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Meet the 2013 Curbed Young Guns: Catherine Olasky and Maximilian Sinsteden

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Photo by Read McKendree
Photo by Read McKendree

Listening to Maximilian Sinsteden, 26, and Catherine Olasky, 35, talk about interior design is like listening to a recording from a bygone era, one with long, sinewy ties to the profession's most important firms. When Olasky was a college kid at Parsons and interning for the Manhattan-based designer Bunny Williams, she took the very same role Williams had taken when she herself was just starting out at the legendary Parish-Hadley Associates: shopper. Meanwhile, by the time he finished up at Drew University, the precocious Sinsteden had already completed stints with David Easton and Charlotte Moss. Though the two knew each other from the NYC decorating world, they more rigorously crossed paths a few years ago in London when they were both working with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Sinsteden was tasked with the permanent installation of The Gilbert Collection; Olasky, the temporary exhibition on the legendary interior designer John Fowler—she happened to be on staff at the celebrated English firm Colefax & Fowler at the time.

A series of dinners led to a friendship. "One day Max and I went for Champagne at Whole Foods, and Max said to me, 'Well, I'm going to start a company, would you like to come and work for me?'" Olasky recalls. "I was greatly offended, and I said, 'Well, actually, that's so funny because I'm starting a company, would you like to come and work for me?'"

As a happy compromise, of sorts, the pair founded Olasky & Sinsteden in Dec. 2009. "We both were in the place in life where we felt that was the best choice for us," Sinsteden says. "And I'm definitely thrilled that I started a firm with Catherine because we play off each other in such an exciting way. People ask me all the time whether we have the same taste, and I say, well, in the grand scheme of the world everyone will probably say that we have almost the same taste, but when the two of us sit a conference table we debate over the tiniest details because we just have so much fun in trying to nail everything down. There's such pleasure in doing it."

Olasky & Sinsteden was moved to the States in 2012—Sinsteden is now based in New York; Olasky, in Houston—but the pair has worked on projects here and abroad, including the entire renovation and decoration of a 17th-century Guernsey farmhouse with 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century additions. If you haven't seen their work published yet, it's just a matter of time: the pair has projects out for consideration at all the major shelter magazines. In the interim, check out the paintings they commissioned from Mita Corsini-Bland (the watercolorist who also painted many of Sister Parish's projects) and read on for a roundtable discussion.

Watercolor paintings by Mita Corsini-Bland/courtesy of Olasky & Sinsteden

Olasky & Sinsteden on learning from the masters, planning a floorplan around one's drink, and that first 'big break':

If you're not going to work for the Bunny Williamses or Charlotte Mosses of the world, how do you learn the trade? Is it even possible?
Maximilian Sinsteden: There are so many people who want to just begin on their own and who have the confidence to begin on their own. But the ability to be immersed in these offices and see how they created these interiors that are so thought out and so referenced—there's always such a knowledge of antiques and goods and fabrics, and I think that is one of the things that is very hard to just pick up from a course or from a book or even just experience. I do think certainly it's amazing to see people creating these new, interesting interiors that are dynamic and definitely livable, but it's a different sort of—
Catherine Olasky: It's a different language, really.
Sinsteden: Exactly, it's a different language.

"Catherine has extraordinary taste and talent. The thing that's amazing about her is that she has really done the due diligence to educate herself—not only in style and creativity, but also in the business sense. She worked very hard for me, and she has a very organized and disciplined approach to each project." —interior designer Bunny Williams

So talk a little about your language. What tenets have you learned that will always be a fundamental part of what you guys do?
Sinsteden: Catherine and I always joke that the first thing we do when we do a floor plan is think about, like, where you put your drink. There has to be a functionality to the environments in which you live. No matter what vibe the space takes on in the end, there always has to be the idea that the sofas are comfortable to sit in, and there's the proper number of chairs in a group that you're able to have intimate parties and big parties, and there has to be this level of design that corresponds with function. That's very important to us.
Olasky: And for me, we weren't allowed to do anything or shop for anything until it was scaled into the plan, so it's about making sure it that everything is drawn in as it should fit and then finding the pieces. Or if you find the piece first, making sure you don't even waste anyone's time going to look at it until it's been scaled in the plan and the elevation. So scale and proportion are always paramount over the look of a piece.
Sinsteden: And everything else has to relate to it. There has to be synergy to all the components, whether they're very disparate, in a very eclectic interior, or whether they're all tones of each other or all of the same style. There has to be this mélange that comes together that all makes sense.

