditional white wicker furniture on the screened-in porch and painted the collection a lively red. “It’s an unexpected color but it felt right given the coziness of this house,” he says. “We used the same red for the front door and mudroom entrance and in the original sitting room.” Janet also had family items that were touchstones, such as painted twin beds from her childhood. Phillip married them together on a matching platform, transforming them into a king-size bed. And her Victorian dining table and chairs took on a new life with jaunty coral pink paint for the chairs and a faux bois finish for the lackluster wooden table.
With direction from Mary, the designer expertly rose to the challenge of using local resources by visiting a local farm museum created by preservationist Ron Bush. Among the inventory that includes over 6,000 vintage pieces of farm equipment, Phillip found some old cogs and wheels hung on pulleys from lace mills in Patchogue, New York. From these pieces, he fashioned a collection of pendant lights for the entry. “It’s really fascinating to take something totally utilitarian and reinvent it with a whole new energy and meaning,” he says.
The designer employed another large-scale cog to serve as décor in the same space. “It’s just as beautiful as any piece of art you would find hanging in The Met,” says Phillip. “It has character and tells a lot about the agricultural history of the community.” He also rescued a charming wooden bucket scored from an antiques store in Hudson Valley and waterproofed the inside to serve as a vanity. “It’s sort of like a wishing well for the grandchildren,” says the designer. “They gather seashells and sea glass and toss them in after visits to the beach.”
Nothing about the home’s design hints to its past as an early 1900s garage that housed cars, chauffeurs, and other staff members, but there is still a story to tell. When the property was being excavated for the addition, a collection of old glass bottles was unearthed. “We realized that the staff had been throwing these into a pit in the yard, which had become buried over time,” says Phillip. The innovative duo put the collection in a two-sided vitrine to show off the finds, which also serves a practical purpose as it casts light in the basement stairway.
With the house complete, it now speaks to a new chapter for the Foster clan. “Phillip took it to the next level, and I could not be happier,” says Janet. “I hope it continues to bring joy and memories for generations to come.”
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By Alice Welsh Doyle | Photography by Michael Mundy & Aydin Arjomand