Outfitting virtually an entire home in shades of white requires serious skill, so it's a good thing Rita Noroña Schrager, a former New York City Ballet dancer, knows a thing or two about making the complicated look carefree. Hiring Miami-based interior designer to help her execute her vision didn't hurt either. The two met years ago when Arriaga was working in Manhattan and instantly bonded, partly due to their shared Latin roots—Noroña Schrager hails from Cuba, and Arriaga is from Argentina.
Noroña Schrager had already secured the perfect place in the rolling horse-farm hills north of Southampton, New York: a stately four-bedroom Colonial she discovered her very first day house-hunting. Ample but not overwhelming, with a winsome guest cottage and spectacular swimming pool, it seemed an ideal getaway spot for her and her two daughters, Sophia, 15, and Ava, 11—especially since it was only a short drive from the weekend home of their father, hotelier Ian Schrager. "I appreciated that it didn't look like every shingled building out here," she says. "And I love the landscape—it looks more like Connecticut than the Hamptons." Its impressive pedigree was another advantage. It had already been revamped by its previous owner, Greg Yale, a noted lighting designer, so the bathrooms and kitchen were 21st-century beautiful, and the architecture had been simplified for an easy flow throughout.
Since his client wanted to move in as soon as possible, Arriaga leapt into action with his decorating partner, Fabio Lopes. Having grown up in a Caribbean country where vestiges of 18th- and 19th-century grandeur are commonplace, Noroña Schrager has an affinity for the antique—but as a single mom rarely seen in anything but jeans, she prefers it mixed with the modern. Arriaga came up with a creative solution: He applied a high-gloss white lacquer to a range of French-country furnishings, right down to a pair of $50 bedside tables. "Like I always tell my girls," Noroña Schrager says with a smile, "it's not how much it costs, it's how you wear it." The shiny items lend the interiors a snazzy edge worthy of one of her ex-husband's boutique properties (in fact, a baroque headboard in the guest bedroom was a prototype artist Julian Schnabel made for the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan).
Employing a pale-and-natural-tone scheme throughout meant Noroña Schrager's disparate pieces would meld seamlessly. A careful balance of refined sophistication and casual comfort reigns in the living room, where a team of traditional deep-dish upholstered sofas and chairs surrounds a modern metal-and-wood cocktail table topped with contemporary objets. "It really all started with the Delano," she says, referring to the famed all-white Miami Beach hotel Ian Schrager renovated not long after the two married. "I just loved how the color looked down there—so fresh and clean and so great for the beach."
Not that she is overly rigid about her preferred palette. The former ballerina encouraged her children to select their own bedroom hues, though in the end they didn't deviate much from their mother's taste. Ava chose white with black accents, while Sophia opted for white with splashes of lime-green and aqua. And in the gatehouse's African room, earth-tone artifacts from Noroña Schrager's travels and recycled-pine walls from an old barn in upstate New York add warmth to the white framework. For the study, she threw out the color motif altogether. She wanted to incorporate a Cuban theme, so Arriaga suggested finding real tobacco leaves and lacquering them to the wall. Sound simple? As any cigar aficionado can attest, tobacco is known for its tendency to absorb humidity—which is good in a cigar and bad in a wall covering. But months of perseverance by a craftsman who experimented with various shellacs and finishes ultimately proved successful. Now the room is Noroña Schrager's favorite, a gracious refuge that evokes a cool 1930s lounge somewhere in the tropics. It's full of unexpected touches, right down to the taxidermy cobra resting on the cocktail table.
Though undeniably chic, Noroña Schrager also has a playful side, Arriaga says. From a console in the front hallway composed entirely of a tangle of vines ("she loves strong shapes and natural materials," he says), to the large sunburst mirror looming above the living room mantel, to a fanciful poolside daybed framed with copious cast-iron curlicues, her sense of fun and spontaneity pervades the space. "From the beginning we planned the house to be that way—we wanted it to be happy and inviting," Arriaga says. "If Rita saw something she wanted, she had to have it," he continues with a fond laugh, ticking off unusual purchases such as curly goatskin rugs, a dilapidated wine-tasting table she turned into the focal point of her dining room, and an oversize antler chandelier in the entryway. "She would say, 'Let's get it, we'll make it work somewhere,'" he recalls. Today those choices speak for themselves.