An Interview with Robert McKinley, Designer Behind Ruschmeyer’s and The Surf Lodge

As someone who loves the beach, fashion and hospitality, Haven Montauk Hotel Director Jenny Cabido really has a thing for organic environments. Her creative take on the basics has positioned Haven Montauk as one of the most in-demand boutique hotels on the East End. At our request, Cabido sat down with Amagansett’s Robert McKinley—principal designer at NYC’s Studio Robert McKinley. When he opened The Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s in Montauk, it helped usher in a new era in the hamlet, and she had some questions.

When did your love affair with Montauk begin? What do you feel is most special about it?

I’d have to say when I was about seven or eight. I remember coming here in the early eighties with my family and my older cousins; it was such a magical place at that time. We would wake up early, get pancakes and then head to the beach. Later in the day, my older cousins would go to the arcade, and I would tag along. I remember cars cruising Main Street with music blasting; I distinctly remember hearing Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue”. The restaurants and bars were full of life, we would get ice cream, walk in and out of shops, and I remember knowing that I always wanted to come back.

You undoubtedly have designed some of the most beautiful spaces in the United States. What were the most important elements for you when you designed The Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s in Montauk?

I wanted one to be transported as soon as they walked in, so I focused on the broad strokes. At the Surf Lodge, the blue floor that creeps up the white wood planked walls, teamed with bright ocean photography and bold, colored artwork, gives you a sense of place, a sense of the beach. Ruschmeyer’s was the “salty dog” side of Montauk that we wanted to evoke. The restaurant used lots of pine paneling, a glossy nautical orange hallway with eclectic objects thoughtfully placed throughout the property.


Photo: Robert McKinley Studio

There has been a lot of talk about the future of Montauk during the past two years. What do you feel are the most positive and negative changes that have shaped the community, with its influx of new businesses and tourists?

It’s really bittersweet for me; when I started The Surf Lodge, it was from a place of passion. It was meant to be a clubhouse for our friends and guests who shared a mutual love for the ocean, surfing and music. As we all know, now it certainly took on a life of its own, and others followed, but that really is a result of what people wanted and still do.

The Hamptons weren’t set up for the type of tourism that we are talking about, but Montauk is filled with mid-century style motels that are geared toward the weekender, and truly gives the best access to the ocean beaches of the eastern end of Long Island. To me, it was a no-brainer. Slowly but surely, these properties are being sold, and younger people are coming in with a more global approach to hospitality; the world is a lot smaller, and the customer is very savvy.

To answer the question on a positive note, we have fun and interesting places to sleep, eat and drink. Negatively, we lose a part of the quiet small town that we were attracted to in the first place, and it becomes a lot more crowded and expensive.

Photo: Robert McKinley Studio

Photo: Robert McKinley Studio

In what ways do you feel the businesses and community members of Montauk could do to create a greater sense of harmony?

We all need to realize that people love Montauk and will keep coming. Summer tourism is important and may be the largest slice of Montauk’s GDP, so we need to support each other and realize we are all in this together.

Why did you choose Montauk as your wedding destination? (McKinley wed actress/singer Kate Nauta in a fantastical seaside affair at the Montauk Lighthouse in 2014).

Montauk is such a big part of our lives; so many of our friends and family are close, and it’s beautiful! It was important to get married at a place that we will keep coming back to. Every time Katie and I pass by the beach that we exchanged vows on, we smile and say, “Hey, we got married there.”

What are your favorite places to stay, eat and shop in Montauk and why?

Outside of The Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s, I—of course—love Haven, it’s where I put most of my out-of-town guests during my wedding; you have really embraced what’s great about old Montauk with a modern sensibility. I also love the Crows Nest. Each of these places have their own point of view of Montauk that keeps things fun and sophisticated. To eat, I like the Surf Lodge, Ruschmeyer’s, The Crow’s Nest, Duryea’s and Naturally Good, because they all find great ways to use fresh and local ingredients in a delicious way.

Photo: Crow's Nest

Photo: Crow’s Nest

To shop, I like the Melet Mercantile Outpost because they have the best beach-inspired vintage finds east of the Mississippi. The Surf Bazaar (at the Surf Lodge) always sources fun and emerging brands that work perfectly for a summer wardrobe. Finally, I always check out Air & Speed simply because it’s the best surf shop around, and Barnacle Books has a surprisingly large and varied selection despite its modest size.

Keep up with Robert via his personal Instagram, as well as with his new projects via his studio Instagram.