Design Changemakers 2021: How Estelle Bailey-Babenzien Optimizes Spaces for Connection
The Apartment Therapy Design Changemakers Class of 2021 is made up of 24 of the most talented and dynamic people in the design world. We asked an assortment of last year’s Design Changemakers and Apartment Therapy staffers (and you!) to tell us who we needed to spotlight — see the rest of the list here.
Why Bailey-Babenzien is part of the Class of 2021: “Scrolling through Estelle Bailey-Babenzien’s Instagram is like going on a journey (without leaving the couch). And if there’s one thing I miss after a year at home in 2020, it’s travel. Bailey-Babenzien is a designer who knows that great design creates a full experience, whether that’s converting an old noodle shop into the first Osaka, Japan storefront for Noah, the menswear label she co-founded with her husband, or bringing a 160-year-old brownstone into the modern day. I can’t wait to see what her work brings in 2021 and beyond.” —Laura Schocker, Apartment Therapy editor-in-chief
Through her interior architecture and experiential design studio, Dream Awake, Estelle Bailey-Babenzien emphasizes human connection. She envisions what can happen in a space — what conversations and interactions will take place there, and how the design can support it. Her projects range from converting a hundred-year-old noodle shop into the first Osaka, Japan storefront for Noah, the menswear label she co-founded with her husband, Brendon Babenzien, to the renovation and staging of actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier’s 19th-century home.
As a child growing up in England, Bailey-Babenzien was intrigued by aging houses — in particular, the kind tucked away in the hills of the Mediterranean and that she only ever saw on travel and renovation shows. “You would see these crumbling down, old villas and houses and they’d have these pastel walls, where super old plaster was just chipping away,” she says. “It was just beautiful to me, and I always loved the light and the sun and the rolling hills of the countryside.”
That interest in far-flung places developed into a love for travel as she got older. “[There’s] nothing that I love more than to travel and experience different cultures,” Bailey-Babenzien says. “Everything: the food, the architecture, the furniture, the textiles. I draw inspiration from all of those things depending on the mood or the vibe I’m trying to go for.” While the pandemic has of course significantly affected travel, Bailey-Babenzien, who’s based in Brooklyn, continues to look to the past and within herself for new ideas.
Apartment Therapy: Now that traveling has come to a halt, how do you stay inspired?
Estelle Bailey-Babenzien: I have to say, it’s one of the things that I crave and miss. I’m actually feeling quite depleted at the moment in that way. I feel the difference. I feel the void and it’s been difficult to fill. It’s not even like we can just go to nice restaurants and experience other visual stimulation or culinary inspiration. I definitely notice that it’s dragging me down a little bit.
I stay inspired by looking at inspirational visuals on Instagram or in magazines and on websites. Often I’m looking at old Architectural Digest magazines from the ’70s and ’80s. I’m looking for new references and inspiration.
But also I’m inspired emotionally and I think a lot of my design is focused around a feeling that you get when you’re in a place. An emotion and just a sense of an experience that you might want to achieve within an environment. This year has been an extremely emotional year, and I think that’s going to be coming out in my future design aesthetics and projects and what I like.
AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2020, and why?
EBB: It was the Noah Noodle Shop in Japan. It opened in March. That has been my favorite project to date and the last project.
I’m concurrently completing a brownstone, which was a complete gut renovation I’ve worked on for four years. It’s finally coming to a close. And that’s owned by Adrian Grenier, who is a big actor but he’s also an environmentalist and an activist. So it’s been really cool to do this project because it’s a beautiful home that’s 160 years old and we’ve restored and renovated it. We kept so many of the historical elements, but we brought it up to modern day. We used recycled denim for the insulation and solar panels, and then reused some of the beams for the flooring and the hallways and I did a wooden ceiling in the annex part of the house.
Working on a project like that, where everything is considered to be kind to the environment and be in harmony with the planet, has been really cool. We had to balance our budgets between what’s important, such as solar energy or design a staircase which would cost us $100,000, and I had to find new ways to create but also be really mindful of the environment with all of the choices.
AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?
EBB: Eclectic, comforting, and utilitarian.
AT: Is there a specific piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?
