Athena Calderone, Interior Designer, Author, + Chef


“I didn’t grow up around a lot of culture and diversity—Valley Stream, Long Island was a very blue collar, white neighborhood. I never ate Mexican or Thai food growing up, and we didn’t really travel. It wasn’t until I moved to Manhattan when I was 18 that I started realizing how much of the world I didn’t know about. To pay for my apartment I would bartend, and that completely changed the trajectory of my life. I was working at The Limelight, and The Palladium, and The Tunnel… I’ve always been a frenetic thinker, so when I was on the dance floor at these nightclubs, meeting all these people, it felt like a whole world of possibility exploded in front of me. That’s also how I met my husband. I got engaged when I was 23 and married at 24, and all of a sudden I was going to Italy, Spain, Greece, and different parts of Africa, absorbing all the culture, architecture, texture, and colors. My husband is a techno DJ, and he’d travel a lot for work so I’d go with him. That’s how I first started getting into design and food.

I had a baby at 26, while all of my peers were still partying and figuring out who they were. Up until then I had jumped around a lot. I wanted to be a dancer, then I did some modeling, then I wanted to study acting, then I went to FIT to learn fashion… I hadn’t figured out a career yet, and couldn’t warrant having a nanny, so after I had my baby I was home with him a lot. I started using my home as an outlet for creative expression, and realized it gave me some sense of purpose. If I latched on to a particular image, like a sofa, I’d dive deep into a rabbit hole researching it and reading about it. I do feel like the fact that I didn’t have formal training in design ended up being an asset for me. It forced me to trust myself, rather than lean on ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ and fancy collectable pieces. Especially early on in my career, it was more about finding things I loved and smashing them together. There’s an alchemy in two things that don’t necessarily work—that friction draws your eye.

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When my son was two or three years old I did go back to Parsons to study design, because I always felt ashamed that I never stuck to one college or career path. But honestly, my shame around ping-ponging between careers didn’t go away until I got on Instagram. When I started Eyeswoon it was really about food. It was clear from my feed that in fall I cooked a lot of dishes that were browns, and yellow, and auburn reds, and then in the winter everything got darker and moodier… I realized that the way I approached a meal and the way I designed a space had the same threads going through them. It was all about colors, and adding texture and contrast. I learned how to work a camera, which also became a good way to share what I had learned about design. I could show a vignette of my house, and explain why it works—like, you always want to make sure that you have things at different eye levels so that your eyes move around the space. It felt like Instagram was this hub that unified all the parts of myself that had previously felt very fragmented. Now my career is definitely more about storytelling and media. I’ve written two books, I’m starting to design products, and I work with different brands within my own home to shoot content. It really gives me confidence when people tell me they love that I represent more than one thing.

Instagram can be a huge asset in figuring out your aesthetic. It’s a constant source of ideas, and there are so many home Instagram accounts that I love to follow. My friend Colin King has an incredible Instagram, and I also love Galerie 44, The Peanut Vendor, and Slow Roads. There’s a chair in my home that people ask about all the time, and I had originally seen it on Slow Roads’ Instagram. I didn’t know who the designer was, but I stalked websites like Etsy and Ebay and eventually I found the chair on 1stDibs. I’ll admit I’m a very impatient person, but if you can exercise restraint and not buy everything right at once, you really discover amazing things. If you wait, you can usually find what you’re looking for at a fraction of the price. But sometimes the thing I want really doesn’t exist—when I was designing this townhouse, for example, I wanted this big dramatic pendant light for the kitchen island. I searched for two years, would buy things and return them, and at a certain point I even started to annoy myself. Like, are you kidding Athena? You do this for a living! Kind of desperately, I took a big, oversized vintage vase and put big branches in it. It filled the vertical void, looked really sculptural, and had a ton of movement—suddenly I realized why I couldn’t find a light that I liked. Because I got resourceful, the answer was revealed to me.

There’s an alchemy in two things that don’t necessarily work—that friction draws your eye.

I wash my face every morning and night with the Caudalie Foaming Facial Cleanser. I absolutely swear by it. I’ve been using it for over eight years, and now my son uses it too. He always tells me, ‘Mom whenever we run out of the cleanser I get a pimple.’ [Laughs] I’m not one of those girls who enjoys trying new products, or talking about beauty, or using a jade roller. I want to be able to put my skincare and makeup on in five minutes, and what I really want is results. I’m 45, and I definitely don’t feel like I look my age. When I look rested and fresh and I feel like what I’m doing is working, I stick with the products.

I had a facial with Dr. Barbara Sturm once, and I loved her philosophy on skincare and aging. I trust her, so I use a lot of her products. I start with Dr. Sturm eye cream in the morning—I don’t use eye cream at night. I feel like one of the first beauty things I learned was to always use eye cream because the skin around the eyes is so delicate. There’s not much you can do for that area, even if you do want to go the Botox route. I’m super cognizant of puffy eyes and crow’s feet, so I’ve always made sure that my eyes feel hydrated. Then I might use one of Dr. Sturm’s creams—I like the Rich Cream in the winter, and I have the Light Cream for summer. If I shower in the morning and I’m not going out, I’ll use the Vintner’s Daughter Essence and Serum instead. I haven’t been wearing a whole lot of makeup throughout the pandemic, and that makes me feel really luminous. I usually use the Chanel sunscreen because it feels really light—especially in the summer, I don’t like to be able to feel anything on my skin. It's actually a little funny because I’m so diligent with sunscreen and hats that my body tends to get really tan and my face doesn’t. I don’t care though; I like it that way. I will say, though, that I don’t love to use that sunscreen under makeup. I know some people like dewy skin, but when I wear makeup I want my face to look very matte.

