02/21/2024: The Pilots of the Caribbean
A true island-hoping insider explains the ins and outs of the the best the region has to offer; and we round up the best new hotels with water views from around the globe.
Style, home, and food guru Athena Calderone has everyone buzzing. On this special call-in episode, Athena opens up about her career and answers burning questions from some of the leading names in her Rolodex, including Aurora James, Jason Wu, Jenna Lyons, Missy Robbins, Andre Mellone, and more.
Athena Calderone: I am an outsider and I have had to work really hard to prove myself. But I feel like not having specific processes that were taught to me through school or through another designer allowed me to find my own way, and it allowed me to trust myself more. I have to feel my way through something rather than knowing my way to get from point A to point B. But I love that about it. I love that I can break the rules because I don’t know the rules. It feels really freeing.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour for the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. The pandemic changed much, sending shock waves through every industry, every way of life, every culture, in the world of home, food, design, and interiors. The world that came after the lockdowns lifted would find itself dramatically changed.
After all, the podcast you’re listening to right now wouldn’t have happened without it. It’s also meant new voices and new leaders in the culture of the American home. And unless you’ve been riding out the past four years or so under a rock, you’ll know my guest today, Athena Calderone. A native New Yorker, Athena follows in the grand tradition of superstar tastemakers like Martha Stewart, Julia Child, and Dorothy Draper. Just don’t call her an influencer.
Born Athena Avella, who just happens to be married to the renowned DJ Victor Calderone, who any dance music fan will know from his work with the likes of Madonna, Sting, and others, has, for more than a decade, run her own online platform called EyeSwoon. What started purely on social media, originally on Tumblr, really found its groove on Instagram.
Today, with more than one million followers, she’s single-handedly leading a conversation about the modern home that combines thoughtful design that anyone can enjoy, uncomplicated cuisine that looks as good as it tastes, and leading by example online where her fans and followers can follow and mimic her style from what she wears to how she lives. She’s written multiple bestselling books, including a cookbook that won a James Beard Award.
And her recent collection with Crate & Barrel has been a massive hit — think lots of signature organic materials paired with mid-century French references — selling more in the first few months than what they had projected to sell over an entire year. What makes Athena Calderone so fascinating to me is how her story has evolved in this new social media age and how her circle of friends and collaborators both fuel her personal and creative lives. And that brings us to this special episode.
After we chat a bit about how EyeSwoon began and how she built her own burgeoning lifestyle empire, we’ll welcome some of her friends and mine to call in to get some advice straight from the guru herself more on that later. But first, we speak about Athena’s self-made journey of discovery, from modeling and interior design to author and now, domestic goddess.
I know we’ve never worked together per se, but we did share some personal stories at a party recently where we discovered that we’re both Long Islanders.
Yes, we are.
And for those that don’t know, Long Island, New York, essentially the large suburban area outside of New York, and before you hit the famous Hamptons. Tell me a little bit about your early life and your life before moving to the city and starting your career.
Well, first and foremost, Dan, thank you for having me. And yeah, I loved finding out that you are also from Long Island, and also not the fancy part of Long Island, from Nassau County rather than Suffolk County, so…
…Which leads me into my upbringing. I grew up in, I guess, a lower to-middle-class family. My parents were both hairdressers, not educated, neither one of them, I don’t even think finished high school, let alone went to college. Italian-American family. I grew up with creativity surrounding me for sure, I always grew up. My parents owned a hair salon. Well, my dad owned a hair salon. I grew up around a lot of care about aesthetics, I guess you could say.
I wouldn’t say that anything about my upbringing was fancy, nothing from the design of our homes to how my parents dressed and how I dressed or the cars that we had. We grew up very modestly, but there was always an awareness of how you held yourself and how your home looked. And my mom paid a lot of attention to our home and was always rearranging our homes even though we didn’t have anything fancy. She would always just breathe new life into our spaces. And it was something that I just remember always growing up around.
And so, after high school, what did you do? Where did you go? Because my knowledge of your adult life starts with stories that I’ve read of you meeting your husband.
But tell me about that in terms of your early adulthood and how you started your career.
I studied dance in college and had a boyfriend that was a dancer, and probably that’s why I went into that. When that relationship ended, it was my first boyfriend, I just up and left and moved to New York City, and then shifted and went to FIT. So, I kept jumping around.
