Friday, February 17, 2017

Laurie Blumenfeld-Russo

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Laurie Blumenfeld-Russo is a relative newcomer to interior design. She broke only three years ago from a career in marketing, studied at Parsons, then set up her own design business. We were curious to find out about her experience as a forty-something student but as it turns out she was not the only grown-up in a sea of college kids. “There were a lot of bankers—a lot of people from Wall Street.” It does rather leave one wondering how many Wall Street types are secretly thinking about curtain tiebacks instead of short selling.

After managing five million dollar events budgets for Nickelodeon, Laurie worked as a mere intern for an interior design business, which involved swallowing a fair degree of pride but she says that it revealed to her things she would never have known otherwise: the detailed paper trails, the extraordinary range of product and the realization that a designer is dealing closely with clients’ personal money instead of corporate cash.

Now, despite having only been in business a short time, the projects are steadily building via word of mouth. We particularly liked the way she scored a project in the Brooklyn Heights dog park where she walks her Australian Shepherd, Ava.


So this is your second career and you went to Parsons only three years ago—how did you find that whole switch?

I was terrified … but equally excited.

Can you give us a rough idea how old you are? You don’t have to be specific!
 
I was 48 and now I’m 52.
Laurie's Brooklyn Heights living room. Laurie had been living in the 1898 brownstone for a few years before she got married and decided to give the entire apartment a facelift in order to create an environment that could showcase some of her finds from travels abroad.
Despite the space limitations, the living room accommodates a comfortable L-shape sofa from Bo-concept. The coffee table bases were purchased by Laurie's sister in Bangalore while she was living in India.
A pair of silver candlesticks from Laurie's grandparents, a bronze statue of Shiva picked up on a recent trip to Cochin and a ceramic piece purchased in Lima are arranged upon a glass waterfall sofa table.
The colorful work by the fireplace is by Philip Taaffe. The black and white abstracts are by Christina Dalenta.
Ava, a mini Australian Shepherd, gets cozy in a wingchair from ABC Carpet. The textured silver Italian leather, like most of the living room furniture, is dog-proof. The painted chest is from a trip to Nepal.
Were you the oldest in the class?

No! There were a fair amount of people who had marketing degrees; there were a lot of bankers—a lot of people from Wall Street. And once I got over the fear of “Oh my God I haven’t been in school for, like, thirty years”, it was fun—you know the  whole back-to-school thing, going and getting your books and all that. And homework was a drag!

How long was the course?

It was two years, part-time. It’s very different than it used to be. It is computer-based. It’s a mixture of the architectural drawing and the scale and all that stuff. You can take the autoCAD classes but they also teach you how to draw. They want you to understand how the scale drawing works. All my homework assignments were hand-drawn.
The main seating area's L-shaped sofa is covered in white leather and topped with a colorful array of pillows from India, Africa and other shopping forays.
A chandelier from Design Within Reach adds a touch of glamour to the dining area. The custom cerused wood dining table by Cliff Young is surrounded by Hans Wegner and Boffi chairs. A signed original print by Jasper Johns hangs to the right of works by Italian artist Rocco Ungaro that were selected on a trip to Puglia, Italy. The mirror is by Made Goods.
Photos of Laurie and her husband Bob Russo and their dog, Ava.
Laurie's husband Bob, who runs his accounting firm by day, is also a passionate cook. He often finds time to produce multi-course meals in this compact but fully stocked kitchen. The custom stainless steel shelving system helps keep the utensils, pots and pans organized.
Mexican night.
Fabric swatches for a current project.
Jeff trying Ava's patience.
What was your first assignment?

That was really hard for me because I’m much better at freehand drawing. They had us designing a restaurant space.

And did you get grades?

We did not get grades—pass or fail.

What was the real motivation to do this?