"Max Sinsteden brings to the table an usually well-developed set of skills for a young man. Qualities that I admire: energy, curiosity, a sense of humor and great joie makes working with him a joy and an experience filled with great memories." —interior designer Charlotte Moss

Shifting gears a bit, would you say you've had your first big break?
Sinsteden: We started the company with a project that was sort of the perfect first project for Catherine and I. It was a very high-quality gut renovation of an apartment with a spectacular set of views, and we were going to execute the whole thing from start to finish down to the hangers. But we also put ourselves in a position where we didn't hire anyone other than a semi-bookkeeper. We did every sheet of paper from the beginning to the end, so we knew exactly how the system was going to work, how we were going to run it in our company. We watched every dollar and cent, and every sample, and every cutting, to know how we were going to do it. It sounds almost like a test case, where it very controlled and you could monitor every single thing.
Olasky: To me, that kind of paved the way. But honestly I feel like my first big break, or our first big break, was really just deciding we were going to do this. We had heard of about so many nightmre partnerships and partnerships that had fallen apart. Maybe we were just naive, but it has really worked out—we felt so optimistic at the time and that alone felt like a huge break. Even sitting down just to design our stationery: even though we bickered about the style of a comma, it all came together in such a beautiful way that I was just really feeling that this was going to be fantastic. But I do feel that first project Max mentioned is what paved the way for what was really a big break, which was doing a project that we finished last year in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. The beginnings of a house were 17th-century farmhouse and that was really our big break.

"I photographed Max's dorm room when he was in college, and I just thought, this kid has the ambition of a titan. And he also has an understanding of very classical decorating. He's really learned his lessons well, he's applied them well, and he has follow-through." —New York magazine design editor and Young Guns panelist Wendy Goodman

And so how is word getting out now? Because i know that you haven't had projects published in big magazines yet. Are you promoting your firm in some other way?
Olasky: It's all word of mouth. I think it's also sort of a waiting game because you send your jobs off to the magazines and you're not really sure how things will pan out or when, and so you just kind of keep at it by word of mouth. Amazingly, things have really fallen into our laps.
Sinsteden: In all sorts of ways. We've definitely put ourselves out there for a lot of very different, strange projects that are not necessarily the type of projects that we would have seen ourselves doing. And they all gave us different exposures. When you say strange, what do you mean?
Sinsteden: Well, strange is maybe a bad word to use. But I just mean the range has been anything from completing the semi-self-decorating of a townhouse in London, a Victorian townhouse that had been renovated very much to the 21st century. Without being hypermodern it was quite modern, and we were trying to help that client meld their taste that was modern and contemporary with the appropriateness of the location and the house. We got involved in helping a really interesting client in the very south of Ireland simply with lighting and construction materials—not something that we want to do in the future, and it was very difficult for us, because we came to a place where we said, Oh my god, we have so many ideas for you, and it was very hard to not be able to help her execute all the rest of it. At the same time, it was a wonderful opportunity to work in that area, we got to use some amazing resources, and we got to find beautiful new and old things.
Olasky: If we were saying what we would like to do, it's always going to be a soup-to-nuts project from inception to absolute completion. So in accepting smaller things along the way that just happened to be just one portion of the design, maybe initially we thought we were compromising something, but really every project teaches you something different, it builds your client base no matter how you slice it, and it builds your supplier base. Especially when you're pushed to work in other countries or even rural areas, you do find really interesting suppliers that come in handy for the bigger projects. Clients are thrilled when you can pull out the glassblower from wherever, or the potter from the south of England.

So I wanted to get a sense from each of you what each other's strengths are. Max, we can start with you.
Sinsteden: OK, well that's a fun question! I think one of the most exciting things about Catherine is that she really has this hyper-focus on making sure every choice we're making is thoughtful. Catherine and I both love so much detail, but sometimes I might brush past things just in a rush to put it all together, whereas Catherine always has this very level-headed and sensible way of doing things. And that's something I so appreciate about her in terms of the business of design. And subsequently, the business of the design also leads to the perfect visual execution because we've thought so much about things and she's checked things so much.
Olasky: Max's energy is certainly one of the main driving forces of our company because he is so peppy and upbeat and, as he says, willing to make 10 decisions in 30 seconds by the time you come into the office and sit down at your desk. The fact that the freight train is always moving is such an asset to a small business. Keeping the momentum up at all times is really what Max does and I think that growing up as he did, under a parent who is very involved in the antiques world, he does have a very deep knowledge of the fine arts and the decorative arts, which is a total asset to us, as well.
Sinsteden: Am I allowed to add one more thing? Because one of my favorite things about Catherine that gets me so excited is her passion for different substyles of design throughout the world. She has such a deep interest in, like, specific areas of Americana and specific areas of every century of the English. It adds just a different flavor to the things we're producing in the end.

Awesome. Those are all great thoughts. I just have one last question for you. In 50 years, what do you want people to think when they look at your body of work?
Sinsteden: The promoting of quality artisans to create quality interiors, I think, is a big thing that comes to mind.
Olasky: I want to feel like we've held out. Obviously we have to change with the industry to survive and things like that, but I want to feel like we're still doing things in a very...
Sinsteden: True way.
Olasky: Very geniune, as Max says, and very artisan-based. Small scale, fine detail, just really sort of classy, elegant old-school type of execution. And I think part of that does come from our past, just because we've seen the way people like Bunny and Charlotte can survive over time and remain relevant and remain appealing to such different age groups.

· Olasky & Sinsteden [official site]
· All Young Guns 2013 coverage [Curbed National]