And part of my insecurity but also part of my success to this day is that I jumped around. It always made me feel like I wasn’t sure enough of myself or had clarity of what I wanted to be, but instead, I just kept trying different things on for size. So, when I moved to New York City, I was a bartender at The Limelight, and the Tunnel, and the Palladium.
Three very famous clubs.
Three very famous-
Very, very famous clubs.
…nightclubs in the late ’90s.
Yeah. I was always like a “good girl.” I did the right thing. I didn’t party, I didn’t drink, I didn’t sleep around. I did things the “right way.” And when I moved to New York City, I wanted to be this badass. So, I shaved my head, I pierced my septum.
I wanted to be this badass bad girl, even though I wasn’t. But I was just, again, trying something new on for size and seeing if it fit. I was doing a little bit of modeling at the time, and then I, shortly thereafter, went to acting school and I thought I wanted to be an actress. And I really dove deep into three years of studying method acting. And that was my path when I met Victor, who’s my husband, who was a DJ, and we met in the nightclub.
And our life and world, I got married very young, I had a baby very young, and I still hadn’t figured out who I was, what I was meant to offer this world creatively. But when I had a baby and I had this beautiful family life, I put Athena on hold because I just reveled in the beauty that was…and the joys and the pride of this beautiful family that I luckily manifested and brought to life. And I didn’t know at the time where I was going to go creatively and if I was…In my late 20s, and everyone around me was figuring out their career life, out in the world, defining who they were, and I felt a little bit like I was hiding out at home and just losing myself in family, which felt beautiful, but it also felt like I was ignoring a really important piece of myself. But all the while, I was traveling a lot. And I didn’t say this earlier, but where I grew up, and I assume where you did too, I was very sheltered.
There was no culture, there was no museums, there was no understanding different flavors of the world, different patinas of the world, architecture. I didn’t grow up with any awareness of that. So, when Victor was on the road as a DJ and a music producer, we were traveling. So, I took our baby, and I went on the road with him, and all of a sudden, so much was revealed to me.
So, I stepped into the side of myself where I was just…my eyes were so wide open, absorbing so much of the world, ripe to explore them all and bring them back home into my world in Brooklyn. We had a loft in Dumbo that Victor and I scrounged together money to purchase. And after traveling to all these amazing places, I would start shopping for all the ingredients and did my best to try to replicate a fish that I had in Greece or a tajin that I had in Morocco.
And also, I would start to play around with different pieces that I would collect on my travels and going to either an antique shop or a market. So, all of a sudden, food and design made their way into my home life. So, I just started to dive into interior design and start to do research on some of the designers and the architects that I would see at museums when I was traveling.
Or I started reading cookbooks like I would a novel, and I started diving into Epicurious and reading reviews on recipes. And I just started to self-educate in the thing that I was encompassed in, which was the home. And it wasn’t design or food, it was both of them in tandem. And our best friend at the time, his name is Jon Rollins, and he’s an incredible interior designer.
He would always help me and Victor with our homes when we wanted to make any minor improvements. I didn’t know anything about interior design or interior designers, but that’s what he did. So, I learned about interior design through him, and he was the one who eventually said to me, “You really have a strong point of view for design. Maybe this is something that you should explore.”
And is that when you went to Parsons?
I did. And I do want to—
What year was that? Just to—
I think it was around 2002 or 2003. And I want to clarify because I know I’ve said I’ve gone to Parsons before: I did not get a design degree. I took a couple of courses, but I don’t have a degree in design. But I took classes with his urging, especially because he hands sketches and I absolutely love the beauty of a hand sketch. So, I took sketching courses.
And more than anything, what that offered me was it gave me this boost of confidence that I could start to speak the design language a little bit more. And beyond learning technical side of things, I did feel like I was really yearning for that way to verbally express myself, which I guess I’m realizing there’s this theme about self-expression and self-education.
And how did that evolve into EyeSwoon and you creating content around all of this? Because at some point, you must have felt confident enough that you were…Obviously, there’s a theme of a lack of confidence, but then at a certain point, you were like, “Not only am I confident, but I’m going to share this with the world, essentially.”
Yeah. EyeSwoon was born because I was cooking so much and having all these incredible dinner parties and inviting my friends almost as a form of manipulation to lure people into my home that I was feeling very proud of. And I would create this beautiful tablescape and set the lighting right and the mood light and the music and the meal. So, that was my first foray into entertaining.
But people would ask me about my design sense and where I got things, and they would also ask me for the recipe that I had created because I was really pushing the boundaries and testing myself and creating pastry, and just stepping outside of a lot of the food that most people in my orbit were eating. So, I was testing myself and pushing the boundaries, and everyone would always ask me for the recipes or for the design advice.
