Athena Calderone wanted to move, but she had a problem: The home she already had was perfect.
Her remodeled Greek-revival townhouse in the neighborhood of Cobble Hill was the stuff of Brooklyn fantasy: sun drenched and spacious, with crown moldings and floor-to-ceiling windows in the kitchen and living room. The primary bathroom, featuring a free-standing tub and Art Deco Murano chandelier was among Pinterest’s most-pinned bathrooms.
The luxe-minimalist décor was so desirable that Ms. Calderone, an interior designer and lifestyle influencer, started both an e-commerce division of her website, EyeSwoon, and a collection at Crate & Barrel to sell versions of her sofas, chairs, plinths and potato peelers.
“I just felt like the house was getting exhausted,” Ms. Calderone said. In March she sold the residence that had cemented her role as a tastemaker of the marble-lined, neutral-toned aesthetic of the modern American luxury home. The buyer paid almost $12 million.
Ms. Calderone, 48, bought the townhouse with her husband, Victor Calderone, a D.J. and music producer, for close to $4 million in 2015. The ambitious $2.5 million renovation, designed by Ms. Calderone, took two years and drove the couple to the brink of financial insolvency, she said, forcing Mr. Calderone, who has worked with Sting and Madonna, to cut back on his studio time to focus on construction, wiring lights and pitching a creative payment plan to their contractor.
But the gamble paid off. A 2018 article in Architectural Digestwent viral, and the townhouse became the centerpiece of EyeSwoon and Ms. Calderone’s second book, “Live Beautiful,” featuring decadent photographs of 16 homes, two of which belonged to the Calderones. (Their summer home, in Amagansett, N.Y., features prominently in Ms. Calderone’s first book, “Cook Beautiful.”)
The house became a set for other photo shoots, commanding day rates of up to $12,000 for ad campaigns and other influencers’ output, Ms. Calderone said. Then popularity became the problem.
“It was being seen everywhere. It was being copied everywhere,” Ms. Calderone said of the townhouse. Even influencers have breaking points. “I remember being in Miami at an event, and an architect said to me, ‘Do you realize there’s a building going up in Williamsburg and the entire building’s kitchens is your kitchen?’”
They had it all: the brass knobs, the curved range hood, the heavily veined marble backsplash topped with an open floating shelf, the blackish-blue paint on the cabinets. Which, to be fair, is freely listed in the EyeSwoon post “Every Single Paint Color in Athena Calderone’s Brooklyn Home.”
She made her Brooklyn townhouse, designed with Elizabeth Roberts Architects, more or less entirely shoppable on her website. Credit…Adrian Gaut
Such is the double-edged sword of the modern tastemaker: To finance her beautiful life, Ms. Calderone leveraged its style by replicating, selling and renting it out.Her blithe willingness to do this endears her to fans — she describes herself as the opposite of a gatekeeper —but also accelerates the speed with which her style proliferates and, inevitably, becomes stale to her.
“The things that she likes become the things that other people like, too,” said Amy Astley, the global editorial director of Architectural Digest. “Now it’s being commercialized, and others are copying, and it’s time for the creative person to move on.”
“It’s time for something new,” Ms. Calderone said as she gave a walking tour of her new home, a wood-paneled TriBeCa apartment with 13-foot coffered ceilings, three fireplaces and a walk-in safe.
The apartment, which the Calderones bought for $6.3 million, is the former home of the Manhattan architect Thierry Despont, and its ornate finishes are a departure from Ms. Calderone’s signature restrained vision of clean-lined luxury. (“White on white on white. It’s anything but boring,” she once wrote in an Instagram post advertising a white decorative bowl, depicted atop an off-white dropcloth and next to a crenelated white pedestal in the Brooklyn townhouse’s white-walled living room.)
The TriBeCa apartment also presents a new challenge for Ms. Calderone, whose adult life has been a self-made take on the New York dream, refracted through contemporary Brooklyn’s real-estate mania in the age of the multi-hyphenate lifestyle guru.
Looking for Purpose
Ms. Calderone grew up in a small town on Long Island, where, she said, her worldview, was fairly limited. “We didn’t travel,” she said. “We didn’t eat anything other than our Italian American pasta-and-meatballs kind of situation.” As the daughter of two hairdressers, she was enamored with the business of beauty. “I grew up going to my dad’s salon, feeling like daddy’s little princess,” she said. She described her mother as the kind of woman who “wouldn’t even go to 7-Eleven without lipstick on.”
She was artistically ambitious but struggled with follow-through, enrolling and dropping out of two colleges, before moving to Manhattan, where she shaved her head and got a job tending bar at a nightclub, the Tunnel. There, she met Mr. Calderone, who at the time was living in the basement of his childhood home in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. She moved in, and they shared a Murphy bed.
