When one has spent more than four decades in the employ of one of the world's master interpreters of the good life, living it inevitably becomes part of the job. Buffy Birrittella has worked side by side with Ralph Lauren for more than 40 years, having joined him when he was just starting out. "It was during what the fashion world called the Peacock Revolution, when John Weitz and Bill Blass were making a splash," Birrittella says. "Ralph was the upstart, and I found his work really exciting."
The former fashion journalist discovered Lauren in the early 1970s while editing the pages of the Daily News Record, the menswear brother publication to Women's Wear Daily. She championed his work, then talked the burgeoning designer into hiring her. Birrittella was among Lauren's first 10 employees, and thus began a storied career that has led to her current role as the executive vice president of women's design and advertising.
One of Birrittella's first assignments was to dress Robert Redford for his role as Jay Gatsby in the 1974 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. "Redford invited me out to Sundance and put me up in his guest cottage," she says, referring to the Utah resort the actor purchased in the 1960s. Immediately smitten—with the landscape, the lifestyle, and a charming two-bedroom cabin that she eventually bought—Birrittella took up trail riding on horseback, fly-fishing, and skiing. It was while aboard a ski lift at Sundance, in fact, that she spied the mountainside retreat that has become a refuge from city life since 1998.
"The tiny cabin worked nicely for a decade, but I outgrew it," she says. The petite Birrittella hardly takes up much space herself. What expanded is the collection of Navajo blankets, baskets, and pottery she began amassing in the early 1980s, soon after her boss discovered Santa Fe and borrowed its aesthetic, not only for his fashions but also to create one of his most successful home collections. "I would drive to the markets in New Mexico from Utah in my little Porsche — 12 hours — and it was such great fun," she recalls.
The view of Mount Timpanogos from Birrittella's four-bedroom timber-frame home is awe-inspiring, but the extraordinary assemblage of rare Native American textiles, photographs, jewelry, and pottery inside is almost as breathtaking. With the flair one would expect from a longtime pupil of Lauren, she has managed to work hundreds of pieces into the interior, layering rugs underfoot; draping them over sofas, chairs, and the bedroom balcony; and hanging them as one might a tapestry. There are few places more magical — with the exception of the guest cabin, which she has dubbed "the tree house," since it was made with local timber. "Everyone who visits wants dibs on the tree house," says Birrittella, who admits it provides more space for her collections.
Back East, Birrittella has spent the last six years filling a warehouse with an entirely different style of furniture and accessories. Wicker sofas, corner cabinets, a carved-wood mantel—pieces meant for the 900-square-foot home on Bayberry Close in East Hampton that she moved into last year — conjure yet another version of the good life espoused by Lauren. "It's my fantasy cottage," says Birrittella of her one-bedroom seaside retreat.
Whitewashed floors, American flags, cotton-canvas slipcovers, and nautical accents evoke the simplicity of East Coast beach life. "I picked out every single thing in the house, including the dining room table," she says. Birrittella points out this particular piece because attaining the base, a petrified tree trunk, exemplifies the lengths to which she will go to find precisely what she is looking for. "It had washed up on the beach after Hurricane Sandy, and a friend hauled it into his garage, where I let it dry out for a year," she says. That fireplace mantel Birrittella stored for so long? It turned out to be too small, so she had it expanded and repainted to look exactly like the original.
Though she decorates for herself, Birrittella insists that she is most concerned that both homes be places family and friends are drawn to; she loves to entertain. In Utah, her legendary Fourth of July barbecue draws a larger crowd with each passing year, and on New Year's Day, a big pot of her fragrant chili simmers in anticipation of friends dropping in.
One of her fondest memories is the party she threw at the beach house for everyone who helped make her cottage a reality, including Ralph Lauren himself. For most mortals, the notion that one of America's top tastemakers was on his way over would incite panic. But Birrittella has known her boss too long to feel anything but excitement.
"It was a very happy moment for me. I was incredibly house-proud," she remembers. "It was like showing an art teacher your work, or a creative-writing teacher your novel. It was a pupil-and-mentor moment."
This article originally appeared in the October, 2015 issue of ELLE Decor. See the full house tours here.