So, EyeSwoon really was more so of a way for me to share those recipes and the knowledge that I was accumulating over time surrounding design. So, EyeSwoon was really feeling really isolated, and I wanted more community, and I was putting things out there. And still, to this day, I don’t think that there are a lot of people that straddle both food and design.
And I felt like I was like, they were both happening simultaneously, and I would just share my ideas of what I thought was happening in the design world, take photos that were really poorly taken and blurry and overly saturated. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just finally felt like I was grasping hold of something that I felt was gaining some traction and that I felt proud of and confident.
And I just kept leaning into it. And I’ll just never forget, I finally felt like I’m finding my people. I’m finding people that have similar interests, and I’m leveraging their knowledge to help further my own. I felt like it was this way of I get to learn, but then I also get to share what I’ve learned. And I just felt like I’d finally found purpose in life.
And that actually brings me to one of my questions, is that you’ve mentioned this sense of an imposter syndrome in a sense where you’re growing this level of fame and this huge business and these bestselling books and all of these stuff that’s super successful. But you’re, of course, doubting yourself a little bit. But what I’m curious about, to the many people, so, for example, your book Live Beautifully, which is more about design than it is about…it’s not a cookbook.
You mentioned to someone that you don’t know CAD. You’re not that kind of a technical draftsman. An interior designer who went to school, has a master’s degree in design, and is a technical wizard, and can build a skyscraper, and they’ve done monographs about lifestyle and stuff, and you’re sold 10 times as much, what do you think they could learn from your books that made them so successful?
Because there must be something that you do that is just like Martha Stewart had something very specific that she brought to the world at a certain period of time, and now you’re bringing something to the world that was or that is new and different and unique. So, what do you think that unique thing is that you think professionals, people who are…they have letters after their name—
Well, first of all, I will say that they all wholeheartedly believe that I am a fraud, and I’m okay with them feeling that way.
Do you get that from people? Do you feel like—
Not from everybody. Some of my best friends are designers and in the design world, and I feel like we all really share and help one another out. But I do think that there is a large community of people that they’re like, “Wait, what? Huh? I don’t get it,” that question why I am an authority in the design space, why people consider me a design expert or a culinary expert. I think what it is is that I pull back the curtain.
I think that my honesty, my transparency, even my insecurity comes off as approachable or accessible or human. I think that we are all moving into this world in design where everyone with first dibs and with Pinterest, so many people consider themselves a designer or it’s not as proprietary anymore. The way people kept design and their design secrets really guarded and really safe, I don’t do that. I’m an open book. I really share my process, and that is something.
I think that that is why EyeSwoon and then my success in the books was successful. I think that I’ve always been obsessed with process. I’ve been obsessed with creativity, even how a song is made, what comes first, the lyrics or the music, or when you’re designing a space, is it the architecture or the material? I’ve just always been fascinated about how the pieces come into play. And as I’ve learned, I’ve shared.
I think that a lot of designers don’t know how to share their process, or they don’t want to share their process, or they just want to show the accolades. And I want to get to the underbelly of how I got there and how I struggled, or how I overcame, or why I like contrast in a space, or why I want to play with juxtaposition or asymmetry. I get into the why of what I do rather than just a look at what I’ve done.
So, when people are asking you where to get things, and you’re making this transition from being a journalist or being a curator wrapped into being a designer, and you mentioned that it’s been scary too because you have to learn all these new things. What do you think that you’ve learned in this past year that has been the biggest lesson or the hardest lesson?
That’s a really good question. Probably the fact that I’m a bit of a control freak and I have my way that I like to do things. But in order to scale and grow my business, I have to put a lot of trust in other people. So, it’s been letting go, and it’s been trusting my editorial director and trusting the social person that I’ve recently hired, rather than doing the social myself. Up until this year, I had done all of my social myself, and now it’s like somebody helping me with putting together. I never had a content calendar for my social. Every day I would just be like, “Okay, what…”
Just got to wing it.
Wing it. And there’s something really beautiful in winging it. But now, I don’t want to wing it anymore. I want to grow a business and I want to grow it with guidance from people that actually know more than me. So, I think that one of the biggest lessons really has been letting go and trusting that it’s going to change, it’s going to be different.
