Estate of the art

The magical realm of Kuttner and Ost

Andrea Hubbell

Where does style live?

Is it found in a teacup, a pair of boots, the lift of a chin in a photo? Is art embodied in a perfect square made of daffodils, or a painting hung on the ceiling? Can a way of life, or a network of people, be designed, just like a skirt or a chair?

Here’s one answer, larger than life. It dwells at the end of a driveway in Keene, where the name of the estate is hand-lettered on a simple wooden sign. “Estouteville.” Follow the long drive up the hill, and it’s just like approaching many of Albemarle’s big historic farms—curving road through verdant landscape—until oddities begin to present themselves. A patch of spring flowers in the grass, shaped like an arrow. A red, spiderlike form suspended over the drive. A standing dead tree painted pink.

And then the house, presiding in the classic manner over a gentle lawn and a princely view. It couldn’t be more Jeffersonian, but there are deliberate rents in the traditional fabric—like the sculptures made of branches that hang between the fat porch columns.

And when the side door is opened by the cook, and the black-and-white kitchen is revealed with its clutter of books and art-hung walls, there is Beatrix Ost at the table with brunch guests, dressed to kill on a Sunday morning, in a purple turban and a black skirt with Chinese embroidery. Her husband Ludwig Kuttner is energetically discussing global finance with the couple’s son, Oliver Kuttner, and a well-known novelist in a rumpled shirt. A dog politely noses everyone’s hands.

This is ground zero for a certain manifestation of style—the phenomenon of Wiggie and Trixie, as they’re affectionately known, enthroned at Estouteville. How to describe them? “They’re unmistakable; they’re unduplicatable; they’re just their own thing.” This from John Gibson, a friend of the couple and Live Arts’ former, longtime artistic director. “They are paragons of what it means to live a life of refinement.”

Got your phone? Do an image search for either of the pair and you will quickly get the picture. There’s Wiggie, posing with Donna Karan. There’s Trixie attending a society ball with a basket on her head. There is photo after photo of the couple, mugging in the most outrageously chic outfits. “One of the most stylish men ever,” proclaims fashion blog StyleLikeU in its feature on Kuttner, a businessman.

Ost, who’s an artist and writer, may be one of the only people who could upstage him. “I’ve had the rare pleasure of wandering through her closets,” says Gibson, “and they are just extraordinary—and archived. She doesn’t just wear fashion, she collects it.”

A onetime model, Ost—now in her mid-70s—still attracts glowing attention from fashion blogs, most of them based in New York. But, although she and Kuttner do have a home in Manhattan where they spend much of their time, they hardly reach for jeans and Crocs when they return to their country place.

Local photographer Will Kerner remembers the first time he spotted Ost: at a downtown coffeeshop he owned, in 1983. “One afternoon I noticed these two incredible-looking women in there,” he says. “It was Trixie and Dagmar [Kuttner, Ost’s then daughter-in-law]. They would stand out right now if they walked down the middle of the mall, but 30 years ago it was really exceptional.”

Photos: Andrea Hubbell

“Like a royal court”

It’s a peculiar trademark of Kuttner and Ost that they are intimately tied to the community of Charlottesville, while remaining—as on that day in the coffeeshop decades ago—a complete anomaly here.

Germans by birth (they moved to the U.S. in 1975), they’ve made Albemarle one of their primary homes for the last 33 years. The location called to them in 1982, when Ost swung a pendulum over a map of the East Coast. It pointed to Estouteville, which happens to be a grand enough place to match the couple’s aesthetic and social ambitions. 

Asked why they have stayed so long, their answers amount to the same reasons cited by many people here: the beauty of the countryside combined with the cultural offerings of Charlottesville. And, of course, Estouteville is no slouch of a dwelling. “The house is like an Italian villa,” says Ost. “We fell in love with it and never out of it.”

They’ve made it utterly their own. Designed by Thomas Jefferson’s master carpenter, James Dinsmore, Estouteville was in disrepair when they bought it—“in dire need of us,” Ost says. She and Kuttner have gradually turned it into something like a semi-public venue, where guests are regularly on hand to collaborate in and partake of an elevated experience. It’s a place that people refer to by name, rather than with the names of its owners.

“Estouteville is like a royal court,” says Gibson. “It has a procession. One of the most charming features of the annual sequence is Easter.” During his Charlottesville years, Gibson received a regular invitation to Easter at Estouteville. “You always said yes because there’s just nothing like it,” he says. “You gather on Easter morning and are invariably greeted by Wiggie wearing a giant yellow chicken costume and directing traffic like a madman.

“There’s an Easter egg hunt like you dream of—an acre of hundreds of hidden eggs and candies and chocolates and prizes. There are dozens of children, looking as art-directed as you would want a group of Easter egg-hunting children to look. Your fellow guests are the most notable and intriguing people in the region: a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, an Academy Award-winning film director, a Grammy-winning musician. And that’s the kind of lavishness I associate with them. Not spending money stupidly, or grossly, but with panache and with a commitment to their community.”

