She may have been raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, after her family moved from Australia to the United States, but when Emma Jane Pilkington went off to Northwestern University, outside Chicago, to study art history, she thought she had left that well-heeled New England town far behind. She moved to Paris after college before settling in New York City in the 1990s, where she planned to be a fashion designer ("until I actually interned on Seventh Avenue"). She switched to the fashion department at Esquire, which is when she found her true calling—interior design—by accident, after a friend asked the ultrachic Pilkington to decorate an apartment.
So when her sister called her one day and told her there was a man she absolutely had to meet, and that he, too, had grown up in Greenwich, Pilkington was, understandably, put off. "Absolutely not," she recalls saying at the time. "I didn't move to Paris and New York and everywhere else to be with a boy who grew up in Greenwich."
But financier Todd Goergen and Pilkington were obviously meant to be. In 2010, as they awaited the birth of their son, Otto, the couple—yearning for more space and the kind of fresh-air freedom they had grown up with—came full circle, with the purchase of a Norman-style house in a leafy enclave in Greenwich.
The property had a lot going for it. It's situated in one of the town's earliest planned communities, Khakum Wood, an estate conceived by Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes at the beginning of the 20th century with undulating grounds designed by the Olmsted Brothers.
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The mustard-colored stucco house, on the other hand, needed serious work. The rooms were small, the ceilings low, and the windows tiny. It was a far cry from the gracious European-style country manor that Pilkington—who has crafted effortlessly elegant interiors for such New York trendsetters as Ivanka Trump and Cristina Greeven Cuomo—envisioned for her young family.
The first order of business was to enlist architect Joel Barkley and his clean, modernist eye to transform the dreary place into a light-filled, functional home. Barkley envisioned a courtyard house to take advantage of the splendid grounds, which are bordered by a gorge. A new addition serves as a ballroom-sized living and dining area that flows seamlessly into that gracious outdoor space. Floor-to-ceiling windows flood the wing with sunlight. And whitewashed oak beams, says Barkley, "give it a sense of a really old house, older than it is."
Many of the original low-slung rooms were kept intact but now serve different purposes. One porch became Goergen's study, another the breakfast room, and the dining room was converted into a hall with a fireplace. But the three-year project was not without hiccups. "I'm fastidious, so things had to be done more than once," Pilkington admits. "My husband would say I am the perfect client—I didn't necessarily do the best job of tracking the investment."
She brought that same unerring eye to the furnishings. Except for the rare mod piece—an Arne Jacobsen Egg chair, for instance, covered in a leopard velvet—the contents look as if they came from the kind of old European country house she longed to inhabit. "As much as I love supermodern," she says, "this house rejected it every time."
What it welcomed was an assured mix of blue-chip antiques, many of which Pilkington has collected over time. A Directoire painted daybed is sumptuously upholstered in a sky-blue mohair; 17th- and 18th-century marble fireplaces were found in, of all places, Colorado; and a strikingly modern wall hanging turns out to be a pre-Columbian ceremonial tunic made of colored feathers.
Goergen, who knew well enough to let his wife and their architect make magic together, had only three requests: a wine cellar, a very big stove—the professional-grade, appropriately named Diva, because he loves to cook—and a bathtub large enough to hold his six-foot-five-inch frame. Pilkington tracked down a massive 19th-century marble tub in London, then had Goergen go sit in it at the warehouse during a trip to England. The guest bath's gleaming copper tub is from the same source. "One bath can fit a family, and the other can barely fit my very petite mother," Pilkington jokes. "But as with most of my pieces, it always starts off as an aesthetic romance."
Certainly, it was a love affair that brought her back and keeps her rooted here, watching her tousled-haired son play in the same verdant fields of her youth, even if that wasn't the original plan. "I don't know how Emma survives in the modern world," Barkley says with affection. "Her standards are so impeccably high, and everything she does is so considered. Maybe that's the reason why she has this house—so she can live in perfection."