I wonder what a high-flying corporate executive does here for fun. As I drive along the quaint dirt road, past gullies and bucolic hillsides, and up the long, winding drive that will eventually lead to Mindy Grossman's house in sleepy Millbrook, New York, I'm picturing a lofty residence presided over by a steely dynamo with zero tolerance for downtime. This woman was president and CEO at Polo Jeans Company and headed Nike's global apparel business before becoming CEO of IAC Retailing, a multibillion-dollar international corporation comprising brands as diverse as the Home Shopping Network (HSN), Shoebuy.com, and Garnet Hill. Not the sort you'd find at the garden club or a quilting bee.
But the woman who comes to the door at the end of that scenic driveway defies my expectations: warm smile, lively brown eyes, and an air of friendly curiosity; her Maltese, Tara, who guards these premises from an eight-inch-high vantage point, has more hauteur. Mindy Grossman is the sort of person who laughs easily, touches you casually in conversation, and says the word love so often you could take a bath in it. Which makes sense, because she actually is a woman in love. She first fell for her house nine years ago, after she'd touched down from one of her frequent business trips and was scouting for a country retreat with her husband, Neil. One look at the 200-year-old former parsonage—actually a constellation of three rickety buildings transported from upstate many years before, now surrounded by woods and meadows—and she was smitten. "That's my house," she announced to Neil. "We're buying it." They hadn't even walked inside.
That kind of swift decision-making is her trademark. "I've always been a risk taker; I've never believed in following the expected path," she says now. "When I left Ralph [Lauren] to go to Nike, people thought I was crazy. This fashion-obsessed woman from New York is going to show up in Oregon and be rejected by the sporty-guy culture! Well, that didn't happen. I loved the brand and understood that our mission was to inspire and innovate. And being a woman was empowering, not intimidating."
She stayed at Nike for a "breathtaking six years." What finally lured her away was a conversation with IAC chairman Barry Diller. "I got incredibly excited about the chance to marry content, community, and commerce," she says. By running IAC Retailing's shopping network (which includes online, television, and catalog brands), she would be able to make a personal connection, reaching into millions of homes, "anywhere and everywhere people wanted to shop, when they wanted to shop, and how they wanted to shop."
Her enthusiasm is contagious. It's all I can do not to put down my tape recorder and start shopping. Mindy nods her approval. "I spend all day thinking of shopping," she says, making no distinction whatsoever between the personal and the professional. "I love the thrill of finding that wonderful, perfect thing, the feeling of your heart racing because it's so right."
"They said, 'Well, for what you're going to spend, you might as well knock it down,' and I said, 'Over my dead body.'" She loved that the house had a history, that it was suffused with character. Unluckily, though, it was structurally compromised, so she ended up preserving the three-story core—including the dining room, library, guest suites, and Lizzie's room—and building around it. Jim Crisp, an architect right in Millbrook, set up a closed Internet site, says Mindy, "so if I was in China, they could send me an e-mail and say, 'Could you take a look at this piece of hardware?' And wow, I could log on and weigh in on a hinge or a doorknob. I tell people that my house was built by e-mail."
Her entrepreneurial instincts kicked in instantly. Like any new venture, building a dream house required planning, flexibility, a flair for improvisation, and a healthy chunk of time. "It's still not finished," she tells me, "I'm still building and layering and collecting. I could probably tell you the story of where I found every piece in the house and why I picked it. I want a memory. I want a story. That's what makes something special." She learned that bit of wisdom from Ralph Lauren. "He used to look at me and say, 'Mindy, tell me where it came from.' It didn't matter if it was just a fixture for a store. What was it before it was a fixture? And you just start thinking that way, even in your own life, because that makes everything much more meaningful."
I'm getting the message that this woman isn't just talking about decorating houses. There are some lessons here. Lesson number one: Treasure the past, and build on it.
Her work fostering the community of more than 60 brands under IAC's umbrella is all about connecting, collecting, communicating—and that's what Mindy did as she gathered ideas for the house. If her friend Todd Dewey Jantz, who has a savvy eye and a retail store in Portland, Oregon, came to New York City, they'd make a pilgrimage to the D&D (Decoration & Design) Building, the midtown warren of showrooms that is the mecca of design industry professionals. If she had a day, a couple of hours, she'd go antiquing or shop online. (Lesson number two: Even if you're insanely busy, steal time for what you love.) She'd shoot Todd some nutty possibility via e-mail; he'd shoot one back saying, "Mindy, take a nap." She'd swap ideas with the architects, who appreciated her decisiveness. "I'm a love-it-or-hate-it person," she says. "I don't waffle." She did do "gut checks." She knew, for example, that she loved a certain shade of Farrow & Ball paint: "Parma Gray! I was obsessed with it! I painted swatches on the bedroom wall and went through every time of day to see how the light changed the color."
Mindy takes me into her kitchen, an airy, inviting space with a sleek walnut-topped center island, a deep red Viking stove, a textured tile countertop ("I don't like granite, I don't like speckles, I don't like shiny"), and warm copper fixtures. "I fell in love with the Web site 1stdibs.com," she says, referring to an online marketplace for antiques. "I like copper accessories, so I typed in copper, and anytime something copper became available I would get an e-mail from them." She enjoys cooking here for company, and while she'll follow a recipe, she prefers to improvise: "Which is why I like to cook a lot more than I like to bake. Baking is too precise. It's not as creative. I'll struggle through making the cake just so I can decorate it." I tell her that sounds like a design philosophy to me, and she nods emphatically, "It is! It is!"
