On Martha's Porch
A casual conversation at home with Martha Stewart
On a glorious day earlier this summer Martha Stewart and Joseph Abboud sat down on the back porch of Stewart’s Cantitoe Corners home. Having just returned from riding on the miles of private lanes that wind through her 153-acre property,
Stewart provided iced tea from her kitchen and strawberries from her garden. n The main house and most of the peripheral buildings sit hard by the road, surrounded by a low stone wall, thus visible to passersby. Behind the main house, her property rolls out like a Monet landscape as far as the eye can see—fenced-in fields, paddocks, and stands of trees. Lining the foreground is a wide variety of gardens—a 100-foot patch of peonies, numerous vegetable patches, and a curving arbor lined with bushes that extends for a hundred yards. About a tenth of a mile in the distance a newly built stone stable rises from the landscape. n Elegant but not ornate. Grand but not lavish. Striking yet subtle, the property and buildings reflect the creative eye of its owner. It all provided fertile ground for a pleasant Sunday-afternoon discussion.
Joseph Abboud: This place is really fabulous. How did you end up with it?
Martha Stewart: A friend of mine who works for Ralph Lauren told me that there was a piece of land next to Ralph that maybe I should look at. I went to see it and loved it. But I wondered why Ralph wasn’t interested, since it’s right next door. They said he already had 250 acres, and that he’d be happy if I was his neighbor. I bought it the next day.
JA: What was the first thing you did
after buying it?
MS: I put in four miles of carriage roads for riding horses. I met a man named Bruce Corbett, who helped design the roads at Pocantico Hills. Mr. Rockefeller told me about him. He is the master of the carriage roads. And a wonderful man. He and I mapped out this curvaceous road map. They look like ordinary roads but are made of 16 inches of surge stone, six inches of less coarse stone, and then the top is a mix of ground-up asphalt and dirt.
JA: If someone told me you have a split-rail fence, I wouldn’t believe it until I
MS: Isn’t it extraordinary? It is 100 years old. I bought all my horses in Canada—in Brantford, near Toronto. I saw these fences up there and loved them. My horse guy told me that they were knocking all these fences down to build houses and nobody wanted them. I couldn’t believe it. I bought three miles of fence—for all the paddocks, the fields, everywhere, as far as you can see. The guy who sold them to me, a Richard Christiansen from Ontario, spent the summer here installing all of it with just one helper. They’re stacked, as you can see, with an upright holding them in place. He’s a genius. I love this fence.
JA: Tell me about the stable.
MS: Well, I have this wonderful stone builder, but he likes everything clean and neat. He kept bringing in clean stones. I wanted everything to have its own look. Not perfect. I told him that I wanted stones with odd shapes and with paint on them and chips on them. I took him to St. Patrick’s, the Catholic Church downtown. I said I wanted that kind of stonework and that kind of pattern. I didn’t want it to look ordinary. Every building has a different pattern, but they all go together and tie in with this paint color, Bedford Grey.
JA: How can you be so consistent—putting your DNA, so to speak, into so many things—yet still make them different?
MS: Consistency but with a lot of variety is a challenge. It is a simple elegance that is edited, edited, edited until it’s right. It takes a lot of work.
JA: The arbor seems to wind along forever. Is that your addition?
MS: There is a stone importer in Seattle—Rhodes, Ragan & Smith, I believe. They went to China and bought up all the stone in the towns being flooded by the big dam-building project. The uprights to the arbor are stone grape stakes—hand-chipped from the 19th century in these little Chinese villages. I bought hundreds of them, not knowing what I was going to do with them. Then I came up with this idea to use them as anchors for the arbor. The top of the arbor curves with the road. Behind the arbors we put rows of Sharon bluebird, which I found in Maryland.
JA: What other finds have you managed to fit into this property?
MS: See those gorgeous finials? I bought them from Fleur in Mt. Kisco ten or 15 years ago. I had no idea what I would do with them. When I built that equipment shed, I had them fit for it. Look how perfect they are.
JA: What did you do to the houses?
MS: Well, the house we’re in was the winter house. This is my main house. That one over there, closer to the road, which is now my library, was the summerhouse. It was built in 1776—back in John Jay’s day—as the post office for this area. Mrs. Sharp, who owned the property previously, would live in this house in the winter and then move over there for the summer in May or June. It’s really funny to think about.
JA: What were the buildings like when you bought them?
MS: These houses were disasters—they needed a lot of work. This one was built in 1925. The little house on the other side of us, built in 1880, is a fairy-tale cottage that my daughter took. I added the greenhouse, built the stable, and am putting in a second greenhouse.
JA: Did you consider knocking them down and moving back from the road?
MS: This is an old town, and these houses were on the road, and they still are, and I’m used to that. I’ve always lived on the road, it seems. Here, in Westport, and in Nutley. Keeping them here seemed the right thing to do. Someday I’ll build the house I really want back there.
JA: You’ve done a lot in a few years.
