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Hamptons Life

Oct 22, 2009 3:28 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

At home with Gerson and Judith Leiber

Oct 22, 2009 3:28 PM

When he was approaching the age of 90 in the year 2000, American artist Will Barnet painted a portrait of Judith and Gerson (Gus) Leiber that depicted his longtime friends with an almost “American Gothic” quality. With unsmiling faces and eyes that mirror souls that have seen much joy and sorrow, the subjects hold on tightly to the tools of their individual trades.

In the case of Ms. Leiber, considered by many to be the world’s greatest handbag designer, it’s a Bauhaus-inspired multicolor envelope handbag. And in the case of Mr. Leiber, it’s a long paintbrush used for creating his highly regarded Modernist paintings that have earned places in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum.

Now hanging over the brick fireplace in the couple’s bedroom in Springs, the large painting also perfectly exemplifies the style of the Leibers’s home in the Hamptons—elegant and formal with touches of color and whimsy.

The couple, who also live in a penthouse apartment at 34th and Park in Manhattan, bought the home for a modest sum in 1956, the same year that fellow Springs resident and artist Jackson Pollock wrapped his car around a tree and perished. At the time, Springs was a hotbed of activity for avant-garde writers and members of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

“Yes, I knew some of them, but I was too busy working on my gardens here,” said Mr. Leiber recently, a small-statured bald man with a twinkle in his eyes. “When we bought this place, it was all woods. For years, I came out every weekend to clear the land.”

As her husband of 63 years spoke, Ms. Leiber, crisply dressed all in black with perfectly coiffed white hair, sat in a comfortable chair in the living room and listened intently. Her older sister, Eva Ecker, sat nearby. Daisy, the couple’s high-spirited Norwich terrier, scampered between everyone’s legs.

“This is actually the third incarnation of the 19th century farmhouse we bought,” explained Mr. Leiber. “Over the years, we renovated and built some additions, but about 25 years ago, we ending up tearing it down to build this house.”

The couple asked local contractor Ernie Dayton to build the spacious four-bedroom, four-bath saltbox-style home, and relied on New York interior designer Richard V. Hare to fill its interior with exquisite 18th and 19th century antiques and reproductions.

“He was a very, very good interior decorator,” noted Ms. Leiber, speaking softly with a Hungarian accent.

Filling the home’s walls and shelves with museum-quality artwork was no problem—it simply required a walk through Mr. Leiber’s own studio to find suitable Modernist paintings and etchings (he’s also a talented sculptor). The couple also tapped their extensive collection of antique Chinese porcelains and other treasures from their 50-plus years of impassioned collecting.

“We painted this living room a milk chocolate, a color we found in the original living room. It’s a wonderful background for exhibiting art,” Mr. Leiber said.

As the couple gave a tour of the home, they pointed out some of their favorite works of art, including a white marble sculpture by Constantino Nivola, which has a place of honor in the living room. Also on view are works by Spanish-born Abstract Expressionist painter Esteban Vicente, who lived in Bridgehampton; Abstract Modernist Lyonel Feininger; English painter and engraver William Hogarth, American Abstract artist John von Wicht; painter/printmaker Robert Broner; French print maker/caricaturist Honoré Daumier; and English Romantic landscape painter William Turner—to name just a sampling.

In the corner of the living room is a painted screen of the original farmhouse by Mr. Leiber. Another custom-designed screen serves as a doorway to the charming kitchen, where the smell of white chocolate macadamia cookies caused salivary glands to go into “I want one” overdrive. The Leibers speak fondly of their staff, which includes a chef, baker and three full-time gardeners.

With its Mexican tile floor, soft cream cabinetry and rustic Welsh and American pottery, the kitchen has a welcoming feel. Clerestory windows positioned over the upper kitchen cabinets and a wall of glass doors let the sunshine flood in. When not entertaining, the Leibers dine together at the antique pine kitchen table, which still bears remnants of centuries-old English mud at the base of its legs.

For formal entertaining, the couple retreat to the putty-colored dining room, charming with antique and reproduction pieces and a wood-burning fireplace. The dining room leads to a light and plant-filled pentagonal-shaped conservatory.

“Gus is the one with the green thumb,” said Ms. Leiber, alluding to not only her husband’s botanical nurturing of the orchids and ferns in the conservatory, but also the 7 acres of garden “rooms” on the property (now open to the public) which he has been designing and tending for more than 50 years.

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Just loved this article. I am fortunate to walk past the Judith Leiber boutique on Madison Ave. once per week. I am amazed at her artistry! Her bags are way, way beyond beautiful...
By ArtloverCEL (2), Westhampton on Oct 29, 09 12:29 PM
Several years ago, the Leibers were kind enough to allow their lovely home to be included on the Guild Hall's Garden Tour. Those lucky enough to attend gained a priviledged peek at that incredible "Palladian-style" museum - and could then stroll through their equally beautiful grounds to reflect on the talent and life experience of these lovely people. This charming couple continues to enrich the world with their talent and warmth, while effectively safeguarding their much-deserved privacy -- ...more
By sghmomma (5), sag harbor on Oct 30, 09 9:06 AM