(ELLE DECOR) -- When Amy Mellen set out in search of a weekend house 15 years ago, what she wanted was a place to see and be seen—by crickets, sparrows, coyotes, and frogs, as well as by a few dear friends.
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To Mellen, already a rising star in the design world at the time, weekends were a chance to recharge her creative batteries. And for that, nothing worked as powerfully as time spent outdoors, which meant that a quiet corner of Dutchess County, in upstate New York, was a better setting for her downtime than, say, the über-social Hamptons.
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"I love, love, love being outside," she says. "I take inspiration constantly from things I see in nature."
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Today Mellen is the creative director for Calvin Klein Home; as such, she oversees nine different product categories encompassing everything from teacups to sofas. Yet she still trades in her leather pumps for Blundstone work boots every Friday evening before heading north to the cottage that captured her heart.
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She remembers the first time she saw it: "The Realtor and I drove up the driveway—it's really long and goes over a stream, and all the trees were weighed down with snow. It was so tucked back; we were like, 'This has to be a mistake.' Inside, the owners had left a fire going in the fireplace. I fell in love with the place immediately."
She also fell for the sellers themselves, an older couple who had lived in the house since it was first built as a fishing cabin in the 1960s, and had painstakingly cared for it ever since. "They had records for everything: how much they'd paid, every repair, every warranty. And all the tools in the shed were meticulously labeled: 'potato hoe,' 'garden hoe.'" When they moved out, they left her a canoe, a lawn mower, and a sense of reverence for the spirit of the place.
"I told them, 'I'll never touch anything,'" says Mellen. And for a long time, she kept her word. But Mellen's creativity, it turns out, is not just a contemplative or reactive practice. She creates. Constantly. Gradually she began making the house her own, installing windows in the back rooms and painting the walls, which were paneled in dark, knotty pine. She planted a garden and, because she longed for a new porch, got out a shovel and dug the foundation for it herself, then used the rocks she'd unearthed to make a stone wall.
And when a cherry tree started encroaching on the house and had to be cut down, she had the wood milled and used it to make her dining room table. An ash tree, meanwhile, became paneling for the bathroom walls.
Finally, two years ago, she undertook a major renovation. Even then, her motivation was practical as much as it was aesthetic. "There was frost on the bedroom windows in the wintertime," she says. "It wasn't energy efficient. And if you took a bath, you ran out of hot water."
She built a studio onto the garage, and outfitted it with a potter's wheel and supplies to paint and dye fabrics. The kitchen, meanwhile, needed a deeper rethinking. "The cabinets had scallop edges," she says. "Plus it was small, and I love to cook. I entertain a lot." Indeed, Mellen is known for exotic meals inspired by her frequent travels. "My friends joke that I could make food from any country just from what's in my pantry," she says.
The influence of her international travels is evident beyond the pantry as well. All over the house are objects and furnishings Mellen acquired abroad, including rugs from Morocco, copper faucets from Italy, a set of nesting tables from England (made of elm, "they're incredibly fragrant," she says), and a mirrored panel from India. Interspersed throughout are numerous pieces from the Calvin Klein Home collections, which, despite the company's reputation for austere minimalism, blend happily into the eclectic, rustic mix. "Our furniture is modern, but not super--hard-edged modern," says Mellen. "The materials and finishes make it warm.
"One of my philosophies at Calvin Klein is: You can't really expect someone to go out and buy all brand-new matching furniture," she continues. "Everyone has heirlooms or meaningful pieces with journeys and stories behind them. You want to be able to mix them with what is new and modern."
At Mellen's house, that mix is constantly changing in small and subtle ways. "I'm always making little vignettes out of things I find," she says. "Last weekend, I found a dead beetle and set it on top of a rock. I'll have that next to a bird's nest that blew out of a tree, and a feather that I found in the yard."
Creating keeps her happy; it always has. "When I was little, I had a dollhouse I made myself," she says. "And I loved decorating it. I was always working on it. Then my parents bought me a really swanky new dollhouse, and it wasn't as fun."
Collecting, building, designing, inventing, and playing in the woods: "All the stuff that kids do," she says. "I just made a career out of it."