• When Hip Meets Home

    What Happens When You Raise 7 Children In The City While Running A Hip Design Company? You Get A Reality Show On Bravo

    By New York Family

    If the feeding, clothing and general maintenance of seven kids
    doesn’t sound like enough to keep two parents busy, try adding the
    management of a successful design company, packing up and moving to a
    new house, and publishing a home design book, all while being trailed by
    a video crew. But this frenetic lifestyle is one which Robert and
    Cortney Novogratz, stars of Bravo’s new reality show, “9 By Design,”
    inhabit with grace. The show, set to air in April, follows Robert,
    Cortney and their entourage—Wolfgang, 12; twins Bellamy and Tallulah,
    11; Breaker, 9; twins Five and Holleder, 4; and Major, 1—as they revamp
    an office, gym, and boutique hotel, among other projects. Contrary to
    the drama in which so many TV families seem to swirl, Robert and Cortney
    exude an easygoing sense of calm, something that might stem in part
    from their Southern upbringing— Robert hails from Virginia, while
    Cortney is from Georgia. But these passionate New Yorkers have made the
    city their home since 1995, when they founded Sixx Design and
    transformed their first decrepit piece of real estate into a spacious,
    chic, and family-friendly home in the then-undesirable neighborhood of
    Chelsea. Since then, they have gutted more than 15 New York City homes,
    each of which the family lived in before moving on to the next project. I
    met with them in their current pad, a former BMW motorcycle shop that’s
    been transformed into a light-filled, art-filled, six-story townhouse
    overlooking the West Side Highway.
    Their home, while elegant,
    is completely accessible, as are Robert and Cortney, whose approach to
    design is much the same as their approach to raising children—hard work,
    passion, going with your gut, and above all, fearlessness.

    It seems like your family’s
    docu-drama is poised to become America’s new reality TV obsession. What
    made you decide to put your life on the air?

    Cortney: We didn’t
    go into it lightly. We said no at first, and then we thought, maybe it’s
    an opportunity and a platform? Reality TV really is here to stay, and
    so many people do watch it, [and we have the chance] to do something
    slightly different and hopefully draw a more sophisticated audience.
    Even though there’ll be a small amount of bad that happens with it, it’s
    been a really positive experience.

    Robert: Our ongoing joke is, people said, “Did
    you have editing power?” and we said, “No, we edited what came out of
    our mouth.”

    How
    would you describe the show and its appeal?

    Cortney: I think
    it’s hip. I think it’s fresh. One thing we loved is collaborating on how
    we really wanted the show to feel and move.

    Robert: The
    production value is very high. It looks like a movie, not a television
    show. They hired a robotic crane that shot inside the house so you could
    look and see how we lived from the outside looking in. We got the first
    theme song ever for a reality television show [sung by] this cool indie
    band. And we showed off New York City. We shot a scene at the New
    Museum. We shot a scene on the Highline. We shot a scene in our favorite
    restaurant, Felix, in SoHo. In one scene I’m riding my bike with one of
    the kids on my handlebars through Greenwich Village. We show a lot of
    people outside of New York that New York’s as much a village as it is a
    city.

    Let’s talk
    about how you got into design.

    Cortney: We’re
    self-taught. When we first met, we were the only young couple going to
    flea markets, going to antique fairs, buying stuff, tying it on top of
    the car. And before we even got married we bought our first home in New
    York City. Because we had no budget, we did everything ourselves, and we
    realized that we were talented and we loved it and we wanted to do it
    again. And we could also earn money from it.

    How would you describe
    your design philosophy?

    Cortney: There
    are no rules. One freedom that we have is that we didn’t really go to
    school for design. So we go with our gut. And our style—we mix high and
    low. Vintage and modern. We love very expensive Italian furniture mixed
    with a flea market table. From high end art to our kids’ art.

    Robert: This is
    a pretty high-end house, but we do a ton of low-end design, things that
    anybody can afford. Especially in this economy, people are very
    budget-conscious. And
    taste and money don’t have to mix. In fact, most of the people we know
    who have good taste have very little money. So we try to show that
    off in a lot of ways.

    Cortney: Robert’s good because we love to throw parties,
    and you know, he never waits until everything’s perfect. He’s like,
    “Come on, we just moved in, let’s have a dinner party.” So, we do clean
    up and make a fuss and light candles and get flowers, but there may be a
    pile of toys in the corner. Nothing’s too precious. We use china for
    every day, we don’t wait for Thanksgiving.

    Can you tell me a
    little bit about how you choose your sites?

    Robert: It’s always downtown. We always
    try to buy on the fringe. The west of the West Side. East of SoHo. One
    of our sayings is the worse shape the better when we buy something.
    Because we’re gonna gut it anyway.

    Cortney: We look at anything—if it’s a parking
    lot, a condemned building—could it be a home? We bought a gun shop,
    turned that into a house. We bought a nightclub, turned that into a
    house.

    Robert: We
    are looking…at an ex-funeral home. The nice thing is that the
    foundation is already poured. ‘Cause I don’t want to dig too low.

    What’s it like working
    together?

    Cortney:
    I like it because when the kids are home from school, we don’t have
    much time for each other. Our date time is really when the house is
    quiet. We may be working, but we have our moments. Also, we invest the
    same. If we fail, we fail together. If we succeed, we succeed together.

    Do you think being
    parents has changed your approach to design?

