Athena Calderone is a purveyor and maker of beauty. Not only is she the creator of EyeSwoon (one of our go-to blogs when looking for inspo in food, lifestyle, decor, and more…) but she has an eye for design that just can’t be beat. Anything she touches is gold in our books, and we follow along diligently with every project she completes (see also: Amagansett and Brooklyn Townhouse.)
Needless to say, we were thrilled when she announced her newest book, Live Beautiful, and we were even more excited that she sat down with us for a few to hear more about what inspired the book, her thoughts on design, and so much more.
Without further ado, let’s hear from Athena Calderone!
First of all, congratulations on the launch of your second book, Live Beautiful! What inspired this book?
I love to dissect any creative journey. I am always so curious about how someone’s process is ignited, what that first point of inspiration is, and how a design dialogue is born piece by piece. For my own design work, I can always trace it back to that initial spark and I wanted to document and dissect the alchemy of other designers’ homes. But beyond that, I wanted to create a book that was actionable — that offered the reader some insight into the design principles at play in a given image. While many of the homes in the book are elevated and aspirational, my goal as the design expert, was to break down and distill precisely what is happening, offering a practical tip that showcases why the room works. I wanted to share the how and the why so that the reader can walk away empowered to exercise these principles within their own home.
What’s one thing you hope readers take away from Live Beautiful?
Design is so personal, beauty is so personal — the things you collect over time express your own narrative which holds such intimate memories. It is an expression of your eye, the things you love, the objects you have collected… and that alone harnesses a certain voltage of beauty. Our homes are also where we spend the most quality time with our loved ones and our sacred time with ourselves. To live beautifully simply means to express who you are in your home — to look, explore, and tinker within your space so that it becomes the closest reflection of what you love and what your eye craves. SO I guess my answer is for people to learn to have their homes be the most personal and happiest reflection of themselves.
We’ve swooned over your Brooklyn brownstone since it hit the Internet last year. Tell us all about the designing, building, and styling process. How did it all begin?
I knew that I wanted something historical and to challenge and push myself creatively. After years of living in lofts I was craving that meld of traditional architecture with ornate crown moldings juxtaposed with hints of modernity – It was a balancing act I yearned to embrace, and I dreamt of how I would color the home with an obvious rejection of conformity. I was excited to collide classicism with modern architecture, to insert the old-world details of the many Copenhagen and Parisian apartments I had swooned over with their grand double doors and marrying them to a Brooklyn sensibility. There is a grandeur, a grit and a reminiscence of the yesteryear days of old NYC that lingers between those brick walls. I was also itching to get my hands on something that scared me a bit, something new.
I also LOVE the hunt more than anything — the decor and styling for me is the best part. And it will likely continue to evolve overtime as I cannot go a week without tinkering with well, everything!!! But 90% of the furniture is actually vintage and that was certainly intentional. I desired that a clash of cultures in the décor — from lighting to furniture, was essential for this home – a mix of mostly Italian and French antiques, ranging from the 40’s 50’s 60’s and 70’s. But I also desired the age and patina of the 18th century sprinkled in here and there to drive home a sense of history and a little grit. This, along with a neutral but textural palette from upholstery to wood tones to plaster wall finishes became my template.
As far as how I style and pair objects and furniture — I love how successful design is a conversation not only between shape and form, but also an interplay of the silent notes between each object. It’s composition, texture and color at play. It’s an expression of your innate sensibilities in how you pair one piece next to its cohesive or opposing counterpart. It’s a study in opposition which somehow ends in harmony. I love to pair objects that oppose one another in some capacity — I believe there is a certain level of voltage that happens when you combine an item that is feminine, soft, tactile and curvaceous next to a more masculine, hard-lined, and bold in its material or tone. Form and scale are everything – I am always thinking about how items play off of one another.
What’s your favorite room in your home and why?
So, the portal that leads to my master bathroom, with the hand troweled fluted plaster walls, is without doubt my favorite and most proud design feature in my Brooklyn home. It did not begin that way. It was rooted in a series of mistakes. The actual space has no distinct use, it is rather a passageway to get from the closet to the bathroom. Without purpose I wanted to engage a design statement. I always knew I wanted whatever application I dreamt up to go up the walls, wrap onto the ceiling, and down the opposite wall — I wanted you to be encapsulated. Well, I got bitten by the bug of a trend I was seeing in ALL the shelter magazines — terracotta. I was hellbent on forcing a circle into a square because this tone and patina was not connected to anything other than my will. It didn’t make sense in my Greek revival home but I didn’t care, with the focus of an assassin I has plaster samples made. I settled on a texture that felt a bit like the Tuscan walls of a 17th century villa. Victor and Jivan were not convinced but I set out to prove them wrong. I was crazy excited to see the finished walls but knew the moment I took them in that it was all wrong. UGH, I failed! I was so upset and seriously beat myself up as we were severely over budget and simply couldn’t not afford such a costly mistake. An early idea however was lingering in the back of my mind — fluted detailing, the classic kind you saw in ancient Grecian columns. I was seeing so much of this ribbed detailing in various materials in design, furniture, and throughout history. But it wasn’t until I saw an image of a wood paneled room in a university by Gio Ponti that the idea solidified. Repetitive fluting with obvious rhythmic breaks just made complete sense especially with the continuous channels up and overhead those breaks acted like a relief from the repetition. It was another risk but one I knew I could trust because it made sense within the home.
