Isabelo Satori

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Isabelo Satori, right, with his husband Cort Cunningham.

Before these strange times when you could go a-visiting, we interviewed the designer Isabelo Satori at the Carroll Gardens home he shares with his husband Cort Cunningham, a copywriter and creative strategist. We wanted to meet him having been impressed by his room, the study, in the 2019 Brooklyn Heights Showhouse. We particularly liked his use of natural materials combined with a few striking pieces and a color palette that seemed to have effortlessly fallen together. Growing up in East New York, despite being good at art in school, he initially never considered a career in design and took a job as a makeup artist at Macys.

When he started helping out friends who were at FIT with their projects, one of the students told him how good he was and that he should apply to college. To his delight, he eventually won a full scholarship to Parsons, where, he told us, “I was soaking it all up, hanging out with artists who were in loft spaces in Williamsburg doing things on roof decks, spitting paint out of their mouths and stuff … just a new world for me.”

The green building façade of Isa’s and Cort’s Brooklyn apartment includes a water element for turtles and koi in front. “We feed the living animals in the morning and evening. We learned that the turtles all have different personalities.”

You do say in your bio on your website that you went to Parsons but you don’t say where you grew up – where did you grow up?

I grew up in Brooklyn, in East New York—everyone thinks of it as like this bad neighborhood but it’s beautiful to me. It was still very neighborhood-like and you had these Italian families, just a mix of everyone.

Are you part Italian?

No, Puerto Rican, Portuguese and French.

In the downstairs studio Isa’s collection of paint samples and paint pots. “I enjoy mixing colors. I would mix makeup colors when I worked as a makeup artist at Laura Mercier and Borghese.”
Isa’s palette of ideas: “Inspiration should not be stagnant. It’s an ongoing process and evolution that keeps me thinking of new and exciting things to come.”
Isa admits that he is a little obsessed with finding the best paintbrushes. “It’s like finding the best makeup application brush that becomes your number one tool. Vintage brushes that have been kept nice are sometimes my go-to brushes for painting. They have a malleable ease to them because they have been broken in nicely.”
A 1955 teak folding desk by Mummenthaler & Meier dominates a downstairs wall. Isa’s husband, Cort Cunningham, disliked midcentury design when they first met. Isa introduced him to a broader array of midcentury pieces with which he then fell in love. The amber Prox vase is by Studio Zar. Isa painted the nearby plaster sculpture in Yves Klein blue. “I like seeing this vibrant blue around the apartment, it makes me happy.”The custom mirror by Laidman Fabrication for Stationhaus.Co was inspired by a vintage Italian designed mirror. “The best parts of the mirror are the small silicon bronze details and the way it hooks onto the wall. I know you never see the attachment detail, but I know it’s there.”
A detail of the custom metal-and-silicon bronze mirror that Isa had designed for the Brooklyn Heights Showhouse in 2019.

Did you know very early on that you wanted to be a designer?

I knew I wanted to design something but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I was into painting, watercolors, drawing, and then I was interested in fashion. I had Daisy Duke dolls and I made little outfits for them—and also for GI Joe.

What kind of outfits did you make for GI Joe?

Just little shorts. I would take the pants and curl them up or fray them—but they were designed! And I would use my mom’s hairspray to change their hair.

Did your parents encourage you into a design career?

They did not encourage me. They encouraged me to be – there’s nothing wrong with it – a garbage man in New York City. Or part of the police.

Looking across the downstairs studio space. A drapery panel in silver mohair silk fabric from Correggio with brass rings that Isa designed, hangs opposite a wall of soft white sheer Schumacher fabric that Isa often uses in projects.
A pair of 1960s Preban Fabricius & Jorgen Kastholm “Bird Chairs” are arranged around a custom desk made by Laidman Fabrication and used for the 2019 Brooklyn Heights Showhouse. “I love the chairs. They are comfortable and well made chairs from the 1960s. They have a cast steel base with fiberglass body. I upholstered them in a soft orange cashmere blend fabric that I found at Mood Fabrics and restored the base in a satin nickel finish.” The avocado green phone Model 500 was designed by Henry Dreyfuss and introduced in 1949.
Isa found the 1970s geometric brass metal table lamp in Los Angeles and was intrigued by how this piece was put together. “When you look at it at night some of the facets shine and shadows form to create different shapes.” The sofa is from DWR and upholstered in Nobilis fabric with Jerry Pair silk trim in a gold tone. A Fortuny fabric pillow is backed with Loro Piana fabric left over from a drapery project. “My rat terriers love laying on them in the evening.”
A steel side table with a bronze patina designed by Isa as a prototype many moons ago is filled with books on art and design. “The vintage fan makes an annoying noise. My next manly duty is taking it apart and fixing it.”
A 1970s Italian Lucite stool with chrome accents is upholstered in a nubby silk fabric.

