AT Offline: David Netto

AT Offline: David Netto

Aaron Able
Jul 23, 2010

July Guest: David Netto of David Netto Design and Netto Collection
AT Offline: The NY Design Meetup
Attendance: 120+

Our most recent Meetup was with David Netto — an interior and product designer known for his nursery-specific NettoCollection furniture collection and for helping to jumpstart the high-end-design-for-kids industry. We kicked off the Meetup with a presentation by 3 Pratt students. Jump below for the transcript and all the images integrated from David's presentation…


MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN:: David Netto is an elementary school friend/acquaintance of mine. We fell in and out of touch over the years. David Netto was the best-dressed boy at the Buckley School — incredibly stylish. He disappeared until reappearing on Columbia campus with a looser style. He had been to architecture school at Harvard, preceded by graduate school at Columbia. Went on to found his own design business, eventually selling to Maclaren.

DAVID NETTO: There is such a thing as being too well dressed at the age of 8.

MAXWELL: Apartment Therapy hosts many guests who started out wanting to be an artist, then realized they needed to make money. What was this transition like for you? How did you get into design and start a business and succeed?

DAVID: As a designer you live hand to mouth, never feel it is a business, moneymaking venture — I'm resigned to this. My dropping out of Harvard Architecture School is a great source of shame, though maybe also a great reason for my success. I did finish my masters in architectural history at Columbia however. I had attended Sarah Lawrence prior, and I would have to go to grad school five times to become employable as a Sarah Lawrence grad.

MAXWELL:: Dropped out? Bold move — it's not cheap to go to architecture school.

DAVID: Realized I wanted to do residential design, work in a decorative way, defining the end result in addition to the architectural foundation of a space. So, architecture school was not necessarily a good investment. My math disability was vast — it would have been difficult for me to finish in three and a half years. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard!

MAXWELL: You started out working for another practice?

DAVID: I started out designing houses of rich people, the work that I was probably going to get because of a certain social arena in New York…young people my age were getting their first apartments, interested in taste. What was the question?

MAXWELL: First design job?

DAVID: The kind of design I wanted to pursue isn't taught at school, you have to get a job at a great decorator's office. All well and good to go to a design school — though a scholastic degree in interior design is almost replaceable with great experience at a decorator's office.

MAXWELL:: Did grad school help you get a job?

DAVID: It didn't hurt.

MAXWELL:: First job?

DAVID:: It was hard won. Ferguson Murray and Shamamian. Model building and interning for Gil Schafer while preparing to go to Columbia. Was I going to be a teacher? Or was I excited by design? I knew I wanted to be a designer.

MAXWELL:: After Harvard, you went to New York to work in design…

DAVID: Nasser Nakib asked me to work for him. He was very excited to try to turn design into a business. He was disappointed he could not include Harvard to build his credentials, but willing to take me.

MAXWELL:: You worked two years, then started your own firm?

DAVID: After five years, he fired me. Steve Jobs was fired! We had a limited partnership and different ideas about what to do in firm. He wanted to grow to Saudi Arabia, I couldn't surround that.

MAXWELL: Was it a mentorship? Five years is a long time…

DAVID: Yes, I learned a lot.

MAXWELL:: So you cut your teeth for 5 years, then…

DAVID: Founded David Netto Design for Architecture and Decoration.

MAXWELL:: Some of your work got press right away…

DAVID: I was lucky, because at the time it was different in terms of the media that followed design. Big time shelter magazines needed to publish someone young, green. That wouldn't happen now. Only three of those magazines are left, it wouldn't amount to the same thing these days, there simply isn't the readership. Apartment Therapy killed the magazines!

MAXWELL:: Were magazines the arbiters of design? If you hadn't been published, you wouldn't be where you are now?

DAVID:: Yes, it would have taken a lot longer to make progress…

MAXWELL: You got picked up because you were the new thing. So did they keep publishing you?

DAVID: Yes. Residential projects in Vogue Living are now hard to present because there aren't any ads to go with it. Dolce & Gabbana has both ads and dresses in editorial, which is not the case for home. Marian McEvoy — who was editor of Elle Decor in the late 90s, a design lifer, lives and breathes design — decided she liked me. I felt like I was joining a club and once they liked me I had to keep their attention.

MAXWELL: Which is why Margaret Russell has a party and everyone shows up…

DAVID:: It's a court, it's whoever is whispering. I'm 40 so it's harder to get attention than when I was 25.

MAXWELL: You didn't break into our space on the web because Apartment Therapy wasn't publishing interior design but products. Then NettoCollection arrived in 2002. What was it like to shift away from being a designer to making a nursery collection?

DAVID: It was very hard to make money as a decorator, which is a service business. When you're successful, your quality of life might go down, because the higher you go, the tougher your clients. You have no time. I had a child in 2001, and wanted to do something where I could be available to be a part of a family. Decorating was not going to be that for me. You can't stop thinking about it because it's a service business; I was passionate about doing a good job and couldn't get it out of my head. Product was the answer.