A lot of people also have been commenting that things feel different because now I’m pushing product, whether it’s the Crate & Barrel collection, or whether it’s my own items that I’m selling on EyeSwoon. I always want content to be at the core of what I do. I always want to show people the creative process of how to style within your home. But now, I also have the product. So, it’s going to change. EyeSwoon is going to change.
But it’s changing because that’s what people were asking of me, and it’s changing because I want to grow and expand. Because every one of the moments that have been challenging me this past year, I’m so grateful for, because just when you think that you’re about to snap and you’re stretched beyond your means, you learn, you expand, you find a new way to navigate, and then you move on to the next. So, I like to be stretched beyond my means because I want to continue to grow.
It’s so many people when you get into designing things. There are collaborations you could do with Crate & Barrel or what have you, but there’s also selling things on your own. And I think if you’ve been in this business long enough, you’ve realized how much the retail universe has changed, how people consume fashion and home and food even, what that’s like.
What have you learned about that universe in the past year or so of this e-commerce part of style? Which I think in the past, didn’t really exist. You went to a show, you showed things to buyers, the buyers did that, the buyers then went to retailers now. Now, you have to think about this kind of thing all on your own, as do many other people. I’m wondering if there’s any pearls of wisdom that maybe you’ve just realized as a e-commerce newbie in that sense?
Yeah, I’m definitely a newbie. And to be quite honest, I never really envisioned EyeSwoon. So many people have said, “What’s your five-year plan?” I never envisioned an e-commerce platform for EyeSwoon. It was revealed to me. I guess something that I have found is I feel really fortunate that I’ve built a really beautifully trusted audience because maybe I wasn’t pushing product for so long, and it was just about the things that I’ve curated for my own home.
So, I guess one of the things that I’ve learned with e-commerce is that I want to make sure everything that I curate on EyeSwoon feels authentic to me because everything that I feel that I’ve built thus far is authentic. I share recipes and I share design within my own home. That feels true, and it feels real, and I think that that’s why my audience has grown especially over the past couple of years, is because it feels authentic, because I was doing what I’m doing now in my 20s, and I have grown up and shared as I’ve grown.
So, I want to make sure that the e-commerce still feels like me. It still feels like the glassware that I’m curating. I don’t want to have 50 glasses. I want it to be a tight edit, I want it to remain trusted, and I want different varied price points. I think that right now, at the launch of EyeSwoon, maybe certain things have been now at too high of a price point. I want variation.
I want people to come to EyeSwoon for their basics, but I also want them to be able to find something that is from an artisan that they have to wait 12 weeks for because it’s something really special. If I can be the elevated, beautiful version of Bed Bath & Beyond, where you could buy everything from your soda stream to a really beautifully designed vacuum, and your glassware as well as your bedding, I would love that.
My world, my universes have expanded so much, but everything that I do has always been holistic and under the umbrella of the home. So, now giving the product to the people and curating that feels like a complete circle of the content, the product. And the distilling of the how-to is all working together now. There’s something that really feels like, oh, this is where I’m meant to be.
And do you have a new five-year plan, or are you someone who has to rethink your five-year plan every five months?
Yeah, I want to make sure that I don’t get in my own way. I love beautiful things and I love elevated things, and I don’t want to get in my own way and not allow EyeSwoon to grow and scale to the masses. I think that part of the success of the Crate & Barrel collection was that I took a lot of pieces that were in my home that are out of reach for people, whether they’re rare vintage pieces or just too expensive, and I offered a little bit of that.
I think that there’s an appreciation that I share information, I share my eye for design, and offering things that were out of reach for so long. And I want to do that for EyeSwoon too. I don’t want to circle back yet in my own way that things are so elevated that it can’t scale. I want to scale. I want to grow this business. I want to step into the business side. For so long, I leaned into the creative side of things and creating content for other brands. Now, I’m the brand, and I’m creating the beautiful content for my own brand, and that feels really freaking good.
And now, in an effort to live out my own FM radio host fantasies, Athena and I have opened up our address books to get some earnest questions from some of the sharpest, most influential minds in the world of style, from interior designers like Andre Mellone and Eric Egan to Chef Missy Robbins, fashion designers, Aurora James and Jason Wu, fashion and interior designer, Jenna Lyons, and others.
We are going to be fueling some questions from your Rolodex and mine and people calling in with burning questions. And as it comes, it’s all about sharing and advice. So, before we get started with those, I have my own, just to kick us off.
Have you met Martha Stewart? And if so, what was that like?
