I’m always surprised at how short the Shelter Island ferry is and how far away it feels when I arrive. Of course, Shelter Island is still The Hamptons, but it has a little something else, its own character. That Shelter Island je ne sais quoi was precisely the purpose of my visit to the Heiberg Cummings Atelier (183 N. Ferry Road, Shelter Island).
My afternoon with William Cummings and Bernt Heiberg, the venerable founders of the eponymous Heiberg Cummings Design, was fantastic and a fascinating reminder of how much energy and effort goes into the art of designing a truly remarkable home.
Having casual access to this much-celebrated creative team is a luxury, and Bill and Bernt are among the most approachable and kind people you’ll meet in the Hamptons. Not to mention their impeccable design taste. Together, they are beautifully balanced as an archetypal power couple—Bill as the head and Bernt as the Heart—driven by a shared love for and commitment to their craft.
ORIGINS OF A POWER COUPLE
Bill and Bernt met in Norway, where they lived and worked for 10 formative years establishing their work-life balance as partners and honing their love and experience for neoclassical Scandinavian design. Founded in 1990 and featured frequently in major architectural and design publications, Heiberg Cummings Design is internationally renowned—especially in the Hamptons.
Bernt has an effortless ability to share his passion, a gift that, from what I can tell, is no small part of what makes Heiberg Cummings Design so great to work with. He knows how to share his excitement, which is exactly what you want to feel when designing. Did I mention how chic and charming he is?
Bill is no less easy to like, calm and considerate, as approachable as he is accomplished. He chooses his words carefully, revealing a quiet confidence born from experience. Obviously venerated, Bill is an active listener and preternaturally attentive—to context, to details, and continuity—delivering an elevated focus for his clients.
SHELTER ISLAND ALTELIER
When you’re inside their Shelter Island Atelier, you won’t have to look hard to identify Bill and Bernt’s aesthetic sensibilities, curated with extraordinary gifts and interior items for your home without a total redesign. It’s a relaxing vibe, contrasting with some other interior boutique shops that are cluttered and stressful.
From where I sat, Shelter Island’s appeal became immediately and abundantly obvious. At the front, small-town community charms from the central and inviting location; to the rear, a picture-like sightline to the pond is framed by a rustic screen door.
You feel everything that inspires the Hamptons lifestyle, and what better place to be inspired for designing and curating?
It’s clear why Bill likes to work here as his office, and like any successful couple-run business, some space is essential for both of them. Bill is usually at the Altelier, while Bernt prefers a more on-the-go approach. “It’s great for us to have some room to focus on what we each do best,” they both explain. Bernt added, “And I’m waiting at home with a martini.” Not a bad arrangement.
WHY SHELTER ISLAND
Since opening the Altelier in 2020, the community has been incredibly receptive to them, welcoming what they bring to the Island. “We have glue on our feet and have so many new friends! It’s a fun group of people and a particularly European vibe here. And the crowds are a little less intense; it gives us more time to give our undivided attention.”
They love it here, more than a mere appreciation; their work is in constant reference to Shelter Island, the land, the community, the history. That philosophy of reference and respect is a hallmark of Heiberg Cummings Design throughout its history but is likely especially appreciated by the close-knit Shelter Island community.
Continuity in Concept
How do Bill and Bernt see their design philosophy? “Every home is unique, and it’s more than a ‘project.’ We always start with—what’s the narrative? What’s the story the home is telling? We have to establish continuity of concept, that every detail is in harmony with the broader vision—will this piece work within the context of the home?”
In the world of luxury design, it’s refreshing to hear Bill say, “Imagination is more than money.” Meaning, that inspiration is more than a material or brand; it’s an exacting expression of an idea, establishing an identity built beyond trends. A conceptual foundation that extends beyond furnishing. “Expensive is easy; inspired is much more hands-on,” Bernt says.
Imagination is everywhere in their work, an elegant and interwoven union of elements tastefully traditional and chicly contemporary. Distinctive in its use of texture and incorporation of nature, never out-of-the-box or off-the-wall.
They are careful with the word “contemporary,” noting the important distinction between ‘modernist.’ “We are contemporary, with historical reference,” Bill describes poignantly, with Bernt adding, “The home is chic and comfortable, not cold and antiseptic. Comfort, liveability, and the joy of artfully considered space are always at the front of our brains.”
Bill says, “Don’t fight the architecture; listen to the reference. We look around for inspiration, especially in such a magical place like the Hamptons. Many of our projects are second homes, and we work with each client individually to design something that contrasts urban living. That means we look to the location, Shelter Island; we look to the space and history for reference.”
Like many Hamptons love stories, they started as renters who just couldn’t leave. After falling in love with the vibe on Shelter Island, they began working on Cotswold Cottage, transforming the home into a masterclass of inspired contemporary living and design. “We used the existing structure as the starting point, making efforts to brighten the space. It’s a restoration, not a renovation.” Bill and Berdnt honored the original owners who built the home from scratch by retaining its original structure and conducting all the work themselves.
Heiberg Cummings’s newest project, Osprey House, is the ultimate expression of its architectural and design ethos—embodying all the team’s hallmarks. Osprey House defies belief, not just with unmatched views and next-level luxury; meticulous architectural and design motifs are measured, proportionate, and precise—all to create aesthetic and lifestyle continuity that is seen and felt throughout.
Bill took me over to the building site, and it was fantastic to see him show off his work, more of an artist’s pride than a list of specs. “The house is unreal, a yachtspersons paradise,” adds Bill.
Heiberg Cummings Design has the luxury of selecting the clients they work with, a product of their years of experience, so we can trust their advice for choosing an interior designer. “If you’re buying a new home, bring your designer with you so they can give you input about the space, especially if it’s new construction!”
Working with a designer is an intimate relationship, they both explain. “We recommend working with one designer and trusting them. When you get multiple inputs, you lose continuity.” Bernt jumps in, “and get to know your designer first! Make sure they excite you and that you share a vision.”