What’s one thing that you think people get wrong about interior design?
They try to do it all at once — design is a process, an evolution, and that alchemy can be nothing short of magic is you allow yourself to be lead and for one choice, one material, one object to take you by surprise and send you in a completely different direction. This is why I know design and often people just try to do what someone else did. There is nothing wrong with being inspired by others — most of my homes can be trace back to a specific image or room I obsessed over, but you must filter it through your own lens. Getting smitten by a trend like I did (see above) is another no no.
Now let’s take a step back. Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey and how that journey has led to the place you are today.
While the union of design and food may sound like an odd couple, it is a true reflection of my two overlapping passions; my life-long love of food and cooking and my enduring obsession with entertaining at my home, which began in my early 20’s. What I’ve realized is this – I have been doing precisely the same thing for almost 15 years. In a way, not much has changed from the moment I embarked on this style and culinary journey.
My creative voyage started in the kitchen. When I first began cooking, as a young mother, I would spend hours upon hours on reading recipes, dissecting them, comparing them, and obsessively reading reviews in my humble attempts to better them. I spent so much time researching – fussing, finessing, and absorbing cooking methods – that in a way, this research became my education. I was learning, absorbing, and building enough confidence in my abilities to riff with flavors. These were the infancy years of making food my own. It soon became clear that those nights when guests were gathered around the kitchen island, laughing and sipping cocktails as I was chopping away were some of the most fulfilling moments of my life. I began to recognize the undeniable power of food to ignite the senses, bring people together, and create memories.
At this point in my life, I was simultaneously developing and exploring my love of design. I began to travel quite often, and my eyes were absorbing color, texture, and patina during my adventures abroad. I would collect trinkets and mementos to take back to Brooklyn and layer them into our home. The joys of feathering our nest inspired a renovation, and during this process it became apparent that I had a knack for design and composition. So, I went back to school to study interior design, a choice I would later realize was a true extension of my passion for entertaining. Those dinner parties became increasingly more elaborate as I explored my tastes and love of design. Home became my mecca and I was on the path to mastering it.
Food and design have always worked in tandem in my world. I cannot have one without the other. They are twin passions that continually overlap. Somehow, someway, I have made them both my work. What I am doing now, as a career happened later in life, in my 30’s. I didn’t realize that those early years in my home became the very foundation of what would become my career. My work today is varied but always under the umbrella of design and entertaining and style. I have the opportunity to offer creative direction to a variety of brands whether that be to style a photo shoot, develop a recipe and capture the process in my kitchen, design a larger event that visually expresses the ethos of the brand, or speak as a brand Ambassador about design to advocate a particular product and philosophy. I pinch myself daily!!!! At my core I just want to create experiences.
What’s the biggest pinch me moment of your career?
Receiving the James Beard Award for Cook Beautiful. And having my Brooklyn Townhouse featured in the pages of Architectural Digest was a huge moment for me!
How do you overcome the pressure and stress that comes with entrepreneurship? What’s your secret to work-life balance?
It is not easy. And I am not completely sure there is even such a thing. Sometimes I work 14 hour days and my husband and son complain that my head is in my phone or computer. And thank goodness they do because it causes me to recalibrate my choices. It is all about choices I suppose. I am not the most organized human and usually have 5-10 projects, documents, emails, and ideas ruminating at the same time. My process is not studied and regimented at all so that can make it challenging. But this is my wild creative process and I have learned to navigate it for all its joys and challenges. That said I did make a huge life shift 1 1/2 years ago and began placing self care above all else, especially work. I also practice transcendental meditation so I meditate 20 min in the am. And 20 min in the evening. And I work out 5 days a week, either spinning or Yoga.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received — professionally or personally?
Be kind to everyone, above all else.
It’s very much known that you’re a purveyor of beauty. What’s your creative process when putting something together, whether that’s a home, tablescape, recipe, or fashion?
I am usually thinking about composition and a broken sense of symmetry in a room or when I am plating food or even through the lens. Always a variety of textures and patinas — I love to play with opposition and engage the unexpected which carries through to how I dress or style a table.
What are five things you can’t live without at the moment?
Anything rattan, my material kitchen knife, seasonal branched — quince in spring, my puppy Tuco, Nars red square lipstick.
Do you have a daily ritual that gets you through the day?
I absolutely needed to institute rituals to retain my sanity — I began waking up 40 minutes before my husband and son to sit with myself. Before coffee, before email or Instagram, and before engaging in work or mommying, I sit with me. I lite a candle and burn Palo Santo and just be.
What’s next for Athena Calderone?
I recently designed a side table and sconce with Simone Bodmer-Turner and a series of wood butcher block boards with Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Co. I am excited to continue to explore creating products and step into the TV realm!