EBB: I think the Noah Clubhouse is a really good restaurant. It works really well as a store, there’s different experiences in the different rooms, and it’s designed a little differently in each place, but it’s still cohesive. I just love that it has a living room area, a kitchen area, where people hang out around the kitchen and the island, but it’s a shop.
When I was little, I always wanted to do this kind of multipurpose house where it’s a retail environment but also an experiential environment where different things could happen. That was the idea for the clubhouse. I want to take that to the next level now; I’m excited to do a hotel or an inn or a space beyond shopping. So I feel for various reasons [the clubhouse] was good because it fulfilled a few different notes of what really inspires me. I think that’s the one that probably represents me most at the moment.
AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?
EBB: It’s crazy, my own space is not even finished. It’s not even roughly designed how I’d like it to be. But I’ll get there, I’ll get to it. I think it’s going to be a lifelong project of things that I collect and love. But what makes it feel comfortable at home is dinner. I love to cook and I love my table that I have, this gorgeous round tulip marble table. I finished the marble and put this special matte coating on it. So now I don’t have to feel precious about the table.
We can really sit, we can do our homework, we can work from home, we can eat, we can really enjoy this table and be around this table for all of these purposes now without feeling so precious. I love precious things, I love luxurious things, but I really like to feel you can enjoy it and not have to put it in a box or worry that it’s going to break.
AT: How do you think the past year will impact the design world moving forward?
EBB: So often I feel like we may take one step forward and two steps back sometimes, but I maintain hope. I’ve seen a lot of positivity and a lot of changing consciousness and changing people’s minds and enlightenment. So I hope we can break through these institutional issues that we have, the big one being racism.
AT: How has 2020 changed your perspective on or approach to your work?
EBB: I would say really being conscientious of others and their needs and their feelings and the importance of representation and the need to be seen and heard and respected. And that goes with everything. It’s like, yeah, we can see people of different ethnicities and women on covers of magazines and it’s great. But we also need to see those things represented, I think, in design.
I’m a woman of color. I’m mixed race — I’m English and Ghanaian — but there’s still so much more for me to see of other cultures. Thinking about people of all shapes and sizes and different design decisions and referencing a lot of these things, I think it’s going to be a big trend. I think world style and references, we’re going to see that a lot going forward.
AT: Any big plans for 2021 or beyond you can share with us?
EBB: There’s a couple of projects that feel quite exciting. I can’t actually share that yet, but this one project that I’m very excited about. Hopefully that will be coming to fruition. And then I’ll be starting with working on a Noah furniture line, which is really exciting. Then potentially another Noah store in Japan, which will have a bigger build, which will be a bigger concept, which will be really exciting too because it’ll be in a different town, like a surf town.
There’s lots of things I’m working on and things that I’ve maybe slowed because 2020 slowed everything down. It’s going to be revving things back up in 2021.
AT: What, in your mind, is the power of good design?
EBB: The power of great design is that it can elevate one’s, not just experience, but one’s emotional being. The power of good design can literally change your emotions and make you feel good. And when you feel good, good things happen. Especially if it’s a place where multiple people can come inside and feel good and connect with each other. A good design by itself doesn’t do anything; you need the people. Good conversations occur, ideas occur, people can help each other, they’re just in a better mood. And ultimately that’s what can change the world. People in a good mindset.
AT: How does your focus on interior architecture and experiential design impact how you think about design when you walk into a new space?
EBB: I think that’s the one area of design that I’m best at. Thinking about layouts and efficiency and the way each fixture makes you feel and what the purpose of it is and what that experience should be in that area. Which, obviously, informs all of the design decisions. It’s funny because, in the job of interior design, decoration, and architectural design, it’s all about creating an overall experience. Most things and most references and most things that you do, design details, the untrained eye wouldn’t even notice it. It’s not a big deal, but you’ll feel it.
So I go into places and I notice all these little details, which is kind of fun. I’m one of those people where they sit down sometimes and they’re like, “I can’t sit here. Do you mind if we change tables?” Because I’m really affected by that.
It’s also a learning experience. When you’re going away and you’re experiencing things and places, when it’s really great you’re like, oh this is amazing, you’re learning. But also when it’s pretty bad you’re learning what not to do.
Interview has been edited and condensed.