In This Southampton House, The Party is Down Below

southmapton den by gil schafer
A Sleek Subterranean Den in SouthamptonEric Piasecki Photography LLC

Upstairs at a house in Southampton, Gil Schafer is up to his old tricks: exquisite Colonial Revival millwork, precisely proportioned molding profiles, and stair stringer details researched from 18th-century Newport houses. Downstairs, the tables are turned: We find ourselves in a world of ebony lacquer and theatrically lit netsuke skulls, stainless steel Louis XVI furniture and serpentine suede banquettes. Welcome to the most exclusive invitation in Southampton, known to those in the know as Club Sandwich. Think Mr. Chow in your own basement, or a meditation on François Catroux’s early work, circa 1970 (Catroux was in fact a family friend and did two houses for these clients).

Lenny Kravitz has a legendary boîte under his hotel particulier in Paris where he brings guests after dinner to keep the party going, and if a house on the East End of Long Island is big enough and near the water, there’s a good chance the story will go that during Prohibition it had a speakeasy in the basement. But the roots of this basement lie in an evening spent aboard Atlantis II, the 380-foot yacht belonging to the Niarchos family, a fixture in Monaco’s harbor for decades that rarely sails except to refuel in Malta. A visit for drinks left these clients admiring the 1970s lacquer vibes and inspired to use their own basement for something more than laundry machines and bike storage. They were at work at the time with Schafer on a rather traditional house above ground, but the plan for what was below became something quite different.

Schafer (whose third book, Home at Last, will be published by Rizzoli this month) happens to have in his office a rare book about German architect Cäsar Pinnau, designer of the Niarchos boat, but he is the first to explain that this room was very much a “client vision”—a collaboration unlike anything else he has done, with next-level grooviness added by Atelier Mériguet-Carrère, the famous Paris painters who provided the lacquer finishes; Le Manach, who made the custom carpet; and, not least, l’Observatoire International, the lighting designer that provided the atmosphere. Decorator Virginia Tupker, already at work upstairs, assembled the parts.

gil schafer southampton den
Late night backgammon and a seminal painting by Keith Haring. Both can be viewed from a sepentine suede banquette inspired by those at François and Betty Catroux’s first apartment in Paris. Custom carpet by Le Manach. Eric Piasecki Photography LLC

“There’s something about a basement that lets you throw out the rules,” the owner says. “Having grown up loving Pink Panther movies and Trader Vic’s, I wanted that kind of fun somewhere in our house. And how else was I going to challenge Gil? It wasn’t going to happen in the flower room. This was our big chance to loosen him up.”

Schafer concedes he has limited experience going to nightclubs, let alone designing one. So how did he pull this off? Does it still feel like his work? Can he even get in? “I’m a guy who’s in bed at 9:30,” he says. “This was good for me. It’s one of my favorite spaces in the house, because it’s glamorous in a way Colonial Revival can never be. And I think it works because it’s so completely other than what is upstairs.” Did he learn anything? “That darkness can be as important as light.”

gil schafer southampton den
A Louis XVI-style stainless steel desk designed by John Vesey (and fabricated by John Boone) beneath an Ingo Maurer Uchiwa wall light. Man Ray’s surrealistic sculpture Venus Restored guards the entrance to the spa.Eric Piasecki Photography LLC

Speaking of which, it’s after 10 on a July night, and dinner is finishing up in the garden. The couple who live here are very social and well liked, and they love to entertain people of all ages, especially alfresco. Among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars, guests come and go in their blue gardens, designed by Miranda Brooks. They all go home happy, but many have no idea about the real party about to start under their feet.

This story appears in the February 2024 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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