So they wanted you to be part of a union, solid meat-and-potatoes. How did you resist your parents’ desire to do something sensible?

I actually went and applied for a New York City job. I remember hating the whole thing. It was for trash collection. It was just before the end of high school.

Did you get it?

No. I didn’t finish the test … or the meeting or whatever it was … and you also have to be really strong. Then I started doing makeup at Macys and I just loved it. I was very good at it. But it was very intimidating because I was from East New York and the manager used to pull me aside and whisper, “You can’t speak like that to the clients.” You know, it was so Brooklyn.

You speak perfectly fine!

When I was younger it was a little rough. [laughs]. Then I had friends who were at FIT and I assisted them with their projects. One of them, I can’t remember her name, said, “You’re really good at this, you should apply for college.”

Isa bought these two prints by Spanish sculptor, Eduardo Chillida, at an auction and continues to be inspired by their shapes.
“Vintage, vintage, vintage…I absolutely love listening to vintage records, the slight scratches, the skipping when they are scared. The sound of the artists’ voices really come out when listening to a record. I love collecting and this is one of my favorite things to have and use.”
Isa’s design books are mixed with his millwork, metal fabrication and mechanic books. “If I do not know a certain detail I am working on or I just need to know where the alternator is connected to on my 1970s BMW, I look it up.”
A Kim Nemeth wall textile panel with charcoal and natural materials hangs on the natural clay walls of the downstairs studio. The 1970’s black and white Zenith television plays three vintage Italian movies playing in a loop.

So that person whose name you can’t remember turned your whole life around maybe?

It was so nice to hear it because I had never heard it. I did have one art teacher in junior high school who also said I was really good and I should go to art school but … do you want me to go back into all of this? So … I was not allowed to go to art schools. 

That must have been really annoying …

Hmmm … [smiles].

You did get into Parsons – but did you have a portfolio or anything like that?

No, I had to run around and just be creative. 

What did you put together?

You know it was so weird—I was looking at African art and beading. I created a large abstract “painting” out of beadwork. I had to thread all of them, glue them down and then pull the thread out of each one. I was doing that for days. And then they needed some drawings so I did an axonometric of a room; I designed a kid’s room and I still have the drawings. The inspiration was The Jungle Book.

In the upstairs living room Isa says, “Comfort & calmness is key to this little room which is Cort’s sanctuary” A Robsjohn-Gibbings slipper chair is covered in sapphire Italian silk and stands on a wool-and-silk carpet from Holly Hunt; the daybed and pillows are wrapped in Coraggio Minx silk mohair and the cushion fabric is from Holland & Sherry. Against the left wall an Isamu Noguchi lantern stands on top of a vintage Tansu Cabinet. Preban Fabricius & Jorgen Kastholm 1960s “Bird Chairs” in their original black leather and base finish are tucked under a custom desk with marble top from The white oak shelving is from Quartertwenty and a 1950s grapevine tabouret is used for houseplants plants during the winter.

Among the objects carefully arranged on the top of the vintage Tansu Cabinet are an Isamu Noguchi Akari lantern as well as pieces of Native American antique ceramic pottery “The patterns are mesmerizing and have an amazing feel to them. The Japanese wood was made into a bowl with its “flaws”…it brings a sense of peace into the space.” The standing Buddha from Thailand is positioned in front of a midcentury mirror with an unusual frame of abstract metal “mushrooms” was found online. “ It really is a unique piece and makes me smile when I see it.”
Isa loves to wear silk scarves during the fall and winter because they keep him warm without being so bulky. “I have had many of them made from remnant fabrics that I have found over the years. If it does not work for a sheer silk shade, I use it for my next scarf.”
Looking across the kitchen table towards the rear garden and stairway to the downstairs studio. The couple love living in this neighborhood. “This was a great apartment and studio find in because of its open lower level plan and the clay earth walls. The light is softened by the walls and the backyard greenery. I get to be a little crazy in the basement and I do not care…”

How was the news received at home that you had got into Parsons?

It was like, “I hope I don’t have to pay for anything.” [laughs loudly] And that was it.

