Surf Shacks 085

Robert McKinley + Kate Nauta
Montauk, NY

Robert McKinley and Kate Nauta have a picture perfect surf shack in Montauk’s quintessential Ditch Plains neighborhood. Every detail has been carefully considered, but feels so casual and effortless. This is by design. Rob is a well-decorated interior designer with iconic projects on the East End under his belt, like Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s, which he also co-founded. Although well seasoned in the hospitality space, he also has a knack for residential projects. The most recent are the “McKinley Bungalows,” where Rob and Kate buy, renovate, then rent out a house. The homes are filled with curated furniture, fixtures, and accessories that brands give to them in return for press. The homes are always for sale as well—a true “try before you buy” model.

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Where are you both from? How long have you had your home out in Montauk, and how do you split your time?

I grew up in Westchester County, New York, and Kate grew up in Woodburn, Oregon, just south of Portland. We have rented and owned in Montauk since the early 2000s and spend about five months out East per year.

Robert, when and how did you get into art/design/ interior design?

I started helping out with window displays at the Tommy Hilfiger store that I was working at in 1995.

I developed a knack for it as I was good at building things. Subsequent to that I met someone who was the GM at one of the Giorgio Armani stores in New York; I called them every other day for two months until they hired me for a freelance trial installation. After that they offered me a full-time gig and I moved on up! I then did a short stint at Donna Karan in mid-2000. While there 9/11 happened and I decided to go out on my own. Three friends of mine who were party promoters in New York were opening a nightclub in the newly gentrifying Meatpacking District. I put together a presentation and begged them to let me design it; they agreed and it was a hit. I was in business.

You’ve worked on some pretty amazing projects over the years. What were your favorites and why?

They all had their own role in my career but Goldbar and The Surf Lodge were two big standouts. They each were unique in their own way and fresh to the market. They had soul and a transportive quality that helped develop a cult following.

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Surf Lodge fundamentally changed the town of Montauk when it opened. Whether people love it or hate it, it’s such an iconic, well-designed property, and its influence is undeniable. How did that project come to be and what were the early days like?

Yeah, that is a good way to put it. Lots of mixed emotions there. I was working on Goldbar with my two partners and this old night club and run-down motel came up for sale. I went to my partners and said, “Let’s open a hotel in Montauk. We can call it The Surf Lodge and it will be a special little spot.” They agreed and we raised the money with lots of skepticism from investors who said “Montauk, who’s going to go there? It’s too far.” We got the keys in April 2008 and opened Memorial Day 2008. It was one of the toughest projects of my life but I hired as many friends as I could to help out and made a few more along the way. The opening went off with a bigger bang than we ever imagined. It was a magic time. We were one big, salty, sun-kissed family.

Describe your creative process. What is it like going from concept to execution on a typical hotel project?

For me it always starts with spending time in the space and sitting with the idea or feeling that we’re trying to evoke with the end result. It’s really important for me to design something that is alive and that is able to have a life after we’ve done our part. We are very connected to material and texture, the things that you touch and feel. We create lots of samples and as many real-life mock-ups as possible.

Tell me more about the concept for the McKinley Bungalows.

In 2018 we wanted to create something different. We wanted to take our favorite brands out of the stale showroom environment and bring them to life in a real home setting. We wanted to share this home and how to purchase these brands with guests, fans, and media across the country. So, that’s what we did. We’ve acquired and gut renovated three homes in Montauk to create the McKinley Bungalows. The homes have been filled every bookable minute with discerning guests, journalists, friends, and friends of friends.

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Read McKendree

When and how did you first get into surfing?

As a kid in the 1980s I was a skater and obsessed with surfing, but the ocean wasn’t close by, so I boogie boarded on family trips to Cocoa Beach and dreamed of one day having a surfboard. At the age of 29 that finally happened and I caught the bug, and the rest is history.

How has your love of surfing and coastal culture influenced your work?

I always say that surfing saved my life. Before I was a surfer, I was focused on the New York idea of success. When surfing and the connection to nature became a part of my life, the material world became less important. With that in mind, I think I took more risks and had less to lose. I think my approach to business and design became a bit more fearless and I wasn’t afraid to attempt and share big ideas.

Describe the situation you are currently in. How has COVID-19 affected your business and daily life?

Luckily we are in a good situation out in our home in Montauk. My wife and I both had COVID-19, but luckily we had mild cases and recovered quickly. Work has definitely changed but we’ve found creative solutions to work on our projects. I think it’s also healthy to break up our patterns in the normal process to encourage fresh ideas.

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, or sage advice?

Be creative and be good to one another.

Discover more creative surfers’ homes in our books; Surf Shacks® Vol. 1, and Vol. 2 available now!


Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio and now resides a bit further north in Oxnard.

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