Oh, my goodness, it’s such a great question. You know that one of the first pieces of press that I ever got when I first started was from T Magazine, and they called me the modern-day Martha Stewart, and it was like, “Are you kidding me? That is—
—everything.” And I’ve never shared that with her. I have met her a few times. I have the craziest story that I’m going to share. But most recently, just a few weeks ago, I went to a dinner that she was at, and I really, really wanted to find a clever way to strike up a conversation because my wedding was actually in Martha Stewart Weddings, so—
—24 years ago. So, I wanted to let her know that, but also, I didn’t want to tell her I was touted the modern-day Martha Stewart, but I just wanted to her to know that she paved the way for me. But anyway, at this dinner, I didn’t really quite find the window to chat with her. But then at one point, she actually approached me randomly, nothing to do with what I did because I don’t even think she knew what I did.
She brought up something about how her grandkids went to the same school that my son went to, and I don’t know who told her that. But anyway, we struck up a conversation and I shared with her three years ago, pre-pandemic, I was at a Breakfast for Tiffany’s during the holidays, and we walked out of the Breakfast at Tiffany at the same time, and Martha’s car…I don’t know, she couldn’t find her car. She’d never taken an Uber before, and I helped her take her first Uber.
I helped her on the app and figure out how to get her first Uber. Anyway, unbeknownst to me, I told her that I was that person. I just said, “Oh, by the way…” I wasn’t selling myself as the modern-day Martha, but I was like, “By the way, we met before, and I helped you take your first Uber.” So, she proceeds to tell me how she took that first Uber, how it was the most horrific experience ever, and how it was a filthy Uber, and how—
Yeah. Anyway, she took photos of her dirty Uber and posted it on Instagram, and she says to me, she goes, “You know, I have to thank you.” And I was like, “Well, what do you have to thank me for?” She says, “Well, that Uber is so filthy I ended up taking photos of it and putting it on my Instagram. And do you know what? Instagram was so upset at my first experience…” that they gave her a crazy amount of shares in Uber, and she was like, “I’m basically an investor in Uber now because of you, Athena.”
Oh, my God. Wow. Who knew?
I don’t know if that’s really relevant to our conversation, but anyway—
Oh, it’s relevant.
That’s going in.
That’s going in. Okay. Here is our first question.
Aurora James: Hi, Athena. It’s Aurora. I have a question for you. So, you and I have something very major in common. We both love to travel, and we both love to collect things on our travels. I’m just wondering how you think about bringing culture into your space in a way that makes it feel special, different, and really honored.
God, what a beautiful question. I make it a habit, no matter where I travel to, to find something from that culture to bring home and something where you really… It could be something new and that’s made by an artist that is celebrated or an unknown artist from that part of the world, or it could be something vintage.
But I really feel like what you want when you walk into any home is for somebody to be curious, or to feel calm, or to feel relaxed, or to feel like there’s soul in the pieces that you have. So, I think that it’s really important to know the stories and know the artisans and be able to tell those stories and to look at those pieces and feel those stories because I think that that is all felt when you walk into a space.
It doesn’t work if you just collect something, but you don’t understand the history behind it. I think that traveling and culture and collecting has been a little bit of my own self-education. And I like to do my research and understand the history of pieces from Peru and how this ceramic was made, and I just think that that adds to the cultural energy within your space.
All right. Our next question comes from Eric Egan, a friend of mine based in Milan, who’s a designer, and he works with hotels like Mandarin Oriental and Belmont. And here we go.
Eric Egan: Hi, Athena. This is Eric Egan. I’m an interior designer based in Milan. I’d like to know, how did you get to a million followers on Instagram?
Dan Rubinstein: I would say that number one is Instagram number envy is become… it always sounds like really trivial. But of course, in the design world, it’s something that gives, I think, most designers a lot of agita. If you had to give creatives out there three tips on growing your following, what would you say? What’s your—
I would say that there’s a few things that I think that set me apart for growing my Instagram. One was that I wasn’t just design, that I would mix my world, my life. Yes, it would be sharing my homes and design, but also showing family life, sharing vulnerability. I know I said this before, but I’m a sharer to the core, and I’m not afraid to be really candid in my shortcomings or my uncertainties.
And I think that being vulnerable and sharing my own journey has allowed people to connect and relate to me more. And then I also think that the culinary side of things, people just responded well. Even when I wrote my cookbook, which won a James Beard Award, Cook Beautiful, it sold okay, but it didn’t sell incredibly.