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At night I use Dr. Sturm’s Super Anti-Aging Serum, which I think is working, but it’s probably a little psychosomatic as well. And then I tend to use the Noble Panacea Absolute night cream, which I think is a little bit more moisturizing. Sometimes when I take a bath I put on the Dr. Sturm mask. I recently learned it’s also good to wear when traveling on an airplane—I’m obviously not traveling right now, but I thought that was interesting.

I have this weird rule about makeup. When I wear a red lip, I can’t wear any cheek color. I like for my face to feel very matte, almost like a cross between that dramatic Gwen Stefani look and Snow White. Especially in the winter, I like to use Giorgio Armani Luminous Silk Foundation in 4.5. It goes on very matte, but it stays luminous. I don’t use a sponge, or a brush—I just squirt it in my hands, rub them together, and pat the foundation all over my face. I don’t use concealer, I never use bronzer, and I don’t like highlighter. For lipstick, I love the Nars Velvet Lip Pencils. I do Dragon Girl, a red with some magenta in it, in the winter and Red Square, which is more of an orange-y red, in the summer.

I know some people like dewy skin, but when I wear makeup I want my face to look very matte.

If I don’t wear a red lip, the only other lip product I’ll use is balm. I love the one from Augustinus Bader. And that’s when I’ll do a more flushed cheek. MAC has a cream blush that I’ve been using for over 10 years that I still love, and Milk’s cream blush stick in Rally is amazing. I love for my cheeks to look very pink. Then I use Nars mascara, only on my top lashes, and usually only on my outer top lashes. I used to get eyelash extensions, but for the past two years I’ve wanted to look more natural. Just putting mascara on my top outer lashes almost creates a cat eye.

I’m the same way with my nails as I am with makeup—I either do clear or Birthday Suit from Essie, which is a very pale neutral, or I’ll do a very deep red. I tend to go for extremes. My hands get photographed so often when I’m cooking, so if I have a big shoot I’ll go get a manicure. I like my nails to be short, square, and have a rounded edge.

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I’m very much about ceremony and ritual. I meditate every day, and I love to take baths. I really take the time to set the scene and make sure that a bath is restoring me. First I dim the lights and light sage, palo santo, or a candle. I like the Le Labo candles a lot, and I’m also really into the Loewe candles. They all smell somewhat culinary—there’s a Liquorice one, Oregano, Marihuana. I have a couple of those. I’ll also put on some music—my favorite playlists are Cigarettes After Sex Radio and Mazzy Star Radio. In the bath, I either use epsom salts or the Lord Jones CBD bath salts because those are good if you work out a lot. And then for body wash, I like the Nécessaire Bergamot. Onda Beauty also does this Bergamot Coffee Scrub I really love. I’m so bad when it comes to lotion so I do try to exfoliate. And if my legs are going to be bare and seen, I put on the True Botanicals Pure Radiance Body Oil. It has such a specific scent that I love.

I really take the time to set the scene and make sure that a bath is restoring me.

I’m always tricked into thinking this is my real hair—no frizz and it still has movement. But nope. It’s naturally a lot more wavy and curly underneath. Ty at Serge Normant gives me keratin treatments called Magic Sleek. It doesn’t have crazy chemicals, so it doesn’t last as long, but they do make a shampoo and conditioner that prolong it. I’m laughing because a friend of mine who is also an interior designer got hair treatment with me. I asked if he was using the special shampoo, and he was like ‘No, the bottles are so ugly, I can’t imagine your beautiful pink marble shower with those ugly purple bottles.’ [Laughs] But I use them because I want this to last! The treatment is supposed to last around three months, but I don’t feel like they always do.

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Other than that treatment, I am so no frills when it comes to my hair routine. I only wash my hair once a week, and after the second or third day I tend to put it in a ponytail or bun. I don’t dye my hair, and I will never take out a flat iron, a blow dryer, or a curling iron. If I’m going to an event, I’ll just put my hair back, pull out some pieces in the front, and go. The only product I really use is this Living Proof Styling Cream for little flyaways. I get my hair cut by Tommy Buckett at Serge Normant, and I always have him trim the pieces in the front so they frame my cheekbones. I have a very skinny, long face, so when those pieces get too long it draws my face down so much. I don’t love when my hair is all one length because it goes out like a bell, but I also don’t like a lot of layers, so the best haircut is somewhere in between. The last time I cut my hair I did it myself. I literally just put it in pigtails and snipped—if I’m in a mood, and if I feel like my hair feels stringy or dead, I’m not going to be precious about it.”

—as told to ITG

Athena Calderone photographed by Alexandra Genova in New York on December 15, 2020