When Mr. Calderone’s career blew up, Ms. Calderone served, at first, as his manager, and then as his travel companion. “There was this whirlwind of excitement and newness,” she said, as her world expanded to include A-list parties and European fashion shows. In 1998, the Calderones were among the earliest pre-construction buyers in the Clocktower Condominium in Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. “It was the quintessential loft: big columns and beams, crazy views of the skyline and water,” Ms. Calderone said.
She and her husband spent Sept. 11, 2001, in their neighbors’ apartment down the hall, where the two couples sat together, stunned, as they watched Twin Towers fall. The neighbors reacted by moving out of New York. The Calderones reacted by resolving to have a baby. They bought the neighbors’ apartment, moved in, and welcomed their son, Jivan.
“Dumbo was isolating,” Ms. Calderone said. She had become a mother at 28, a younger age than many of her peers in New York, and while her husband’s career took off, she struggled with a sense of purpose.
She took method acting classes and appeared in an episode of “Sex and the City”in a role billed as “Beautiful Woman.” She studied yoga. She lured her friends to Brooklyn with dinner parties. She underwent Jungian dream analysis, where her inner self revealed itself in the form of a bare-chested ogre screaming, “Sticky stuff!” while disrupting meal preparations. “That sticky stuff is you,” said the analyst, who advised Ms. Calderone, a self-described perfectionist, to embrace messiness.
She began to find her way when she took interior-design classes at Parsons and cooking classes at a culinary school. In 2011, she started EyeSwoon, a Tumblr account focused on things that which pleased Ms. Calderone’s eye. Food, style and home décor played roles.
As Brooklyn’s real estate market heated up, the Calderones moved several times, always buying pre-construction and turning a profit when they sold the finished product.
“I struggled for a really long time finding who I was and what I was meant to offer the world, and I feel I found it in my love of the home,” Ms. Calderone said.
EyeSwoon’s relentless attention to beauty — and the ease with which its founder offered herself as an aspirational figure — made it a natural fit for Instagram. The blog turned into a multimedia brand, and Ms. Calderone got a manager; sponsored and branded content gigs poured in.
She was eager to work and did so prolifically: She designed recipes for a champagne company’s website; she planned and documented photogenic dinner parties at the behest of fashion, liquor and jewelry brands. She channeled years of thwarted creativity into showcasing so many companies that, years later, she cannot recall all of their names.
For an Australian dressmaker, she planned a meal featuring table linens designed from the brand’s signature fabrics. To celebrate a German fashion brand’s autumn collection, she asked a florist to find 8-to-12-foot trees with auburn foliage: “We moved all the furniture out and enveloped the whole townhouse in these leaves and literal trees that wrapped up the walls and onto the ceiling.”
“These are the types of partnerships that I feel so fortunate to tap into,” Ms. Calderone said, her tone earnest verging on reverent.
Some elements of those richly documented nights, like the sponsor’s products, would be available for purchase. Others, like the home and the well-heeled guest list and Ms. Calderone’s very life, would seem, for many, tantalizingly out of reach. But Ms. Calderone insists that even those are attainable.
“So many people are like, ‘I don’t even get it, how does she have these homes? Does she come from money or a trust fund?’” Ms. Calderone said. “Victor and I built everything together based on our instincts, our love of real estate and my love of design. And we almost don’t make sense on paper. If you look at our tax returns, we don’t make the amount that we should to own the houses that we have.”
They do have the savvy, willpower and pain thresholds necessary to extract maximum value from their real estate. “Our neighbors definitely hated us for it,” Ms. Calderone said, with a dry laugh, of days when film crews took over her home. (Giada De Laurentiis used Ms. Calderone’s kitchen to film her TV show; Antoni Porowski, the chef on “Queer Eye,” used it for one of his cookbooks.)
During the pandemic, when both Calderones’ gig-based work slowed, they put their Amagansett house on Vrbo and rented a smaller house for themselves. “We did it because we had to do it, financially,” Ms. Calderone said with a matter-of-fact shrug.
In conversation, the Calderones sometimes finish each other’s sentences. When one speaks, the other will nod emphatically or interject to add detail. They were sitting side by side in the living room of their new home in TriBeCa when Mr. Calderone interrupted his wife’s description of him wiring light fixtures during the townhouse’s renovation.
“Mind you, we were broke,” he said.
After a brief silence, Ms. Calderone turned to him: “I didn’t really share that part of the story.”
They had been mid-renovation in 2016 when a loan they had expected to get didn’t come through. Construction was moving forward, but they were running out of money. “It got to a very reckless and scary place,” Ms. Calderone said, recalling that the interior designers Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent, close friends of the couple, advised them to cut their losses and sell the house.
“We didn’t know how we were going to pay our son’s school tuition,” Ms. Calderone said. “I’m not saying, ‘Woe is me.’ We had this incredible home, but we just bet on ourselves, and we bet on real estate.”