But it wasn’t until I started making the recipes on my stories and showing people it’s not just this beautiful plate of food but let me take you through the process and share with you some of the tools and the techniques that I’ve learned. And it was when I would peel away the onion or the layer of… and share with people my process, that they suddenly had access not only to me but to giving them the confidence to create a recipe.
So, I feel like I did exactly that with both food and design. Before the pandemic, my following was at around 300,000. And my following went up almost 400,000 followers over the pandemic, or 300,000 followers over the pandemic. And that was really because not only were we all home, but we were all trying to find love of home.
And I took that as an opportunity to share these videos of whether it be wiping my shelves clean and shopping around my own home and teaching people like, “Okay, this is why these two objects work together. This is how I’m making sure I play with materiality and scale and contrast.” And I would talk people through my process of how I got to a recipe or how I got to a beautiful design vignette. And I just think that that’s what resonated with people. So, I guess my point is for designers—
It’s educational. Yeah. I think that share more about the why you did what you did, not just to, “This is my beautiful project.” And also, consistency, a point of view. I remember somebody saying to me very early on in my career, “When people look at your Instagram, they should know, ‘Oh, that’s Athena Calderone. That’s EyeSwoon.'”
And I think anyone that has had incredible success, look at Colin King, he has a tone, he has a vibe, he has a feeling. And I’ve heard people say time and time again, “When I look at an image of yours, I know it’s you before I even look at whose account it is.” So, I think that really identifying what your point of view is is something that is super important. And also, consistency. You need to post regularly.
And also, I way prefer a photo than a reel, but if I know Instagram is going to push me, if I do a reel, I’m going to find my version that I feel comfortable with of doing a reel. I guess keep up with the trend of Instagram and social media. You can’t just stay stagnant in your own ways. You need to continue to evolve and step outside of your comfort zone and share more.
Yeah, here is one from Jenna Lyons.
Jenna Lyons: Hi, Athena. What would you say is the biggest design risk you’ve ever taken, and how did it work out?
Dan Rubinstein: Yes. So, Jenna Lyons would like to know what your biggest design risk was. Perhaps it was a home because obviously, a lot of your work is shot at home, created at home. It’s all your own space. So, what was the biggest risk you ever took?
I think that one of the design risks and something that I’m really known for the townhouse that I live in right now is my kitchen. It’s really hard to reinvent yourself. Design is iterative. We’re all inspired by other people. But I stumbled upon something when I was designing my kitchen. It was that I knew I was going to be shooting a lot of content in my kitchen, and I knew that…
I set up the orientation of my kitchen knowing I wanted side light for shooting video, I needed an island that had nothing in it so that I can chop beside someone if I’m shooting a cooking video. But in an effort to fill this vertical void, I put this vintage vessel on the center of my island, and I put these massive branches in it because I was hosting an event and it just looked really vacant.
And all of a sudden, unbeknownst to me, I started this movement of these branches being this design statement in a house. And I never knew that branches and these massive vessel with branches would take off like wildfire. But I guess I’m saying what I did wasn’t a risk. It was almost more of filling a void, literally and figuratively. I needed something to fill that void, but I didn’t fill that void just to fill it.
So many people, oftentimes in design, they just buy something because they need to get something. And so, I think that the biggest risk that I take is almost patience and allowing the space to reveal to me what it’s needed, rather than me inserting just something to fill a void. I think that patience is a huge thing that I exercise when I’m designing a space.
And sometimes, I think when you make choices on plan, and maybe this is also an answer to why not being professionally trained helps, sometimes when you follow a plan too precisely, it doesn’t leave enough space for the magic of design. And that moment where I put those branches, it was the magic that I never could have planned on paper that it just happened. And I feel like it’s what my space is known for.
Here is a question from Andre Mellone. He’s an interior designer based here in New York.
Andre Mellone: Hi, Athena. It’s Andre Mellone, your biggest fan, really. We’ll talk about that some other time. I think you’ve been so great at creating a look that is so you and so contemporary, but everything feels very lived in. So, I want to know, what are your tips for making people’s homes feel like they are lived in? Big kiss.
Dan Rubinstein: Okay, so, creating this lived-in look.
Which I think means different things to different people. I remember a really long time ago, there was Shabby Chic and that whole thing, which everything needed to look like it was an antique somehow that was never touched—
—kind of thing.
I do think that the reason Andre, or maybe other people feel that my homes have personality, I think that I very much trust my instincts when I see something that I love, and that would even mean if it’s something that doesn’t necessarily “in the design world” go together. I love to mix periods.
