David Netto: At Home in Amagansett

‘We realized we hadn’t built a house. We built a happiness machine.’
The combined kitchen and living room has sweeping views of the ocean. The ceiling resembles a beach umbrella.

Most interior designers meticulously arrange their clients’ houses before being photographed, spending hours fluffing pillows, folding towels, and filling each room with vases of freshly cut flowers. But when the camera recently turned on his own house, which is hexagonal and sits on stilts on the oceanfront in Amagansett, David Netto, an interior designer and writer, rearranged not a thing, leaving his bed partly unmade and the contents of his overnight bag strewn about. 

“My style is all about real life,” said Mr. Netto, who resists the sanitized photographs in glossy shelter magazines, where houses now look more like movie sets than actual places where people live. “In my house, it’s a portrait of who I want to be at the beach with my wife.”

When Mr. Netto first bought the house, in 2006, he was looking for something he had sought since childhood, when he first dreamed of living on the ocean. Though he grew up spending the summer in East Hampton at a house on Cottage Avenue, he was drawn to the Amagansett house, not because of its eccentric hexagonal shape — which he figured he’d eventually tear down — but because of its close proximity to the Atlantic.

“Six years went by and everybody was happy in it, no less happy than they are now. I got lazy and said I don’t need to spend any money if they’re happy,” he said. “We’d just show up for two months every summer and accept it for what it was.” When not in Amagansett, Mr. Netto, 47, lives with his wife, Elizabeth Netto, and their 10-year-old daughter, Madelyn, in a 1,200-square foot house designed by Richard Neutra in Silver Lake, Calif. He also has a 14-year-old daughter, Kate, from a previous relationship. 

Five years ago, Japanese Vogue arrived in Amagansett, wanting to do a story. “I thought it was a profile and they thought it was a house story,” he explained. “They showed up and it was this dump and they couldn’t understand why I was living in this way if I was supposed to be an interior designer. There was not one picture they could use. It was really bad,” he said, adding that the magazine editor, who had previously taken an interest in his burgeoning career, never spoke to him again. “I thought, I can’t be seen living like this. It’s bad for business.” 

After years of wavering, he decided that a complete overhaul was in order — and planned to start from scratch. But Will Meyer, a friend and architect, who runs Meyer Davis, a New York City-based design firm, convinced him otherwise. The night after the Japanese Vogue “debacle,” the men started drawing a new house, ultimately spending the next 8 to 10 months working on clients’ houses while also exchanging emails and phone calls, deciding what was to come.

By September of 2012, movers emptied its contents and Mannix Custom Builders of Amagansett took a hammer to the whole thing until the walls were knocked down and only the frame of the roof remained. By June 15, 2013 (about two months behind schedule), construction finally stopped, rolling right up to the edge of summer. “We wanted to do as much as we could and not miss a summer.” The wait — and the expense (well over $1 million) — proved worthwhile.

“We realized we hadn’t built a house. We built a happiness machine,” Mr. Netto said, while sitting on his kitchen counter in late May, drinking black tea with milk and sugar. “It’s everyone’s favorite place to be in my family. I couldn’t really afford it, but it’s the best thing I ever did.” 

The quirky geometry is evident in every section of the 3,000-square-foot house — from the hexagonal living room (whose six-pointed ceiling, anchored by a , rope-covered pole, resembles the inside of a beach umbrella) to the three downstairs bedrooms, each divided into pie-shaped wedges, to the hexagonal master bedroom, with its open-air bathtub and sweeping views of the ocean from every window.

In general, he approached decorating his Amagansett house with an eye toward capturing its unique shape. “It was the easiest installation I’ve ever done. The emptier it was, the better it looked,” Mr. Netto said, estimating that it took him a few hours on one afternoon to pull together. “Usually, doing your own house is very fraught and personal — very emotional. This was just the most painless thing in the world.” He still questions his decision to leave the windows bare: “Did I ‘design’ it enough? Is it the best it could be?”

The bleached oak floors and walls of whitewashed fir make the rooms feel warm and finished, even when there aren’t pictures on the walls. “Pine usually has lots of knots but fir is the straight grain,” Mr. Netto explained. “It’s the feeling of the color of the sky — and driftwood, the wood you find next to the sea.” 

The living room rug, a blue-and-white-striped cotton dhurrie, which dates to 19th century India and originally measured over 30 feet, was formerly in his parents’ East Hampton house. When he was given the rug, which had been folded up in the closet of his father’s Park Avenue apartment, he immediately drove to Amagansett and installed it before his father could change his mind. 

Professionally, the gut renovation proved invaluable. 

“As a decorator, you get a certain sense of isolation from the actual experience of clients fronting these enormous costs. The experience of the psychological stamina it takes to pay consistently large bills from a renovation project is something that is good for every designer to have,” Mr. Netto said. “It’s not a remote thing anymore. Once you see how tough it is — especially the last third — you respect their money like it’s your money.”

He inherited his love for East Hampton from his mother, Kathryn Cosgrove Netto, who came from a family of significant privilege, and he grew up spending summers at the Maidstone Club, attending its camp while his mother played tennis. “It was more sporty than it is today — less uptown,” he said. As an only child who was “bad at golf and bad at tennis,” he rode his bike three months at a stretch, passing the time by looking at beautiful houses (they were not yet obscured by hedges) and admiring old cars in the club’s parking lot. “Cars can be the best design education there is,” he said. “Especially then.”

