By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
While students studying at Parsons, Mercedes Desio and Alberto Villalobos let their a pie-in-the-sky idea about having their own New York store turn into a running joke. But one day it became a reality. They became business partners and set up their East 11th Street store, Etós, just days after 9/11. As Mercedes, says, “When you jump in the lake, you have to keep swimming.” They’re still considered “the new kids on the block” but their vibrant mix of objects and furniture, reflecting their respective Italian and Colombian backgrounds, brings younger customers and designers to what has remained a New York destination.
Someone online was writing about how they had gone in and out of all the antique stores on 11th Street and then said that at last they found a store where they could actually afford to buy something, and it was your store, Etós. How do you get that right combination of quality and affordability?
Alberto: For us it’s about the look; it’s about style. If we fall in love with something, we incorporate it into the gallery. It becomes more of a challenge to have those items that are at a good price point – we really do want people to wander in and enjoy the space.
In the front entry way team Villalobos and Desio transformed a helmet that was formerly a theater prop into a lamp.
'The Gun Series' by Marc Valesella hangs on the wall in the front entryway.
Boston terrier, Osiris, near the front door. The shagreen and bronze stool is from Y&R Augousti.
It is always a bit disheartening to go into a store and find that there’s absolutely nothing in it that you could afford.
Alberto: The antique stores on 10th and 11th Streets are some of the most beautiful antique stores in the city but we’re like the new kids on the block. We’re much younger than some of the other store owners, so we’re learning from them.
What kinds of things are you learning?
Alberto: You name it! They have been extremely generous with their knowledge, like how to work with online sales. Like they encouraged us to join “Between the Squares” [an evening of antiques shopping around Union/Washington/Cooper Squares] … it’s become kind of like a family.
That’s great—I thought perhaps they might have given you the cold shoulder.
Alberto: Well, we’re quite friendly too! They do like our look and what we bring to the area. It’s a destination point and I would say, like maybe 90 percent of the clients are designers.
Mercedes: You see a lot of foreigners too, foreign designers.
Peeking into the master bedroom. On the wall of the bedroom hall is a Punjab veil purchased in London.
A lithograph by Murakami, 'Kiki with Moss,' hangs above a bed from B&B Italia. The pillow is from The Rug Company and the rabbit throw is from Holly Hunt.
Vintage wine bottle lamps stand atop bedside tables from Birgit Israel in London.
A zebra rug from Area I.D. is positioned next to a camouflage tent that belongs to Osiris.
An oversized Italian Empire armoire fills a wall of the master bedroom.
So isn’t it really difficult to find things to sell that aren’t antiques and aren’t West Elm-type things?
Alberto: It is! Extremely hard …
Mercedes: Well, you know like Restoration Hardware now has copies of French antiques and objects made from natural stone and it’s hard to make a client understand that it’s worth paying a bit more for something that’s special.
Alberto: We are experiencing something new. With something like Restoration Hardware, we’re getting something like the [interiors] version of Zara. Fashion deals with that, we never had to deal with that until two years ago. We bought this light fixture from Paris that we sold and used in our projects but then Restoration Hardware did a knock-off of that. They do lose their finish after two months but still … and everybody Googles everything.
So now you have this different pressure, wondering how long it will be until something you have gets knocked off by a big name.
Alberto: It is, but I guess at the same time it’s what makes you keep things fresh and interesting. The world is changing so either you adapt or you disappear.
A pair of vintage Corbusier chairs flanks an 18th century Italian drawing.
An 18th century Italian drawing stands atop a petrified wood table from Raul Carrasco. The shagreen box is from Williams-Sonoma.
Spectacular city views can be seen from all of the apartment windows.
We’re interested in your backgrounds. What opened up for you here that might not have opened up for you either in Italy or Colombia?
Mercedes: In Italy the economic situation is horrible and interior design is also more of an architectural field. If you see Italian designs in magazines, it’s “Oh I have a piece from my grandmother and I mix it with a Minotti sofa.” It’s not really what I think of as interior design. Here it is more sophisticated and you have access to more resources.
Alberto: Part of it is like the culture around design here. I don’t think you find it anywhere else and everyone gravitates to it, including clients, say from Latin America. They come looking for it.
What do you like about each other’s countries and what do you dislike about each other’s countries?
Alberto: Hmm … they’re quite similar at the end of the day. Our grandmothers both lived in small towns and I love those small towns, going to mass or small restaurants
Mercedes: The people in Colombia are naturally friendly …I just had the best hot dog in my life in the smallest town there.
