A few years ago, Sara Arnell was driving along one of the back roads in Katonah, the charming New York hamlet that had been her home for the better part of two decades, when an Open House sign caught her eye. “I thought, Huh, I wonder what’s up the hill, because you can’t see the house from the road,” she says. “So I pulled up the driveway and just fell in love.”
A veteran advertising and branding executive, Arnell spent much of her career at the storied agency founded by her ex-husband, Peter Arnell, even taking over as CEO after his departure in 2011. By the time the Arnell Group shut down two years later, the couple had divorced and the youngest of their three kids was headed to college. Arnell reinvented herself by teaching at Parsons and founding the company Karmic, which began as an app that encourages wellness through kindness and has since evolved to also serve as a platform for her consulting work. Swapping her rental home for one she could truly tailor as her own was the next step.
The residence Arnell had stumbled upon, it turned out, was quite out of the ordinary. Perched on three wooded acres, the 5,000-square-foot, white brick house combines a 1936 farmhouse with a 1941 modernist addition by Wallace K. Harrison, the architect famous for his role in creating such New York City landmarks as Rockefeller Center, the United Nations headquarters, and Lincoln Center—he personally designed the Metropolitan Opera House. Described by his patron and friend Nelson Rockefeller as “the greatest architect in the 20th century,” Harrison left behind relatively few houses, the most notable of which is his own estate in West Hills, on Long Island, built in the ’30s. As with that considerably larger project, the Katonah residence reflects the crisp, pared-down look of the era’s defining International Style. It also incorporates Harrison’s fondness for curved, nautical-inspired forms, leading some to characterize its design as Streamline Moderne.
Regardless of aesthetic label, the house appealed to Arnell’s fondness for the distinctive and idiosyncratic. “In a town of colonials and farmhouse-style homes,” she says, “it really stood out as something special. I just thought, This is meant to be.”
Still, the interiors—renovated by previous owners— demanded significant work. “It was decorated as a country house,” she says. “In the study, the walls were faux-finished to imitate knotty-pine paneling.”
After enlisting the local firm Kroeger Intinarelli to oversee the architectural work, Arnell took the recommendation of a trusted friend and reached out to Alberto Villalobos, a Colombian-born, New York City–based designer, about collaborating on the interiors.
“One of the main things for Sara was that the house could not be precious,” says Villalobos, the recipient of the New York School of Interior Design’s 2019 Rising Star Award. “In some moments she wanted a little glamour, but it was about finding that balance, with a relaxed, subtle elegance.”
Working in concert with the architects, they set about updating the house in a way that they felt would honor the spirit of Harrison’s midcentury design. They kept the existing four-bedroom layout—it offers plenty of space for Arnell’s three kids to visit “with their entourage and their dogs,” as she puts it—while making a number of modest tweaks. For starters, a superfluous sunroom, which earlier owners had added by enclosing part of the terrace, was dismantled to return the home to its original profile.
Guided by old photos, including a 1950 sales brochure, they also restored a large window that had been closed up near the main staircase. In the living room, beneath a curved wall of windows, they uncovered a planter that had been bricked over; it’s now filled with leafy ferns. “We did some archaeological investigating that was really fun,” says Arnell.
The most significant alterations were undertaken in the large open space that contains the kitchen, breakfast area, and family room and now serves as the home’s primary hub. Dramatically expanded kitchen windows enhance the natural light and views, while large green and white terrazzo floor tiles, laid in an irregular alternating pattern, lend some midcentury panache. A trim bookshelf spans the top of one wall, its eye-catching emerald green echoing both the kitchen’s glossy cabinetry and the family room’s tufted velvet sofa.
Most mornings Arnell can be found seated on the breakfast area’s long banquette, her laptop open on the sleek, no-fuss resin table. Hanging behind her is a favorite Slim Aarons photograph of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs— designed, Arnell notes, around the same time Harrison created this house. Meanwhile, her energetic year-old toy poodle, Otis, dashes to and from the walled courtyard outside the family room. “I just throw open the sliding doors and he runs in and out,” she says.
Throughout the house, the furnishings are distinctly modern in spirit and reflect Arnell’s preference for pieces that have a sculptural presence. “Everything needed to be interesting on its own, because Sara didn’t want things to be overly decorated,” says Villalobos. “She wanted simplicity.”
Nowhere is that mandate clearer than in the oval entrance hall. Empty except for a pair of ceramic dogs and a few sparely installed artworks, the space’s only flourish is the terrazzo floor Villalobos designed with ribbons of black that swirl across the white expanse.
The designer continued the black-and-white theme in the living room, which Harrison had given a distinctive kidney shape and an elegantly scalloped wall. Villalobos composed two seating areas with curving Vladimir Kagan sofas, classic modern chairs, and—to ensure things didn’t get too serious—lime-green mushroom stools. “We didn’t want to do anything there that would feel too heavy, too chunky,” says the designer.
The room’s curved bookshelves presented a challenge because of their shape and shallow depth. Arnell and Villalobos didn’t want a hodgepodge of objects or mismatched books jutting out that would disrupt the room’s graceful lines. So the designer had an artisan create imitation books, sized to fit perfectly flush and painted stark white. Adding to the visual mix are constellation-like pendant lights by Jan Pauwels and works by Raymond Pettibon, April Gornik, and photographer Robert Doisneau.
Arnell has been an avid collector of photographs, which are displayed throughout the house. Her trove spans rock ’n’ roll images such as a Jesse Frohman portrait of Kurt Cobain; civil rights–era photos by Gordon Parks, Flip Schulke, and others; and fashion and glamour shots by Herb Ritts, David LaChapelle, Greg Lotus, and Bert Stern (“I’ve got a lot of Marilyn,” Arnell notes). But her passions extend to more esoteric collecting areas, like the centuries-old Palissy ware arrayed on one of the kitchen walls. Then there are her numerous religious sculptures, such as the pair of gilded angels that preside over the dining room (along with a version of the famous Lobmeyr chandelier Harrison designed for the Met Opera House).
“I started pulling out things that have sentimental value to me,” says Arnell. “I thought, Let’s just put them somewhere, because if I’m going to get eclectic, it needs to be with stuff that means something to me.” Adds Villalobos, “That’s what adds the layers and makes the house a home.”
It’s also what provides much of the actual color in rooms that have a predominantly neutral palette. The one very memorable exception is Arnell’s study, a space where virtually every surface but the ceiling is a shade of saffron, the color she uses for Karmic’s logo. “The ethos of my company is that what you do comes back to you,” she says. “If you’re putting out messages that are good and kind and helpful, you’ll get that back.”