    Cortney: Yes. You know why? Because our
    kids, especially the older they get, they’ll say what they want. Even
    Breaker was really interested in this staircase [pictured on the
    magazine cover]. And the more we travel, they mention things. They’ll
    say, “Oh, I like that.” And you go, “Oh, I never thought of that
    architecture or this style or that.” And we’ve always loved chipped and
    broken things—now we really love them. Because then the kids can go at
    it. For example, our kitchen table—you can color on it.

    You live for a while in
    each of the houses you renovate. Is it hard for the kids to move so
    often?

    Robert: People
    make a bigger deal of it than it is. We’ve moved three times in the
    last four years, but it’s kind of what we do. It’d be like if I was in
    the military, I’d move a lot. Or if I was an actor, I’d move from one
    job to another. People are like, “Those poor kids move a lot.” And I’m
    like, “Are you forgetting the fact that they live in a home with a
    basketball court?” These are not the kids to be worrying about.

    Cortney: Or they can
    do the opposite and say, “Oh, you have so much.” Well, the kids realize
    what they have. We work hard for it. It’s a juggling act in real
    estate. We hope when it’s all said and done, our kids [see] there are
    sacrifices [to make] to keep your career going.

    You guys seem to have a
    very sensible approach to raising kids.

    Robert: I guess we have a lot of
    sayings, but another one is, we try to keep our kids humble and hungry.
    Make your kid have jobs or chores. Push them [to make] sure they do
    their homework. That’s just our philosophy. People look at this house
    and say, “Oh, your kids have to share a bedroom,” and I’m like, really?
    The sacrifices that they made and we made—they have some pretty good
    rewards. They go to private school. They travel the world. And they get
    it. They’re good kids. They’re not perfect, but they’re nice. We
    wouldn’t have put them on television if they would have embarrassed us.

    Cortney: Well, I
    don’t know—our 4-year-olds…

    Seven is a lot more kids than most families in New
    York, and even America, have. Did you always know you wanted a big
    family?

    Cortney:
    We did.

    Robert: We thought there’d be four kids, right?

    Cortney: We didn’t
    have a number. We knew we wanted a lot of kids!

    You mentioned schools—do
    all your kids go to the same school?

    Cortney: The kids go to the same Catholic
    school in downtown Manhattan. But we’ve been to public and private. And
    regular preschool. There’s never a perfect school. You have to be creative, no
    matter what size your family is. You want to get a good education, you
    have to hustle.

    How
    do you handle each of your kids’ different needs and learning styles?

    Robert: Our
    kids are polar opposites. One day we got called to the principal’s
    office because one of our kids was bullying a kid. The same day our kid
    came home crying because he was being bullied by another kid. So we see
    everything with seven kids, and that’s fun. I think parents in our
    generation are a little different than my parents’ generation. Thirty
    years ago, parents raised three kids all kind of the same. Now parents
    know, Billy’s different than Joey. One kid you can push a little, one
    kid you’ve got to coddle.

    How would you describe each of your kids?

    Robert: Wolfgang is
    the oldest. When you say the name Wolfgang, you would say
    “athlete,” wouldn’t you say?

    Cortney: Typical
    first kid.

    Robert: Bellamy
    is…what do you think?

    Cortney: Well,
    she’s my helper.

    Robert: Queen
    bee. Bellamy—queen bee.

    Cortney: Tallulah
    is very compassionate.

    Robert: Yeah,
    compassionate is the word. Breaker—creative. Five—cool. Holleder—wild.
    Major—an angel. And that’s it.

    Neither of you is
    originally from New York. What are your thoughts on raising a family in
    the city?

    Robert:
    We literally have two parks across the street. And Pier 40—all the
    sports
    fields are there. Five blocks that way, on a bike path, is Chelsea
    Piers. It’s become very kid-friendly. And that wasn’t true 10 years ago.

    Cortney: There’s
    been some really crucial moments of us wondering, “Are we going to
    leave Manhattan or not?” 9/11 for example, we had four small children.
    The economy this year has not been so good. Each time we do whatever it
    takes to try to stay here because we do love the city that much. We
    definitely feel blessed to live here and do something we love. Anyone,
    whether they’re in the middle of Manhattan or sitting in the middle of
    America, watching our show, will feel the energy that New York offers.


    Robert and Cortney’s Design Tips

    Cool design and kids
    can co-exist.
    Learn to relax about the decor, and enjoy it rather than
    worrying about keeping it pristine. Everything, even beautifully
    designed items, are meant to be used. You don’t want your house to feel
    like a museum.

    Get
    rid of clutter.
    Your house will look bigger, there will be more room for
    everyone, including the kids, to move around, and by putting everything
    in its place, you’ll know where to find it next time you need it.

    Good taste has nothing
    to do with money.
    Find a style that fits your life and what you like,
    and make it happen. If you don’t have a big budget, there are plenty of
    ways to change your environment in an affordable way. Try a new color of
    paint on the walls, frame the family photos and arrange them as an
    installation on a wall, repurpose a piece you already have but don’t
    like anymore, like an old piece of furniture that will look fabulous
    with a new coat of paint in a bright, shiny color!

    Flea markets are the best
    (and cheapest!) way to find a unique, distinctive object that can be the
    focal point for a well-designed and interesting room.
    Go with an open
    mind, and when you find the piece you love, go for it before somebody
    else does.

    The most
    important aspect of any home is that it is comfortable.
    It can look
    fantastic, but if it is not a relaxing environment, then it is useless.
    Try to find a balance so that it can be both stylish and have a chill
    vibe. You, your family and friends will appreciate that the most.

    For more ideas, check out
    the Novogratzes’ book, “Downtown Chic: Designing Your Dream Home: From
    Wreck to Ravishing
    .”

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