When Hip Meets Home

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
.”