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Originally published Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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Apartment Therapy guru embraces home imperfection

On Location: Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, the founder of Apartment Therapy, embraced imperfection as he designed various spaces at his family's Long Island retreat.

The New York Times

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EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan is widely known as Mr. Apartment Therapy, the designer who created the popular Apartment Therapy website and has written three interior-design books under that brand name.

But here in the Springs neighborhood, where his family has owned property since the 1970s, he is Mr. House, Barn and Yurt Therapy.

Gillingham-Ryan's mother, an artist named Mary Bayes Ryan, 79, owns a house and 18 acres on what was once Fireplace Lodge, a summer camp with rolling meadows, a forest and a rocky descent to Gardiners Bay.

In 1996, Gillingham-Ryan, who is now 46, bought a two-story shingled house on an adjacent quarter-acre for $220,000, two doors down from an identical tract home owned by his brother, Oliver Ryan, 44, who founded the website Social Workout, an exercise-based social network.

The family has since added a barn and six yurts (a circular structure based on nomadic dwellings in Central Asia), and Gillingham-Ryan has spent $50,000 decorating them and his house, building fire pits and installing hot tubs. He has also designed a wooden outhouse that can be moved around the property. (Some time ago, the door fell off and wasn't replaced, and now the outhouse occupies a spot facing the forest; a dish-towel flag alerts those approaching when it is occupied.)

Gillingham-Ryan, who has plenty of experience as an interior designer, has also been learning landscape design (tree by tree, he said) as he plants gardens and creates outdoor rooms here.

"You can't screw up in nature," he said, noting that it doesn't matter if you plant something in the wrong spot. "You can move stuff."

A former elementary school teacher, Gillingham-Ryan believes in self-reliance and patience, qualities that must come in handy as a designer and as a parent. (He is separated from his wife, Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, a food writer and founding editor of The Kitchn (http://www.thekitchn.com/), Apartment Therapy's food site; they share custody of their daughter, Ursula, 5.)

"I am patient," he said, grinning. "But am I a perfect parent? Probably not."

Still, he seems comfortable with imperfection. Although he works in the design world, he can live with design mistakes, and he tries to learn from them.

The wood floor in the living room, for example, was originally brown, but he painted it white.

"I put it on thick," he said. Too thick. "And it became a squishy layer, and wrinkled and puckered."

Then there are the under-cabinet lights in the kitchen.

"They don't work anymore," he said, explaining, "I put them in myself."

More important than perfection, he said, is a home that feels expansive and approachable. And luxurious, at least according to his standards — which is to say, it creates a feeling of abundance.

"People love restaurants because the kitchens are practical and simple," he said. But what's more appealing is that "there's a sense of plenty: lots of wine, lots of candles."

Neither is in short supply here. The wine racks in the dining room hold 54 bottles of wine waiting to be consumed. (The wine racks were featured at http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/look-vintageview-racks-transfo-63120.) The racks flanking an outdoor table hold many more empty ones (150, at last count), evidence of countless evenings of abundance. And everywhere, there are fat pillar candles: in the living room, on the long dining table in the garden, in the yurt.

The house itself, Gillingham-Ryan said, is by far the least important thing. What really matters is creating a place where you can "get out of your brain and into your body."

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