MS: Not when you think that the Empire State Building was built in a year, and all the Olympic buildings in China are being done in nine months. I tell that to the guys working here every day.
JA: Is your true love the garden?
MS: I love land and views and animals, in any order. I’m crazy about plants—I have this wonderful tropical garden that is just so fabulous. I love trees, and we put in lots of them, but not giant ones. I plant smaller trees—for the cost and because I hate to see a big, mature tree die, which can happen after replanting. I’ll just have to wait. Come back in 40 years and this place will be spectacular.
JA: This table we’re sitting at is from Kmart?
MS: Yes, but I painted it Bedford Grey, which Kmart wouldn’t do.
JA: You have created products for Kmart and now you have some lines going into Macy’s. Tell me about creating products for mass appeal.
MS: I have always collected with an eye for usefulness. Everything has to be beautiful, traditional, and classic—but sturdy and functional and an heirloom for tomorrow. My mother-in-law was a decorator and lived very, very lavishly and was very decorator-y. When I got married, she lived in the Ritz Tower in New York. I was walking on the floor and cut my foot. The floor was made of glass mosaic—the entire thing—and it would splinter. And she said, “Oh, but it’s so beautiful.” So practicality is the lesson I learned from that.
JA: And what else?
MS: Well, I also learned about not being a decorator. I cannot stand things that are too decorated. I do envy my friends who have decorators and at least their houses are actually done. Mine just keep going on, and are half-furnished, but at least it’s me. It’s my style.
JA: Do you enjoy what you do?
MS: My work is my pleasure, and my pleasure is my work.
JA: Your attention to detail and your restraint and self-confidence. Where does it come from?
MS: I have always been an editor. I’m not lavish. I am inspired by what other people write and what other people write about.
JA: Not lavish? How about this field of peonies over here?
MS: The idea for the peonies came from Elizabeth von Arnim, who married the Count of Potsdam—home of the most beautiful porcelain in all of Germany. She wrote this beautiful book called Elizabeth and Her German Garden. She had a 300-foot circle across of pink peonies. And you think, wow, 300 feet. She’d take her little girls to see the peonies. So I had to have that, though mine is only about 100 feet. She did a lot of wonderful things, but of course you soon realize she had about 50 gardeners. So what I am trying to do is on a very modest scale.
JA: Who else inspired you?
MS: Helena Rutherford Ely had a great Jersey estate and wrote A Woman’s Hardy Garden, which I read voraciously. I did everything she said. I would take the wood ash from the fireplaces and sprinkle it on the crowns of the delphiniums. And I would use Bordeaux powder. Can you believe it? Bordeaux powder. It turns out she had 300 gardeners. Three hundred gardeners! I read that when I was 19 years old, just married, and trying to have a garden. In those days I would think, if only I had a million dollars ... Then it was, if only I had ten million dollars. Now it’s, if only I had 16 billion dollars! That’s a reference to a story from Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses, by Dorothy Parker.
JA: Do you really get to appreciate Cantitoe Corners?
MS: It’s a special place to me. I get up early and photograph it. I took a picture of those apple trees and gave framed prints to 100 people for Christmas. I love being able to alter the landscape in a modest way.
JA: What do you mean?
MS: When I built the barn, I had to sink it down about 15 feet because the neighbors didn’t want to see an ugly stable on a scenic road. Now they’re standing on the wall to get a view of it. They didn’t know me when they made me do that. And now they’re letting that house on the corner go up. It is such an eyesore.
JA: With your love of flowers and the outdoors, have you ever done a fragrance?
MS: I did, and I might again. I showed some fragrance designers the flowers I wanted to capture. They are wonderfully smelling flowers that also have auto-immune qualities, so it could be a terrific product. It could be a really nice room fragrance. But right now we are doing a ham.
JA: A ham?
MS: Yes, it’s a Christmas ham, sold by Costco. They went and bought all these hogs. All raised hormone-free. I was inspired by Jerry Kurowyckyj—this Polish butcher who just closed his shop on First Avenue and Eighth Street after being there forever. I have been going there since I was a baby. There is one ham in all of America that is really good, and this is it. It is going to be something very special.
JA: That’s a great story. Can you get that message to people?
MS: Sure, I can go on David Letterman and throw out a ham. Seriously, though, we will tell it well.
JA: My daughters, my wife, my mother-in-law are all fans. You can get to every one of us—that’s the magic of Martha Stewart.
MS: The broader the market, the more excited I am. When Kmart asked me to design products for them, it was a great opportunity to make quality products for lots of people. Some people didn’t like it. The Junior League in Greenwich cancelled my appearance. They said, “If you’re going to be with Kmart, we don’t want you speaking to us.” I said, well, fine. I broke the ice for good design getting to mass market. We were the first to have 100-percent cotton, light-colored sheets for the masses.
JA: How did you know they would sell?
MS: I wanted them. I don’t want to spend $400 for sheets. And I know that people want attractive things at reasonable prices. People want style. And they deserve it.