 His father, Eldo Netto, a native of Ohio, had a far humbler childhood, but after enlisting in the Navy and attending Princeton University on a scholarship, he moved to New York and became a banker. In late middle age, however, hepurchased Cowtan & Tout, a fabric company. “He bought it for a song, when it was just a trunk of rags, and developed it into a very consequential interior furnishings fabric house that really stood for something in the 1980s,” Mr. Netto said. “During the Reagan years, there was Laura Ashley for clothes and Cowtan & Tout for glazed chintzes.”

A patrician upbringing is something Mr. Netto shares with many of his deep-pocketed clients. “There’s a whole swath of clients that like to work with somebody who comes from the same background. They want something that they know I understand,” he said. “The other kind of client doesn’t know anything about that, but they know they want to get it.”

Mr. Netto grew up at 1020 Fifth Avenue, attending the Buckley School before graduating from the Walden School. He went to Sarah Lawrence College (where he now serves on the board of trustees), before pursuing a graduate degree in architectural history from Columbia University. He then spent two years at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design before dropping out to become an interior designer. 

While studying in Cambridge, Mr. Netto discovered that he was drawn not to architecture but to the design of houses — specifically, “high-end, rich people’s houses — and the decorators control that, not the architects.” After apprenticing with Bunny Williams and Nasser Nakib, among others, he struck out on his own at the age of 29. 

In 2001, he started NettoCollection, a line of high-end baby furniture, inspired by the birth of his infant daughter. “I looked at what sucked design-wise, and hadn’t yet been touched by style,” he said, adding that funeral homes were also a contender, were they not “controlled by the mafia.” In 2009, he sold the business to Maclaren and moved full time to Los Angeles, where his eldest daughter, Kate, lived with her mother, the actress Ione Skye. “The message I wanted to send to her was that I’m not living in another city with another kid. I’m with you. Whatever it costs me,” Mr. Netto said. “I’ll be here to pick you up from school.”

In 2005, he married Elizabeth Tynes, whom he had known since they were teenagers, when she refused to give him the time of day. She now writes poetry and fiction, a hobby that Mr. Netto recently encouraged by buying her a surfboard-shaped desk. It sits in their master bedroom. 

Mr. Netto’s mother died in 2001, when Kate, who is named after her grandmother, was still in utero. A few years ago, he and his father donated a secret children’s garden in her memory at the East Hampton Library. Besides being a gentle and quiet place, it was also the library where she taught her son to read. 

Back in Los Angeles, Mr. Netto works on interior design during the day and writes at night. In mid-October, Rizzoli will publish his book about Francois Catroux, a French interior designer. “It’s a 24-hour, think about it in the shower kind of job,” said Mr. Netto, who travels frequently between the two coasts. “It’s a lot of work that doesn’t really feel like work.”

Come June, once school is out for the summer, Mr. Netto heads directly to Burbank Airport. “I come here the moment I can, and I leave the last minute I can,” he said. Apart from the summer, the Netto family typically visits for a few days during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, with Mr. Netto driving out for a night or two whenever work brings him to New York. When first climbing the stairs to unlock the door, the sound of the ocean gets him every time.

In late May, as Mr. Netto readied himself to meet a client in Southampton, whose sprawling, nearly 10,000-square-foot house he wrote about in the June issue of Architectural Digest, talk turned to “The Outermost House,” the 1938 Henry Beston classic. In it, Mr. Beston, a naturalist, wrote about a solitary year he spent on Cape Cod, chronicling the changing seasons — long after the summer people had come and gone.

“That’s my fantasy of how things would end up here,” Mr. Netto said. “One day, at the end of some summer when nobody needs me, and the kids have graduated, I’ll just never leave.” 

Not yet ready to relinquish the pull of the material world, he grabbed his Swaine Adeney Brigg briefcase before speeding off in a 10-year-old Bentley Continental, a retirement gift Mr. Netto purchased for his 89-year-old father that has become his, much like the rug. “It will be Aug. 20, and then Sept. 15, but I’ll just be here, sitting still. That’s the plan.”

The quirky hexagonal shape peeks through the Amagansett dunes.
David Netto paused on his second-floor deck for a recent portrait.
In the open-air master bedroom suite on the second floor, a bathtub by Blu takes center stage.
In 1974, as a young boy on Georgica Beach in East Hampton, Mr. Netto held hands with his parents, Eldo Netto and Kathryn Cosgrove Netto. . John Haynsworth
Books and cherished objects, among them a boat model and shells collected with his daughter Madelyn, surround a blue painted pole, wrapped in rope. At far right is a Finn Juhl Pelican Chair designed in 1936.
Downstairs, each of the three bedrooms are split into pie-sized wedges. The large hanging photo is by Karin Apollonia Muller from the series “Angels in Fall.” The smaller leaning photo is by Tony Caramanico from the series “The Surf Journals.”
Each bedroom door is painted a bright primary color.
One of the sweeping views of the Amagansett dunes and ocean
In the screening room and adjoining office is a custom sofa covered with blue-and-white-striped fabric by Jennifer Shorto.