MAXWELL: Tell us about the opportunity your daughter gave you to think about product design. Nursery design wasn't a wide field at the time, now it is. What was your idea for the furniture and why did it cost so much?

DAVID: It cost so much because it was supposed to be a luxury product, as if Hermes made baby furniture. A crib that was made with beautiful wood and lacquer in eastern Europe that cost $1,350. There were cribs out there that were $1,000…

MAXWELL:: Beyond price, you established a style that was modern…

DAVID: To call nursery design at the time utilitarian would have been a compliment. There was a laziness to the industry — no one was assailing the lack of choice. It was an industry that had not been touched by branding (similar to prostitution and funeral homes). Ian Schrager had successfully branded hotels, I thought I could do that to baby furniture.

MAXWELL: Let's look at some…


DAVID: I'll start with a walk-through of my portfolio. Thanks to my wife for creating this PowerPoint…

This is an early project, shows the way modernism has become. White, beige, black, lacquer, Barcelona chairs, I can do this style.

This is something I feel is more my natural voice in design — not Modernica, Modernism or Knoll. It's a beach house; a wooden, traditional shell but with a modern pyramid fireplace, comprised of small irregular stones. Monolithic soapstone mantel. It looks like it's by someone's individual hand. There is a midcentury chair but also looks handmade. This is a young person's house.

This is a room for a friend who loved Proust and 19th Century France. They wanted a stage set of a Proustian house on the Normandy coast/Bedroom for Tolstoy. Getting into character guides the decorating project. The bed was found in Amsterdam — originally from a hotel in Berlin. Strange pictures hanging above the bed. Just saw Last Station and feel we did a good job achieving this look.

This is more modernism of the type I prefer, more natural to me. Clients were young members of the Rockefeller family, nice people, their father Nelson had been patron to Jean-Michel Frank. Amazing pieces, great opportunity. Leather upholstered room, gold teapaper on the ceiling in squares. Sometimes good to disguise a small space by making it even smaller, distracts you from scale.

Women's shelter for recovering drug addicts. Proud of this project. Asked by Domino. Power of a nice aesthetic, which would help heal these ladies. It was a different project but belongs in this sequence of images.

Apartment on lower Fifth Avenue. It was successful in that I wasn't supposed to decorate but provide backdrop for great photo collection, which included Eschers, etc. There's nothing better than a client who is a collector — your work is 70% done. I was unhappy with the proportions of the firebox so I designed the mantel to give illusion of a wider opening.

This was my own apartment on Washington Square, sold to be in LA with Kate. Very happy there. I won't ever be a Philip Johnson minimalist/modernist, I'm too much of an acquirer, dragging home books, etc.

Another apartment: it's whiteness/airiness needed guts, hence the bleached oak ceiling. Worked with Meyer Davis Architects. Strong ceiling, strong dark floor of 18th century farm boards. In the right image, it looks like a plain room, neatly ordered, though that room is deceptively simple — it is 12'x12' and cost $300K to build. How expensive great minimalism can be! Bronze pendentives, the light panels are goatskin, built in speakers, lighting troughs — all built by same guy, a French craftsman in Williamsburg.

House in LA where I live now. Prettiest of the small Neutra houses. Richard Neutra — our great modernist even though he was Austrian. Part of a Neutra colony largely for Asian-American clients in the late 50s. They had a different relationship to architecture, understood Neutra. My house was built for a Japanese-American schoolteacher. Ohara House. Has a linoleum floor, formica — example of what a great designer can do on a budget. 1,300 square feet, 4 rooms, nowhere to hide.

This is the view toward the dining room. We don't eat at dining room table so we turned it into a library. The idea of filling a Modernist box with personal objects. I love the sculpture that is there, but Neutra would have hated it. House had been restored like a car, mechanically, so incorporated personal touches such as dark blue linoleum instead of white.

This was my first apartment photographed and published, in 1999. Margaret Russell was the sittings editor. I was a 25-year-old intern, recent dropout of Harvard.

This is a Jean-Michel Frank cabinet. I was very interested in exotic things like African furniture as well as Jean-Michel Frank. He made this in an African style, same handmade look. I thought to do a room out of this technique…

This room looks like a beautiful Georgian library but is all hand-gouged oak. I begged my clients to do this. Gil Schafer's office did the room, French craftsman from Williamsburg hand-carved every surface. A big, flat wood surface would split if only one side was gouged, so he had to treat both sides.

This is an "old" looking room for young clients. This is the way great decorating was when I was growing up and wearing ties at Buckley. I am much more impressed if you have range and can do this as well as the white room. This style has things to teach us, so does the past — every advantage to be gained from learning this kind of style. There won't necessarily be a resurgence of this style but it's useful to know.

Dorothy Draper room: gutsy, especially in her use of color (Greenbrier). She was an older single lady in the 30s, supporting herself. Daring scale of clock above fireplace. All about boldness.

Boat: for its time, this boat was futuristic, an electric driven launch from an ocean liner. A super modern rescue craft, cutting edge at the time. How cute! At once technically advanced, yet humane, sweet, truly modern. What I wanted to achieve with NettoCollection.