A pair of prints from Natural Curiosites hangs in a wall of the master bath.
Another view of the master bath.
What do you do language-wise? Who speaks what?
Mercedes: We speak Spanglish.
Alberto: Her Spanish, English, French and Italian are all perfect. My Spanish and English are fading everyday.
Do you also consider yourselves New Yorkers?
Mercedes: Well I’ve lived here for ten years, so I’m definitely a New Yorker.
Alberto: You become hooked on this city. I don’t see myself working anywhere else. I could see myself living somewhere else, but like working? Only here. You meet people here that you wouldn’t meet anywhere else.
A wall unit by Ligne Rosset covers a wall of the study.
Books and favorite objects are skillfully arranged atop the wall unit shelves in the study.
A Klismos coffee table by Dennis and Leen from Holly Hunt stands in front of a sofa from Avery Boardman. The rug is from The Rug Company.
A photograph by German artist Claudia Terstappen dominates a study wall.
Looking across the study. Mercedes had the desk chair recovered in fabric from Holly Hunt.
A painting by Harold Radcliffe hangs above a mirrored 1950's French chest of drawers. The black box is by R&Y Augousti and the jade object was a gift from Mercedes' parents.
You launched your business just after 9/11, which must have been tough.
Mercedes: You know, when you jump in the lake, you have to keep swimming.
Alberto: And Colombia, where I come from, things have never been easy. The country has been in a crisis since I can remember. I was hoping in the States it was going to be much easier, but I guess no—so I feel right at home!
People are so romantic about Italy—do you sometimes want to disabuse them?
Mercedes: I say, “Don’t be fooled.”
Looking into the bedroom hall from the study.
Chairs from Holly Hunt surround a walnut top ' Tulip' table designed by Eero Saarinen. The work above the dining table is by Colombian artist Armando Villegas. . A whimsical sculpture of a porcelain bird under a glass dome is from DDC.
A Porta Romana lamp and a group of cloisonné copper plates are arranged atop a side table by Christian Liaigre.
Two works by Italian artist Rolando Greco made out of soft tissue paper hang above the open kitchen island.
A large painting of the head of a man by Jean-Marc Louis hangs near a Corbusier's 'Barcelona' chair. The 1950's wall lamp is by Arteluce.
Osiris relaxing on the living room rug by Paul Smith for The Rug Company. The red glass coffee table is from The Conran Shop and the upholstered chairs are by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings.
A wishbone by artist Charles Pierce is arranged atop a small table by Caste Design. The chairs are by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings.
Osiris at play.
And at rest.
And up again.
Enter friend and colleague Nina Reeves.
What should people not be fooled about?
Mercedes: People. They can be very sweet and nice but they can also be really tough. For example my mother and I were in a taxi in Rome and there were two fares: one for the Italians and one for the foreigners. We were speaking in Spanish and the cab driver thought he could take advantage of us. He wanted to charge us extra for the air conditioning! And when we started speaking in Italian he fought us because he felt we had tricked him. So, cautionary tale.
What about the clichés about Colombia, drug lords and so on?
Alberto: It’s so funny to me because it’s a much, much more conservative country regarding drugs than the United States. It’s a country where, if you are not blessed to be born into the right family with the right looks, you don’t really have a fighting chance. So when something like drugs comes along and gives you a ticket out of there, you take it. But it has the most incredible climate and unbelievable biodiversity. The music … people want to have fun. And the architecture is beautiful.
A print 'Butterflies' by Damien Hirst hangs above the living room sofa. The raspberry velvet tiger-print fabric on the pillows is by Fortuny.
Looking across the living room towards the open kitchen.
Favorite books and objects including a fossil and a wooden geometric study by an unknown French artisan are carefully arranged atop a red glass coffee table from The Conran Shop.
So who are the designers you admire?
Mercedes: Somebody that I worked for briefly, I was only an intern so no glory, but it is Alex Papachristidis. He is so gracious and just from being in his office, you can learn about how to treat people.
Alberto: … I’m thinking …
How would you describe your style then?
Alberto: Eclectic … but the word has become taboo. It’s a good word but it got burned!
Mercedes: [Our style] is more about the way we put different things together.
How about the division of labor? Who does what?
Mercedes: We truly work as a team. Neither of us is a diva or needs recognition.
Alberto: I would say that technology is not my forté at all … Mercedes is much better.
Mercedes: Um … I wish I was that perfect.
Alberto: You don’t change the light bulbs … especially if it’s high ceilings.