DESIGNER OF THE MONTH
RAY ATTANASIO / STEVE ABELES - BALSAMO
For Ray Attanasio and Steve Abeles, the Manhattan-based partners that founded Balsamo Antiques and Interiors in 1997, "Balsamo is about being inspired.” Their antiques shop in rural Pine Plains, New York, has become a destination for clients looking to see a selection of antiques brought back from their many buying trips to Europe, primarily France, Belgium and England. Each of the many vignettes in their store which is housed in a converted 19th-century church, is unique in its style but related by color, theme or fabrication, much like the different rooms in residences or projects they have designed.
Mr. Attanasio and Mr. Abeles often consider the collections as starting points for inspiration in their interior design projects. Both Mr. Attanasio and Mr. Abeles began their careers in merchandising. Mr. Attanasio began his career in Macys, and then they met in Bloomingdales in 1980. Mr. Attanasio held senior executive positions at Bloomingdales, J.Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch before deciding to launch the antiques and interior design business. Their merchandising background has greatly influenced their eclectic style, where clients can count on the unexpected, an ever–present dramatic flair, and very livable spaces.
Mr. Attanasio and Mr. Abeles have designed residences in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Martha’s Vineyard, and Mexico, among other locations. Their shop and their design projects have been published in numerous shelter magazines including Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Country Living, Shelter/Interiors, Departures, and Fairfield Home.
Designer of the Month Interview
How did you get to become an interior designer? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
About 12 years ago, Steve and I had a crazy idea. We bought an 1837 church in complete disrepair, all in a matter of two weeks. It was near our country home and we converted it into an antiques shop in a little less than 9 months. The idea was to keep our "city jobs” while developing an antiques business on weekends, fulfilling our passion for collecting antiques. Since that time, customers from our shop who loved our aesthetic, have become clients for our interior design business. The transition from merchandising clothing lines and supervising design teams along with 25 years of retail experience allowed us to transition right into the interior design business. We take advantage of the synergy between the antiques and interior design businesses. When we shop Europe for the store we can also shop for our design clients at the same time.
Your antiques and home décor store, Balsamo Antiques, carries quite a variety of furnishings from many countries and periods. What are your favorite finds and where did you find them?
Over the years we constantly search for what we identify as "wow” pieces for the store and for our clients. We hope to find at least one on each of our buying trips, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so as they become less available. Certainly a pair of 17th century solid iron dormer windows from a French château, (weighing at least 500lbs each!) bought in Paris, and later sold and converted into medicine cabinets for an estate on Long Island, stands out. Another wow find was a 17th century Italian solid granite cone shape olive grinder, (weighing at least 2,000lbs) and 6 feet in diameter and height that we had purchased in England. We converted it into a fountain and sold it to a winery in Napa Valley. Just arriving into our shop from our most recent trip to France, is a 10 foot long industrial dining table with a vintage oak top and a base made from a pair of actual train wheels. Basically, if it’s "heavy” we buy it!! We feel it is imperative to create drama whether in our shop, our booth at antique shows, and certainly into our interior design projects.
The three client homes we visited were quite different in terms of style and personality. How do you make sure the spaces you create are unique and satisfying for your clients?
Our philosophy when creating an interior design for our clients, is to be sure it is comfortable and identifiable to our clients. When we leave and shut the door behind us, we want our clients to feel at home in their home. During the process we get to know them, the kids, and how all space is used; identify their style, or help them develop a style they can relate to and incorporate that style into the interior design. As a result, all of our projects look very different when they are
completed —just as they should— since every client is certainly unique.
You seem to have created close friendships with your clients and continue to be part of their lives. What is the secret to maintaining your vision and being able to count clients among your friends once a project is completed?
We start each of our projects telling our clients that the process should be fun and that we all need to be completely open, honest and trusting of one another. We encourage them to let us know if they love or hate an idea, a fabric, a color, etc. If we feel strongly about something we present, we will ask that they take some time to consider our suggestion even though they may at first reject the idea. It’s important for us to make the client stretch their imagination. Some are willing to go for it immediately, and others…well it takes time.
Do you have any advice to those who love antiquing but are not quite sure how to integrate them within their homes?
Antique accessories are the best items to integrate into one's home décor. If the item is a small accessory that the client loves, we encourage them to buy it. A place can always be found for such an item. A large piece requires more intervention and is more difficult to integrate, as proportion, scale, attitude, etc. all need to be considered, and a more professional trained eye needs to weigh in.
We’ve seen some quirky accessories in the homes we’ve visited, are they included to serve as conversation pieces or simply for humor?
We love quirky accessories. And yes we use them because they lend themselves toward a little bit of humor and they also make great conversation pieces. Again, these are items in a client’s home that should reflect their style and personality. Nothing like a collection of vintage linen yarn balls all piled up on an oversize wooden tray sitting on an ottoman in a den, or a set of bright red snooker balls over flowing over the top of a marble garden urn sitting on an island in a kitchen.