Children's illustration by Naomi Averill. Traditional woodcut styles but also abstract, futuristic vibe, a handmade look.

Children's design: this is a children's dining room from the SS Normandie (ocean liner that burned in 1942). Amazing interiors. Mr. Chow could steal this, very sophisticated. Non-condescending approach for children. Mini stools and tables. Plaid, art deco rug. Elephant cutouts by Brunhoff himself. Not cutting corners — what I wanted to do.

The past: a lot of people look at this house and think they understand what it's about — an unsurprising, classical rich person's house. Yet it's a Lindbergh — a fictional facade. Not entered from what you perceive as the front door, but rather through an enfilade sequence of doors; the narration of a long hallway, invented entrance. Always challenge yourself to create surprises.

Bugatti car, Ralph Lauren owned. Say what you will about Ralph Lauren, he has tremendous taste. The car's rivets rationalized because there could not be welded joints on the car. Welding techniques made the rivets obsolete, though these were kept for style.

NettoCollection Catalog 2003, Cover of 2nd accessories catalog, Joanna Heimbold (?) designed: I wanted to make something that was scaleable as a business. Baby furniture photographed by Von Dutch photographer Michael Muller. Wanted to show baby design could be like the room on the Normandie.

I wanted to show furniture could be convertible, designed like the electric launch boat (#16). Profile of ship's bunks. Nautical conversion kit. Modern, but stems from 1908 ocean liner. Always wanted NettoCollection catalogs to say something about revising approach to industry. The catalog's back cover converts to a Do Not Disturb sign.

I wanted to photograph baby furniture like fashion in Vogue. Edgy but wholesome. Joanna laid out the catalog and found accessories, like this bassinette from Finland. Minimal-but-not-sterile sensibility that we wanted from NettoCollection.

NettoCollection acquired by Maclaren stroller last year. Best representation in the business. Enormous sales and global reach to take this business where I never could have. Called Maclaren Nursery by David Netto because of Netto supermarket chain in Europe. 'Louis' line based on Louis XV lines, but still Modern; wanted to be fresh, thought of as a modernist, but have a voice — like Jean-Michel Frank, famous for his Nelson Rockefeller living room and furniture designed with Louis XV 15th legs but very futuristic. This inspired the Louis Collection, available now at Giggle. Wanted NettoCollection to start something new, not just square legs.

Polar Bear rocker: Thank you to Manuel who is responsible for polar bear rocker!

Q & A

MAXWELL:: Turning it over to the crowd for questions. Best presentation we've received!

DAVID: Someone once told me don't forget to set aside time for questions. And don't expect to get any.

Q: What's with the fascination with ships?

DAVID: It's a lifelong fascination. I was interested in the Titanic when I was little, became familiar with ocean liners. Ship design had to be good, because it was an environment people were trapped in. Ship lines were very competitive for sales, people paid a lot of money, lines had to lure customers with opulence — was it going to be a beautiful place for five days? The stakes were higher, design a notch above.

Q:: History helps you design…how best to familiarize yourself with history other than taking a class or getting a degree?

DAVID:: I learned it mostly by looking at books rather than at Columbia. I recommend Archivia books on 71st and Lexington. You don't have to go to school but you can audit courses at Columbia, Parsons.

Trying to be aesthetic — though not a crunchy way in the 70s — was an uphill battle at the time. I was a child of older parents, their world of film was Astaire/Rogers, Film Noir — I had this confusion about what the world was out there as a 5-10 year old. Liz (my wife) was looking for something different at the time, a stoner, deadhead. I couldn't be that so I was going to be the freakiest miniature Fred Astaire/John Waters I could be. Insurrection!

Q:: Did you have fears about what Maclaren might demand?

DAVID: Maclaren Chairman here with us…the collaboration process is notoriously unsuccessful, especially in fashion. I signed a 3-year design contract with Maclaren. I was braced for difficulty and there has been none. Not the way these things usually go. Marriages all start out great, then seven years later it's a different story, so I'm not saying it will be perfect, but I'm well-supported in a friendly way. Well treated.

MAXWELL: In your slide show, the children's nursery was last. It's clear that you have tremendous love of design, your interiors showed this. Do you still do it? What's next? Continuing marketable products or could it be something else?

DAVID: I'm wrestling with that question right now. I closed my decorating business, which you know because you're now occupying that office.

MAXWELL: It's a beautiful office…

DAVID: I spent a lot of money on it! I closed the office in New York because of Maclaren. It was a good time to duck out, economic times, etc. The real reason was my daughter Kate, who lives in LA. It took me six years to unwind out of New York and move to LA to be with her. I now commute to New York once a month to work for Maclaren.

I can't say that I want to open another decorating office in LA — I wouldn't know how to do that. You build contacts like Joanna and Manuel, upholsterers, workshops, but I don't have those contacts or resources in LA. I think I have a book in me…

• Special thanks to Alice Engel for transcribing our Meetup!

• Special thanks to Knoll for welcoming our Meetup to their showroom!

• Special thanks to our wine sponsor, September Wine & Spirits!

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