I love to mix things that feel really slick and contemporary and modernist with something that has a time-worn history and a patina to it. I think that it’s about that smash of styles that really allows you to find your own self-expression. I think that because my design sense really came a lot from the world of travel, that me accumulating and collecting things that has a bit of not only history but memory.
I honestly believe that when you walk into a space and things feel collected and not just like you went to one store and bought everything all at once, that it has this essence and this feeling and a sentiment to it. And I think that a home needs to have a soul, and it doesn’t have a soul if everything is just all brand new, or all purchased from a singular—
Yeah, there’s no preciousness to, I would say, your designs. There’s not a lot of anything flowery or too dainty or too perfect, or everything is a little bit looks like you could actually use it daily, right?
Yeah. Yes, absolutely. Speaking of preciousness, I do not care if people put their feet up on my table. I do not care if wine is spilled on my marble table. I expect everybody to sit on my kitchen island. There is nothing precious about my homes. I love design and I love for things to look a specific way aesthetically, but I don’t mind things getting tossed and tumbled and shoes in my home when I’m having a party.
I want a home to be experienced, and I think that’s because I was in my home and pulled people into my home at such a young age because I needed people around, I needed community, I needed warmth and laughter. And I just always wanted a home to feel lived in and loved and experienced rather than just a showpiece.
All right. Next up, we have a question from Missy Robbins.
Missy Robbins: Hi, Athena. It’s Missy Robbins. As you know, I am a huge fan of you, your style, your design aesthetic, your cooking. And while I’m a chef, and that’s what I’m known for, I also have just a huge passion for home design, restaurant design, object design. And I want to know, when you’re designing a room, a space, furniture, what are your three non-negotiable guiding principles that you lead with?
Alright. Three non-negotiable things. So, let’s say you discover that there is a room in your townhouse. You didn’t know it existed. Every New Yorker’s best dream ever. You discover that there’s this room and it’s completely bare down to the studs. And you start on that process of designing that space. Three guiding principles.
Three guiding principles. For one, I feel like you absolutely have to be aware of how you’re filling a space from top to bottom, vertically, the volume. A lot of times, people have everything on a singular plane, like your sofa and your coffee table and your side table, and your lighting is all at eye level or below. I think that something people often forget is to allow the eye to dance and move up and down.
And you could do that with floor lamps, you can do that with artwork, you can do that with sculpture. You really want to have a better understanding of how the space is experienced. If just somebody steps into that room and is just looking across that room, you don’t want the eye to only be on a singular plane. So, that’s one thing that I do always think of. I also think of how certain things connect to the floor.
And I know that sounds really odd, but playing with scale and volume, I think, is also really important. So, if you have a sofa that is really heavy and bulbous, you want to pair it with something that feels a little bit more leggy and not as dense or vice versa. If you have a very leggy kind of table, you want to pair it next to something that has a little bit more of girth or weightedness. So, think about the legs and how things are connecting to the floor.
I also think that playing with materiality is something that is absolutely essential. Oftentimes, there’s too much slickness or there’s too much upholstery, and you really want to play with a variety of those things. Making sure there are natural elements, there’s wood elements, making sure there’s something that has a sheen and a shine to it, something that feels cuddly and tactile is something that I love.
And then I know that I’m going into a fourth one, but also playing with contrast and juxtaposition is something that I always think is really necessary, whether that is playing with various periods, pairing something that’s super slick and modern with something that has a more historical references, just where is that tension and where is that… You want people to be curious, you want the eye to linger, and if everything is one-noted, it’s hard to have that.
A good friend, Zach Weiss, influencer extraordinaire, has a question.
Zach Weiss: Hi, Athena. Hi, Dan. It’s Zach Weiss here, long-time listener, and a first-time caller here. I would love to know, what are some interior design tropes that you both feel are maybe oversaturated in particular to New York City?
Dan Rubinstein: All right. I have one that I’ve thought about that I have some personal peeves that’s, to me at least, New York-specific.
Now I’m curious. Do you want me to go first? Sorry.
Okay, I’ll go first. I really despise walking through a really expensive neighborhood and looking into multi-million-dollar homes five times the size of mine and seeing those little shelves that lean against the wall. Everyone buys a little bookshelf that looks like a ladder but that’s turn into… Do you know what I mean?
And everybody just buys it and then fills it up in five seconds and it just floats in a room, and it just leans against the wall. I hate that.