To save money, they had hired a contractor who claimed he could do the job with a budget that Ms. Calderone described as one-third of his competitors’ bids. But much of the labor deficit fell to Mr. Calderone. On the eve of the Architectural Digest photo shoot, they were still moving light fixtures and refinishing details.
Ms. Astley, the Architectural Digest editor, listed the home décor trends that she believes Ms. Calderone helped set: exuberantly veined marble in the kitchen; white-on-white walls with black-framed windows; wiry light fixtures and bulbous Italian sofas; French brutalist woodwork and globular vases with sparse arrangements of branches.
None of these ideas actually belonged to Ms. Calderone; she is not the first person to put a twig in an urn. But she has published no fewer than seven tutorials on selecting, trimming and arranging branches on her blog. And at the bottom of each post, links guide followers to buy almost every item that Ms. Calderone uses, touches and wears. Whether she can be categorized as an originator of these trends, or a well-calibrated heat-seeking missile, is, for those eager to buy her products, sort of irrelevant.
Leaving Brooklyn, and White-on-White-on-White
The Crate & Barrel collection marked a new high for Ms. Calderone’s career. (The Calderones had registered at the Crate & Barrel in the Manhasset section of Long Island for their 1999 wedding, and also at Tiffany, for whom Ms. Calderone is now a brand ambassador.)
Sebastian Brauer, the senior vice president of product design at Crate & Barrel, said that Ms. Calderone’s collection was “a blockbuster.” “It surpassed our initial yearly projections in the first 60 to 90 days,” Mr. Brauer said. Sold-out items included a $2,700 shearling chair and a carved white-oak media console “based on a vintage piece bought at auction,” according to Crate & Barrel’s product description.
The vintage item in question was, at the time Ms. Calderone bought it, the most expensive article of furniture she had ever acquired, she said: a Jacques Adnet sideboard that she believes dates to the 1930s.
“Some may shudder at what she did next,” Jane Kelter de Valle wrote in the 2018 Architectural Digest feature on the Calderones’ townhouse: Ms. Calderone had its dark chestnut-stained wood stripped and bleached to a pale California blond. Crate & Barrel’s piece retains the lighter hue, and has been redesigned for use as a television stand.
The Calderones put their Cobble Hill townhouse on the market without knowing where they would move next — something they’d never done before. “I struggled with doing another townhouse because that townhouse was perfect,” Ms. Calderone said. But she couldn’t find anything in her price range, or beyond it, that she liked.
When a broker showed Ms. Calderone images of the Despont-designed place in TriBeCa, Mr. Calderone, the lifelong Brooklynite, balked. “I was like, ‘Babe, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to move to the city,’” he said. His wife decided to attend the showing anyway.
Soon she and her husband were FaceTiming.
“You know what he said?” Ms. Calderone said, switching into a mock-husband voice: “‘Oh, I bet the monthlies are really high.’ And I’m like, ‘Nope.’”
“And he was like, ‘It’s a co-op, though, right?’ And I was like, ‘Nope.’” The building became condominiums in the 1980s, she told him. She waited in TriBeCa while Mr. Calderone made his way there in an Uber.
“When I walked in, I was like, ‘Wow, OK, this is it,” Mr. Calderone recalled.
The purchase caused a small stir among Manhattan’s residential real-estate hawks, including a mention in Tribeca Citizen about the arrival of “power flippers” to the neighborhood. Ms. Calderone’s departure from Brooklyn also stirred her fans. When she posted about it on Instagram, one follower wrote that, when she found out Ms. Calderone was moving, “I spent an hour going through your feed and screenshot every room.”
Giving a tour of the TriBeCa apartment, Ms. Calderone pointed out details that dated to its original construction, in 1904, and to renovations made by Mr. Despont and the unit’s next owner, a Japanese pop star. The floors are oak herringbone. The crown moldings are original.
She will need to remodel the kitchen completely; her work necessitates a large kitchen with natural light. The fireplace in the living room is too bulky for her taste. She mused about how to “honor and respect the historical details, but move it forward”; pointing to a carved wood panel, she wondered whether she could recreate its details in another material, perhaps stone, to embellish a hall.
To bid farewell to the townhouse, Ms. Calderone has created a 97-page e-book, “You Asked for It: An Encyclopedia of Swoon,”featuring photographs and sourcing information for every stone, paint, knob, fixture and decorative trim in each room. She lists the locations of antique markets where she bought rare items, the names of tradespeople who refinished them, and the materials they used.
She provides hyperlinks to similar items at lower prices. (“Shop similar: Athena for Crate.”) And she describes “a very expensive mishap” involving ceiling proportions and a twice-reupholstered bench. “The takeaway,” Ms. Calderone writes, is: “We are a work in progress, always!”