Many of the gatherings at Estouteville are more specifically arts-related: performances, soirées and so on. Mary Motley Kalergis, a local artist who describes Ost as a “girlfriend,” remembers attending monthly salons there in the ’80s. “People would do dance performances, poetry readings, magic tricks, acrobatics,” she says.

Beatrix is a regular on many fashion blogs, including Advanced Style, a New York-based site that captures stylish, confident women over 60. Blog author Ari Seth Cohen says of Ost, “She is proof that style truly does advance with age.” Photo: Ari Seth Cohen

Life as art

It all draws credibility from Ost’s own artistic prowess. “She has an amazing eye as a painter and sculptor,” says Owen.

Kalergis calls her “a real Renaissance woman,” a moniker Ost has fairly earned through activity in visual art, filmmaking, the publication of a well-regarded memoir (My Father’s House), a blog she’s now writing for Grey Magazine and several other film and book projects in the works. She and Kalergis are currently working on a book together. “It’s rare that I’ll collaborate, but I’ll definitely do it with her,” says Kalergis. “She’s a very unusual, powerful person. Her life is her art.”

Estouteville, as a magnet for other artists, may be the ultimate expression of that unity. As much as the happenings it hosts, the place itself is the true destination. “It’s really like a living organism, always pulsing with art and creativity,” says Kalergis.

Infused with a sensibility not found elsewhere in Albemarle, Estouteville makes the idea of “decoration” seem rather beside the point. Ost says that her aesthetic was fully formed before she arrived here—“It came from living in Europe, and coming from a family which is elegant and artistic”—and indeed, the look of the home is largely urban and quite cosmopolitan.

Though the objects within are certainly notable—including collections of everything from pewterware to oversized candles shaped like human heads—what seems more significant is that the home is grand enough to feel like a mini-museum, populated by a steady parade of visitors who look, listen and help create.

“The farm is an amazing expression of creativity and a much larger-scale kind of appreciation of aesthetics,” says John Owen, a longtime Charlottesville artist and designer who’s been involved with Kuttner and Ost for around 20 years.

In 1998, Ost and her son, Daniel Kuttner, made a film called Hearts’ Lonely Hunters and asked Owen to be art director. “It led us into all kinds of other things. I have done innumerable events on the farm for them, and they have seen me through all of my endeavors at Live Arts for many years. They’ve been patrons of my individual efforts, bought my work, attended my events. They’re remarkably strong friends.”

The couple’s patronage, he says, comes with “permission to be extremely expressive. I don’t think they’re at all interested in making style in Charlottesville as much as they are interested in allowing style to grow in Charlottesville.”

Kuttner and Ost have the means to be stalwart financial supporters of Live Arts, Second Street Gallery and other mainstays of the Charlottesville arts scene. Wealth not only makes it possible for them to inhabit this role, but creates an aura of glamour that draws in makers and appreciators. They are unapologetically aristocratic, which translates to high expectations for those who enter the world they’ve created. (“You don’t wear jeans to Estouteville,” said Gibson—“or if you do, you can count on Trixie noticing.”)

Perhaps style comes down to that—the ability to conjure the party, with yourself at the center.

“Style is what you say no to,” offers Gibson. “Style is negation; editing. They are gracious—and ruthless—editors.”

When John Coles III set about to build a mansion on a 290-acre tract of his family’s land in Keene, Virginia, in the early 1800s, he went to the best: James Dinsmore, a master carpenter who had overseen construction at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia, and who came highly recommended by Jefferson himself. With the help of William Phillips (who himself had served as the principal brick- mason for the Rotunda, Pavilion X and the serpentine garden walls at UVA), Dinsmore constructed Estouteville, named after Coles’ wife’s ancestor, Robert d’Estouteville, a Norman baron who accompanied William the Conqueror to England, in 1827. “The stately mansion fits in with the scenery around it like a part of a finished mosaic,” writes Leonard Wilson in Masters of America. And it’s true: From the landscape emerges a main two-story structure flanked by two smaller, single-story wings. Dinsmore prized symmetry, having worked under Jefferson’s tutelage for more than 15 years absorbing his aesthetic and attention to correctness. But he had his own ideas too—like adding a Tuscan portico embellishment to each façade, giving the home an important presence in its setting. As noted in the documents for Estouteville’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places (it was added in 1978), “With the grandeur of its scale, the perfection of its proportions, the quality of its workmanship and the beauty of its setting, Estouteville ranks among Virginia’s principal architectural treasures.” Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Beatrix and Ludwig’s former Upper West Side pied-å-terre was featured in a 2003 edition of The New York Times Magazine. The 1,600-square-foot apartment was built in 1997 in the still-emerging blobitecture design style, which is to say, a large swath of orange plastic spills from the shower, across the floor and into the bedroom, where it shapes the bedframe.