But when I went, I was soaking it all up, hanging out with artists who were in loft spaces in Williamsburg doing things on roof decks, spitting paint out of their mouths and stuff … just a new world for me.

Which part of what was on offer at Parsons did you most enjoy learning about?

I think it was textile design and then furniture design.

What was your first job after graduation?

I worked for Richard Mishaan. I would help him design pieces for his store [called Homer, no longer in business]

In the main bedroom, a Rapidograph line drawing in turquoise ink by Sam Still hangs on an exposed brick wall. The bed sheets are by Matteo and Frette. They are topped with Fortuny pillows with a metallic, aged leather backing as well as Loro Piana Euro down pillows.  The 1950s Italian sconces—brass with powder-coated ivory shades—hang in front of a drapery panel fabric by Knoll Textiles. The sheer nubby fabric reminded Isa of the TV show Madmen and he fell in love with it.
The cast bronze sculpture by Luis Carlos on the window ledge is on loan from a framing and gilding studio in the Bronx. “It’s a beautiful piece that I stumbled upon in the shop while going over the design of frames for art pieces.”
Looking over the stair rail into Isa’s studio. ”It’s my refuge from the outside and I can dance, draw and be creative down here.” A 1950s Italian parchment console with one-inch thick glass base and top standing on natural carpeting is a convenient place to store a collection of extra pillows. The DWR Sofa is outfitted with an array of Fortuny pillows.
Andy Warhol Flowers 11.70 Silk Screen Print from Sunday B Morning in a custom frame from Framing & Gilding Studio – Farrow & Ball in Cinder Rose Gloss finish.

So do you see yourself more as product designer than an interior designer?

I think it’s open to both interpretations. I mean when you do a project for a client, they could be inspired by things that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and they’re like,  “Can you design something within a reasonable cost?” So everything becomes custom.

That’s something I noticed on your website, which not many designers include, is that you state clearly your rates are reasonable. It seems to me that you’re saying, “I’m approachable”. I don’t know, is that what you’re saying?

That is what I’m saying. Cort [Isa’s partner] is the one who does the marketing thing for me. 

You also include furniture from places like Serena & Lily or IKEA, which plays into the approachability aspect.

You know, there are a lot of sort of, “DIY interior designers” and I didn’t want to be that, so you can take a piece from say, Serena & Lily and then do something more with it, make it beautiful. I like finding vendors on Etsy a lot.

Yes, Etsy started out just being crafts but now they’re everything.

Yes, you can find upholstery, draperies, very high end things too.

Views of the backyard garden. Isa’s landlord, a prominent garden designer, built the backyard two-story tree house made from wood sourced from vintage NYC water towers. “Maintaining the garden will be a work in progress for us this summer.”

You’re part of a generation of designers that has grown up with technology and we ask older designers what has changed about the job, they often say, “Argggh … the internet! They don’t like it.”

I don’t like it! I think it’s made it too easy for everyone to just do garbage.

Oh, you sound like the older designers! How would you describe “the garbage”?

Just that quick millennial look … bad quality.

And the other thing they say is, “This younger generation won’t go outside to actually look at or touch things. They just want to look at it on a screen.”

See?!! I’ve been telling [Cort] this! Tactile! Everything is on computers. I was working with a few designers in California and I had all these fabrics on my desk. And I asked one of them had he felt mohair before and he just said, “Isn’t it like velvet?” I said, “I think you should feel it.” And of course he said, “This is very rough. She’s not going to like it.”

Isa and Cort’s rat terrier/Jack Russell mix, Franque (Frank) Dafoe. Isa made the side table from plywood and steel. The white oak headboard was inspired by a French designer and the Euro pillows with butterfly edge detail are in a Loro Piana fabric. A gorgeous arrangement of flowers is always present in cold weather months. “I cannot be inside during the winter without greenery and flowers.”

Did you read about the restaurant, Eleven Madison’s refurbishment? They ordered fabric for the seating, mohair, at great expense and then realized it was too rough to sit on.

Mohair does wear down.

That’s what they did! They brought people in to do just that! It was cheaper than re-upholstering it all. 

We’re going to be doomed! If you don’t know what the difference between brick and concrete and so on …

Isa’s stresses that their other rat terrier/Jack Russell mix pup, Pepper Cline, has been trained how to lay on delicate pillows. “He just nestles himself in between pillows and everything is super soft for him.“ In this case the pillows are a Coraggio silk / mohair velvet with Holland & Sherry linen.

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