At Home with Carol Luiken and Charles Clute
These set-design veterans have a handful of Emmys between them, but their home- a remodeled Putnam County barn- is their most ingenious creation.
For a Putnam County couple, an
18th-century barn sets the stage
for their own personal reality show
by Jorge S. Arango
Photographs by Michael Polito
When Carol Luiken and Charles Clute needed art for a wall in their dining room, they determined to search for an ancestral portrait of some sort. The decision was purely aesthetic; they weren’t at all interested in unearthing a picture of someone they were actually related to. Anything dark, formal, and vaguely 18th century would do.
They ended up with an oil painting of a cow, its eyes casting a coquettish, slightly over-the-shoulder glance at the viewer. An odd choice? Not at all, given the history of the building and the careers of this 60-year-old couple, Emmy Award–winning costume and set designers who have worked in theater, opera, Broadway, television, and commercials.
Luiken and Clute live in the restored, circa-1787 barn of the old Horton Farm in southern Putnam County. The dining room — like the living room across the entrance hall, where two folk-art chickens perch on side tables — had once housed stalls for livestock. The upstairs served as a tavern in the late 1700s. But the most recent owner had converted the handsome outbuilding into a cozy, rustic abode for bipeds. That’s what Luiken and Clute fell in love with in 1983 when they found the place and decided to create their own period set there.
“We figured it was the ancestral portrait of the barn’s original inhabitants,” says Luiken of the cow painting.
Luiken and Clute met at the Santa Fe Opera in 1969. She had been studying theater design at Columbia when an instructor — Patton Campbell, best known for the costumes he created for the original Broadway production of Man of La Mancha — invited her to assist him at Santa Fe’s summer season. Clute had arrived in New York after theater design studies at Boston University’s School of Fine and Applied Arts. He answered an ad for the position of associate set designer, got the job, and headed west.
In retrospect, their courtship seems fittingly theatrical. Like Scene One of a Neil Simon romantic comedy, it was love at first sight. “Charlie asked me to marry him after our first date,” says Luiken. Yet it would have been a one-act play if they’d proceeded immediately to the altar. Instead, it took 12 years for them to formally exchange vows. “We were very young,” Luiken remembers. “I had this first vision of reason and said, ‘We’re going to hate each other if we get married now. We’ve got too much we have to do first.’”
They continued to circulate in each other’s orbit, meeting for dinner in New York a few times a year as their careers blossomed, sidetracked, and blossomed again. (You can be forgiven if the play Same Time Next Year comes to mind.) For a while, Clute decided to avoid getting drafted into Vietnam by teaching high school. During the summers, he says, “I would flee to Italy, where I designed for the Festival Lirico Internationale, a small opera company there.”
Coincidentally, Luiken also landed in Italy for a year after receiving a National Opera Institute fellowship to work with Gian Carlo Menotti at the Spoleto Festival. But, though they spoke on the phone, “We were sidestepping,” says Clute with amusement.
As America’s involvement in Vietnam wound down, Clute returned to school and “started schlepping around trying to revive this career,” eventually graduating from New York University in 1980. Meanwhile, Luiken, who had been financing her costume-design work with a job at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, finally decided to make a go of full-time costume design, working one summer at the Westport Country Playhouse. The first piece she worked on moved to Broadway and was roundly panned. But while the New York Post’s critic savaged the content, direction, and acting, he praised Luiken’s deftly realized wardrobes. That led to work on the television soap operas Love of Life and All My Children.
The two reunited in 1981 for what Luiken calls a fateful dinner. After dinner, they went back to her apartment. Luiken’s parents had sent her a case of champagne — she’d recently won her first Emmy for costume design excellence — and they took a bottle up to the roof, where Clute proposed again. (Stage direction: she accepts, music swells, and our older, wiser lovers kiss under a starry, moonlit Manhattan sky.)
Luiken and Clute worked together on soap operas for a time, each simultaneously pursuing other jobs. Luiken racked up additional Emmys and a Peabody (for “A Good Dissonance Like a Man,” a PBS American Masters special on Charles Ives) and diversified into “industrials,” such as Susan Lucci’s commercials for Ford. Clute got involved with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel Restoration in Garrison. In 1991, he earned his own Emmy for “Outstanding Design for a Daytime Drama Series.”
In February of 1984, they closed on the Horton Farm barn, which they planned to use as a weekend house (and did, for several years). That event was a bit of theater all its own. The house was in excellent shape, having been remodeled and decorated by an antiques dealer with, says Clute, “very good taste.” When she converted the barn, she’d installed, on the fireplace side of the living room, an 18th-century wall from a house in Deerfield, Massachusetts. “We weren’t sure it would still be here,” says Clute.
Fortuitously, it was. Even more fortuitously, the former owner presented Luiken and Clute with a suitcase filled with the papers of John Azzamonte, the Victorian-era owner of the estate house up the hill and head of I. Miller Shoes in New York City. Azzamonte considered himself shoemaker to the stars, and the suitcase was filled with letters, photos, and the tracings of feet of the rich and famous of the day: Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt, the silent film star Minnie Maddern Fiske.
The fact that Luiken and Clute were theater people thrilled the seller. “She saw this connection,” says Clute appreciatively. The couple feels the papers belong with the house and have steadfastly refused to have them appraised. When they sell, they say, they’ll pass them along to the next owners.
The home’s former life as a stable is most noticeable in the hand-milled chestnut floors and exposed beams. Antique farm tools, some of them found on the premises, decorate the wall facing the fireplace. Brass railroad lanterns hang from the beams, and a Picasso bisque sculpture of a smiling man’s face hangs over the door that leads out to the foyer. There are also Hudson River School paintings, as well as contemporary scenes of the area.
In the dining room, the “ancestral” cow portrait presides over a farm table surrounded by reproduction webbed Shaker chairs and a hutch filled with Amish ceramic redware. A brass chandelier is beautifully adorned with branches gathered at the top with raffia. Clute says he saw the chandelier in a Nieman Marcus catalog. “Then I looked at the price, and it was $800! I figured I’ve built enough props in my life that I could make one myself.” And so he did. There is also a Mexican altar cross that harks back to their Santa Fe days (though it was purchased long after); a 16th-century Russian icon from Luiken’s mother; and a contemporary light sculpture in the shape of a bug by Croton artist William Whalen.
Upstairs is a guest room and a master bedroom, the latter adorned with an antique silk Shaker rag rug; a Shaker apple bucket; a sketch by Leon Bakst of his costume designs for a production of Phaedra (circa 1923); and an American Empire-style faux painted chest. There is also the former hayloft, which Clute made into a combination studio-spa-den, and a former linen closet that now functions as a pocket-sized library, with room for just a single wing chair, books, a footstool, and a floor lamp.
The house is their personal stage set, filled with the costumes of their daily life. Luiken is now director of press and community relations for the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, though she still teaches costume design occasionally. Clute is currently the health and fitness director at the Rye YMCA where, he says, “everyone is young, blond, and thin.” But he still dabbles in set design for small companies now and then.
Do they regret leaving their full-time lives in theater and film? No, says Luiken. “We grew up in such a fabulous era of the theater. It’s hard to beat that.”