For me, because everyone that knows me knew me as someone who ran the events department at Nickelodeon— I [now] felt that this was my way to put my stake in the ground and to rewire how I see myself and how other people see me. This was the pause point. It wasn’t going to be a hobby.
Laurie picked a lively striated Calacatta Cielo marble from New York Stone to give the master bath a pop of color and a sense of artistry. The sink is by Duravit and the his-and-her showerheads and fixtures are in an un-lacquered brass from Newport Brass.
Custom reclaimed wood shelves bring in a soft touch to contrast the marble.
The custom shelving area as Laurie really lives in it.
People can be very patronizing about interior designers. There’s a lot to know.

Yeah. I was so happy to learn all the art history and to [acquire] all the design knowledge. There’s so much to know.

Tell us what it’s been like to break into the business.

I feel very fortunate. I did an internship with an interior designer while I was in school. Her name is Alex Hayden—she runs a studio called Octave Studio. You know I was used to running the events department at Nickelodeon—and now I was an intern. So I had to swallow my pride but I really wanted to do it!

What sorts of things did you learn?

So much more than I even realized …  like the process of the purchase orders, all the bookkeeping, custom furniture, every type of wood, every type of tile, there’s a billion of everything. And I know this sounds obvious but this is people’s personal money. This is not my five million dollar events budget that belongs to Viacom—it’s very personal.
The African sculpture and a pen-and-ink work came from a recent trip to South Africa.
Laurie gave the master bedroom a romantic modern feel with Ikat wallpaper by Casamance. A hanging fixture by Kenneth Cobonpue and IC C/W wall lighting are from FLOS. The bedside tables once belonged to Laurie's grandparents who purchased them on one of their many trips to China.
A mix of colorful bedding and pillows were purchased at Laurie's favorite bedding boutique, Shades of India, while on a trip to New Delhi, India. Art works were purchased during a trip to Barcelona.
Recessed bookcases hold bedtime reading and family photos.
And after only one year working for Alex Hayden, you decided to go out on your own?

Well while I was working for her, people started approaching me so that’s what made me decide. So I kind of plugged my nose and jumped.

What sorts of things are you learning not to do?

One of the things I’m learning is that you shouldn’t give people too many choices.

So you have this spectacular roof garden—what would your main piece of advice be to someone planning a roof garden?

I would say don’t hold back. Like we were just planning a little one and then I said to my husband, “You know what? Let’s just do it! You love to cook! Let’s make an outdoor kitchen!” Obviously it was not inexpensive but it was worth every penny. And we collaborated with an amazing architect—and you can’t do it without that.
Photos from travels hang near the staircase to the rooftop garden, kitchen and entertaining space.
A custom functional glass door also acts as a skylight to the staircase below.
Stunning views of surrounding Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan in late fall can be seen from all corners of the roof space.
But you also have like, trees and things up there. What happens about weight?

The architect said we didn’t need to put in steel beams but this building was put in in the 1800s and that just seemed … yeah … I would say no matter what advice you’re given, you need steel beams. It is extremely heavy and we sleep at night knowing that it isn’t going to fall down and kill us or crush the building.

And how about watering everything?

I love to garden. Bob is the chef and I’m the gardener. I go up there every morning; I water my garden; I cut back [the plants] and I do all the planting. But we have an irrigation system—I knew that I wanted my roof to look like the High Line. The Brooklyn Bridge Park was also an inspiration for me.
The roof space includes a heated, covered eating area with a pergola structure, custom dining table for ten and plenty of lounge space. Photogrpahs by Tim Williams.
For Laurie's gardening passion, a layered, curated and lush roof scape garden was designed together with the help of a landscape architect. All of this turns the roof into a multi-season entertaining oasis. "It's like a vacation home, but we have the shortest commute!" says Laurie.
Laurie's husband Bob, an avid cook worked with Studio Prospect on the design to make sure a gourmet kitchen with an expansive counter top, cocktail sink, fridge and BBQ were installed.
Ava checks out Laurie descending the staircase.
And you like to travel—where have you been?

I’ve been to over forty countries. I’ve been to India four times. I have been to several places in South America, all over Europe, Myanmar and Nepal. My husband has dual citizenship for the US and Italy, so we go to Italy every couple of years which is really fun.

Was working for Nickelodeon as fun as it sounds?

It was fun for a really long time and then not so much. I worked there twice actually … I’ve done a lot of different things.