Neil comes in from the yard, a handsome man bearing grocery bags. "I brought you salad, tomatoes," he says. And he thinks he found a weeping cherry tree for the front of the house, so to mark the event, "I brought some dried cherries."
"Oh, that's beautiful!" Mindy says.
The kitchen area flows into what is now the family room, with its upholstered kilim armchairs in rich earth tones and double-sided rustic stone fireplace, built by local masons to replicate a picture from Mindy's "image book" of places and things that inspire her ("I'm a serial magazine reader and ripper"). She's also a collector, but monetary value isn't what drives her; she collects objects that "make me smile"—old toys, biscuit boxes, tomato-shaped crockery that reminds her of her father, who used to be in the wholesale produce business. She gets a kick out of her monogrammed dining chairs (she collaborated on the design) and her quirky hunting-themed chandelier with tiny foxes circling its rim.
She always knew the house would be livable, not simply a showplace. "I wanted great family space. I wanted a bedroom suite on the ground floor, so when our parents came they'd be comfortable. And I wanted a big room for entertaining." She didn't choose especially modern decor, but she did want the house to be fully wired, which among other innovations meant TVs strategically placed and camouflaged so she could indulge her HSN habit—"Yes, I do watch incessantly," she says with a laugh.
We walk along a hallway where I have to tear my eyes away from an Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph, and then we're in the dining room, with its antique table that seats 16, its ruby-bright Persian rugs and romantic, handpainted de Gournay wallpaper—a brand she discovered while flipping through a magazine and spotting an exquisitely designed wall ("At first I thought it was a mural, and then I realized it was paper"). "You can see how everything in the room is saturated in color," she continues, noting the vivid blues, reds, and greens that, she explains, will lighten as we move to the second floor. Down here she wanted warmth; upstairs, a tranquil coolness.
She touches my arm and points to a collection of rotund antique Chinese pickle jars from Red School House Antiques, one of her most cherished local resources, then steers me to a Côté France corner cupboard, which she opens to reveal the painted interior. "I love hidden things," she says. "When you buy something with quality, you like the inside to be as beautiful as the outside. Nobody's going to see it, but you know it's there."
Lesson number four: Quality counts, even when no one else is looking.
We move through the sunroom—imagine walking into a shower of light—and open the doors to the main space for entertaining. This "great room" is an open invitation to relax and socialize: high, beamed ceilings, and behind the amply cushioned sofa, the unquestioned knockout in a room full of exquisite artwork: a gigantic portrait of boxer Joe Louis by British painter Sandor Camille. Neil, who among his other talents (he's a physicist, financier, musician) has an artistic bent, bought it before the couple acquired the Millbrook house. "I said, 'Are you mad? Where are we going to put this?'" Mindy recalls. But of course she fell in love with it, and when she was designing the great room, she proportioned the back wall to showcase this splendid treasure.
It's tempting to flop down in the library, with its casual collection of reading matter ("I don't like places where it looks like somebody just went out and bought books by the yard," Mindy says, grimacing at the thought of shelves lined with leather-bound volumes that have never been cracked open) and its whimsical "lollipop chair." But onward and upward we go. Envisioning a classic staircase in the entryway, Mindy researched Georgian staircases, then scoped out a Canadian company that would build one to her specifications, including an elegantly turned newel post and rhythmically varied spindles. "To be honest with you, I call this the almost-divorce staircase," she says, referring to Neil's reaction when he saw the pricetag, and her less than compliant response. Still, "it was the best decision we ever made," she says, "because every time I walk in the front door, I'm in love with it." As for Neil, on warm summer nights he loves to open the French doors at the landing, take his telescope onto the balcony, and gaze out at a sky full of stars.
Lesson number five: If you know exactly what you want, it's worth fighting for.
Upstairs is Lizzie's Ralph Lauren–inspired jewel box of a bedroom: rosy linen-velvet upholstered walls and curtains, a mini crystal chandelier, and an oversize standing mirror. By contrast, the master bedroom is expansive, a subtly varied wash of color (Parma Gray!), from the twin, faintly regal sofas and soft-toned Megerian rug to the bed swathed in Frette linens and the primal Sandor Camille Torso of Lady in Blue. "The second I saw that, I went crazy for it," Mindy says, "so Neil got it for me for my birthday." There's no strategy to their art collecting: "We buy what we love."
She leads me back to the sunroom, where Neil has prepared a tray of cheeses and nuts. A blueprint is spread across a table—plans for a pool and tennis court the couple is in the process of rebuilding on their 65-acre property. Mindy's overstuffed idea book rests on a nearby chair.
"Do you think this house will ever be finished?" I ask her.
"I hope not!" she says, laughing. "I pretty much know not."
She looks around the room and past it— the pocket doors between the rooms are paned with glass, so she can always see beyond her immediate surroundings. Having vision means keeping your eyes open.
That would be lesson number six.