Whimsy and Design Savvy Strike a Happy Chord in This Colorful NYC Home
Starrett Zenko Ringbom’s Upper East Side home blends Italian-inspired style with eclectic personal touches.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 7:59 AM
The inspiration behind interior designer Starrett Zenko Ringbom’s apartment greets visitors as soon as they enter. A Fornasetti umbrella stand that sits at the entrance sparked her vision of an imaginary aristocrat.
“I thought of this mid-century Italian who downsized to a smaller space, but still had all these family heirlooms and grand ideas of what a home should be,” Ringbom says. “I feel like that’s how people live now; you have old things and new things, and you have to make everything work together.”
[In this image: Neo-Classical Antique Side Table, Grinard Collection; Bertoia Diamond Chair, Knoll, $2,119; Bunny Williams Couch covered in Dedar velvet; Throw Pillows covered in Dedar fabric with trim from Samuel & Sons; Coffee Table, Jonathan Adler; Whirl Rug, Stark Carpet; 6-Branched Candle-holder by Josef Frank, Svenskt Tenn, $300; Bertoia Bird Chair by Harry Bertoia for Knoll, DWR, $3,289; Curtis Jere Dandelion Sculpture, 1stdibs, $3,200; Bounce Table Lamp by Karl Zahn, Roll and Hill, $1,300; Cylindrical Lamp Base Cammei, Fornasetti.]
When Starrett, her filmmaker husband, Petter, and their 3-year-old son, Hugo, moved from a two-story home in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to a two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side last year, they briefly felt the pinch. But the fun of transforming a prewar space quickly made up for having less room (as did being mere steps from Central Park).
“I wanted it to be different from our last home, which was very 1970s, white, and modern—all built-ins,” explains Ringbom. Rather than renovate too extensively—which she cautions can be “a headache that costs so much money and is really wasteful”—the designer celebrated the original details of the space.
[In this image: Art by Victor Vasarely; Vase, Juliska; Linens, Scweitzer Linen; Cushion Teheran by Josef Frank, Svenskt Tenn, $130; Samarkand Ikat Ii Curtain Fabric, Schumacher; Spun Light-T Table Lamp, Flos, $995.]
Following instinct over anything too prescriptive is what Ringbom expertly puts into practice with her interior design business, which she launched in 2014. She smartly recognized that no one was servicing what she calls the “in between”—young families, like her friends, who want beautiful homes but can’t hire high-end decorators and all that they entail.
As opposed to charging the usual designer and hourly fees, she sets a flat rate and doesn’t re-sell anything to her clients for a commission—eschewing “the way it’s always been done.” While the transparency engenders trust, Ringbom also hopes to instill self-confidence in her clients. “If there’s something you initially have a reaction to, lean into it,” she recommends. “Don’t second-guess yourself.”
[In this image: Geometric blue tile (TGD 16 Tile, Tile Guild Inc.) brightens up the compact kitchen. Scalloped Flush Mount light, Coleen and Company, $1,175; ; Drawing by Karl Haendel; Blue Fluted Mega Bowl, Royal Copenhagen, from $125; Peugeot Salt & Pepper Mills, Williams Sonoma, from $42.]
In her kitchen, she added Gio Ponti–style blue tiles for a graphic touch and a splash of color, while the living and dining rooms are painted a calming, lush indigo as a backdrop for more vibrant objects, like Venetian glass plates and an Indian inlaid wood chair.
Almost everything reflects a special moment in Ringbom’s life: The bar by Edward Wormley for Dunbar is the first piece she and Petter bought together as a couple; the dining table is a flea market find she begged interior designer Fernando Santangelo, her mentor and former boss, to give her.
A large brass Milo Baughman shelf unit displays Ringbom’s art and design books, photographs, and treasured gifts, like an African wish basket from her godmother and a tribal bird head from a good friend. “Over time, I’ve saved all the things that have special meaning,” says Ringbom.
The foyer features a recent aristo-approved addition: an abstract Tuscan landscape in golden yellows and sage greens painted by Ringbom’s friend, the artist and stationer extraordinaire Happy Menocal (who also collaborated on the branding and logo of Ringbom’s business). Medallion-shaped portraits of Starrett, Petter, and Hugo playfully peek over the moldings.
[In this image: Grouping collections by theme, material, or color (or all three) creates a graphic moment on Ringbom’s buffet table. Mixing and matching eras and styles keeps things feeling fresh. Art by Patrick Heron; 19th-Century Louis XVI Ormolu Mounted Mahogany Buffet; Collection of Vintage Iittala Festivo Candlesticks.]
[In this image: A colorful corner in Hugo’s bedroom. Camden Untufted Bed, Ballard Designs, from $800; Trojan Horse Lamp, Jonathan Adler; Basic Blue Rag Rug, Land of Nod, from $99; Battle of Valmy 1792 Wallpaper, Brunschwig.]
The colorful prints scattered around the apartment are another meaningful memento—and not just because they’re a Picasso, a Lichtenstein, and a Miró. “All my artwork is from my mother and brother, who passed away. The Lichtenstein was his; the Picasso was my mom’s. She was a savvy collector in her 20s in Chicago, buying prints and lithographs,” she says.
Ringbom hung her Pop prints above a traditional 19th-century mahogany buffet in the dining room—relishing the juxtapositions as only a storyteller could. “These things came into my life at different times,” she explains. “When everything matches, that’s when interiors can feel contrived. I like that you can see a history here.”
Mille Jeux Fabric, Dedar
Jardin D’osier Fabric, Dedar Serge Mouille Three-Arm Ceiling Lamp, Design Within Reach, $6,759 Pixel Face Porcelain Plate by Fornasetti, Barneys, $185 Josef Albers: Midnight and Noon, Artbook, $55 Palm Springs Dots Vase, Jonathan Adler, $325 Zebra Hide Rug, Forsyth Art, $2,800 Neo VIII Tumbler Set by Martino Gamper for Lobmeyr, The Future Perfect, set of 6 for $1,120 Harry Bertoia Diamond Chair, Knoll, $2,119
[In this image: A few years ago while on a lunch break in Chelsea, she walked by a town house mid-demo. “One of the guys was carrying the chair out, and I asked if I could have it,” she recalls. “I carried it back to the office.” There’s nothing more gut reactive than going out for a Chop’t salad and returning with a chair.]