I feel like that is just something that I think about, and I see so often, and I see as a little bit of a pet peeve of mine in terms of design in New York. And I don’t think I see that in other places that I go to. I think it has something to do with everyone thinks that their place is so small, they have to buy the smallest bookshelf possible.
That’s so interesting. So, this question is supposed to be geared mostly towards New York, or can I go beyond that?
Well, yeah. Well, I don’t know. Any kind of design pet peeve, but maybe it’s New York, maybe not.
Well, I will share that there’s probably two things that I feel like I might be responsible for. One I—
Is that a—
—the kitchen with the marble countertop up the marble backsplash to turn into a shelf. I feel like I just think that we need to figure out what’s next in kitchen design, and I just feel like I keep seeing that time and time again. I really struggle with anything that is faux. I really don’t like shiny brass that has been lacquered and doesn’t change its patina. It just looks cheap and fake to me.
And I feel the same way about, and I think that this is a big issue that designers need to start changing how they educate their clients about, that everybody outside of New York thinks that you should never use real marble, that you should use quartz, or you should use granite because marble is such a soft material.
I can tell you how many DMs that I get of people saying, “My designer or my contractor said I should never use marble.” Think about how much in Rome and in France and pizzerias, people are using marble and it’s getting mucked up and scratched and etched and stained. It drives me crazy that there’s this idea that people shouldn’t use a natural stone like marble. So, that bothers me.
That’s a good one. I think that’s obviously something that people are…if they’re DMing you with an SOS, that means that it’s a real problem out there.
Yeah, for sure.
All right. Next up, designer, fashion designer, Jason Wu. He had a question for you.
Jason Wu: Hi, Athena. So, if you could have dinner with any of your design heroes at their home, who would it be and why?
Dan Rubinstein: Okay, good question. What I want to know is if you had to host a party with folks from around the world of design, living or dead, who would it be? And let’s start with that.
I was recently in Mexico City and felt very fortunate to tour the multiple homes of Luis Barragán, and I really fell in love with his spaces, with his kitchen, with his use of monastic design, and really a play on shadow and play on vertical and horizontal architecture and the access point of those two things. And I was just really intrigued by the way he lived. Even his rooftop is the… he has that… I think they call it his meditation rooftop.
Apparently, he used to go up there and just walk and meditate. And he was a very religious person, and I love so much ceremony and ritual in the home. So, I would love to sit at the table with him and just ask him about the beautiful simplicity of his design, and also maybe ask him, “What are the three most important moments of the day in your home? And what are the rituals you engage in in your home?” Because I was fascinated.
His bedroom was so minimal, but he had a turntable. Clearly, music was important to him. Everything felt like an altar. I feel like the turntable had a piece of fabric that was draped over it. The side table had fabric that was draped over it. Everything felt like religion, and he was a religious man. So, I guess I would just want to better understand what his day was like in his home.
And what would I serve? I’m a big believer in, when you’re entertaining, of making something that can be prepared in advance. So, I would either make something that was braised, like braised short ribs or perhaps a whole roasted chicken with beautifully golden roasted vegetables and—
All right. So, Barragán, that’s one. Is there any—
Anyone else I want to sit at the table with me?
Jean-Michel Frank would be amazing.
What about of someone living? If you could just, who would be the third person to invite to a dinner with Jean-Michel Frank and Barragán?
One of my best friends is Nate Berkus, and he’s an incredible designer, and he’s incredible conversationalist, and he has an incredible encyclopedia of design knowledge. And he’s also just one of those people that makes you feel seen and heard, and asks really interesting questions and remembers all the fine details. And I just think that he’s an incredible conversationalist. Probably, he learned from Oprah. So, I would—
Yeah, I know.
Me, Nate, Jean-Michel Frank, Luis Barragán. That’s a great dinner party. Maybe we need a female.
That is a good—
We might need a female.
Okay. All right. Well, is there a female that you would want to bring there?
It’s a heavy-hitting dinner.
Yeah. You definitely have to do the ribs more than the chicken, I think.
Yeah, the chicken doesn’t feel special enough. It’s got to be—
Yeah. If you have Eileen Gray and Barragán over for dinner, I don’t know if—
It’s got to be fucking special.
—chicken wings are going to…
Thank you to Athena Calderone, Ethan Elkins, Rebecca Goldberg, and to all of our call-in guests for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, please follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein to learn more and sign up through email for updates at thegrandtourist.net. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen, and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Until next time.
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