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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 [calledHomer, no longer in business]
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.
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.”
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 …