Just say Novogratz!

The peripatetic and photogenic family on living a life of design

Jul.July 06, 2015 07:00 AM

Interior designers … house flippers … TV personalities … a brand. It’s difficult to abridge precisely who the nine-member Novogratz family is or what they do. It’s a consequence, in part, of having donned so many hats over their roughly 25-year career. Labels don’t fit comfortably on their chaotic, jet-setting lifestyle.

But the Novogratzes — who tend to refer to themselves in the singular, as “the Novogratz”— say that they are simply a family of “doers.”

Paraphrasing Andy Warhol, family patriarch Robert Novogratz, 52, says his career-spanning philosophy is: “Make art. Keep making art. Some people will love it. Some people will hate it. You just have to keep making [art].”

Over the last decade, Robert and his wife Cortney have built a reputation among Manhattan’s elite as an energetic and innovative high-end design duo. But in more recent years, the prolific family has reached a much wider audience and earned a certain degree of celebrity through their Bravo and HGTV reality shows “9 by Design” and “Home by Novogratz” — which ran from 2009 to 2013 — and their home-goods lines for CB2, Walmart, Macy’s, Shutterfly and Old Navy.

Reemphasizing his belief in creative determination, Robert adds: “We’ve done two or three amazing buildings, two or three okay buildings, and a couple that sucked. We’ve had two books. One was really good. One sucked. And our third book is about to come out.”

Robert hails from Virginia and began his career as stockbroker, working with his brother Michael Novogratz, who became a billionaire when his hedge fund went public in 2007. But unsatisfied with a life in finance, Robert changed course. Today he oozes Downtown cool. Never without a pair of shades, he rocks designer leather and is more likely to pucker his lips than smile at the camera. Cortney, 43, is a Georgia native with a do-it-yourself attitude and just enough of a Southern drawl to warm the room.

The couple created a family of Biblical proportions. In descending order their children are: Wolfgang, 18; Bellamy, 16; Tallulah, 16; Breaker, 13; Five, 10; Holleder, 10 and Major, 6. Each of the kids enjoys a manicured web presence via the family’s thorough website. For example: “The fifth child, Five, is outgoing, driven, and very cool. A regular child renegade, Five channels this through art. Although he is only nine years old, he is already a very talented artist who also loves to skateboard and make others laugh.”

It’s all a part of a strategy to brand not just the hyperactive family’s creations but also their lifestyle itself. With the help of their children, the Novogratz hope to one day build a diversified empire of creatives. And they look to iconic family businessmen for inspiration. “I love Francis Ford Coppola and what he did with his family,” Robert says. “The Coppolas are filmmakers, actors and writers. And Francis involved his daughters, nephews, cousins and sister. He took his show on the road a little and brought his family with him.”

“We look to art and fashion more than interior design for inspiration,” he adds. “And we both look up to Ralph Lauren, because he built this amazing family business and lifestyle brand. That is what we aspire to be. He’s our hero.”

The painter and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” director Julian Schnabel is also a major influence. “He’s an artist, filmmaker, designer, real estate investor. I love what he did with the Gramercy Park Hotel,” says Robert. “That’s a pretty cool guy to me.”

“Although he isn’t a real family man,” Cortney interjects.

Family comes first for Robert and Cortney, who both come from large Southern families. Robert was one of seven children in an ever-moving military clan. Cortney is one of five born in a town so small that she claims nearby Columbus, Georgia for its ever-so-slightly better name recognition. “We always wanted lots of kids,” Cortney says, adding that she never viewed Manhattan’s typically cramped accommodations as an obstacle to that end. “Our last son was born in a two-bedroom between renovation projects.”

“When we had our first child 17 years ago, dear friends who we used to party all night with were like, ‘Alright, time to go to the suburbs,’” Cortney recalls. “I thought, ‘Why? To see our kids less, so our marriage will suffer?’ Yes, it’s expensive living in the city. But there are ways to raise a family here. People ask me how I do it, and I say, ‘because we make them part of who we are.’”

“Who they are” is a self-confident and wildly ambitious family that managed to flip, salvage and paint their way to the top of the interior design world. “I’m not sure if our work found us, or if we found it. We were planning our wedding here in New York, and while we were at it, we bought a condemned building in Chelsea,” Cortney says. “We learned on the job, and turned it into a two-family home. During that process we fell in love with design.”

After their wedding, the couple lived in the upstairs portion of the house at 343 West 19th Street and rented out the lower floors. “It was a big house we couldn’t really afford,” Cortney recalls. That is, until singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega of “Tom’s Diner” fame literally came knocking at their door.

“One day Suzanne Vega came by and offered to rent the larger space. So we moved back downstairs,” she says, adding that Vega helped them connect with other celebrity clients. “We were living in the same house and became friends. After she moved in we bought another property and another, and just kept flipping properties, juggling and hustling.” Nearly a decade later that Chelsea five-bedroom townhouse sold for $5.3 million.

Eventually their knack for upcycled vintage furnishings and Downtown chic decor got them noticed as interior designers proper. “Someone hired us to decorate for them and we were like ‘Oh, okay … Sure we’ll do it!’” Cortney says. “We were already constantly doing design work, but that was when it started earning us a living, which was nice.”

Soon after the celebrity commissions started rolling in. A-list movie stars and models tapped them for design work in New York and around the world. One celebrity project the Novogratz clan remembers fondly was giving skateboarding legend Tony Hawk’s Mammoth Lake, Calif., ski house a makeover. “Tony Hawk is amazing,” Cortney says. “He was showing skateboard tricks to my kids in the garage and I remember his foot hugging the skateboard. It was like a hand. It was crazy.”

But their latest project is taking them away from NYC for a somewhat longer stint. Last summer, the family moved to Los Angeles, where they purchased a 5,800-square-foot estate. Built in 1926 in the Hollywood Hills, the Novogratz playfully refer to the historic home as their “castle,” because of the bartizan turrets.

“L.A. is bad about historic preservation. They knock everything down. So we wanted to keep the structure up,” Robert says, adding that they are gut renovating the interior. “There wasn’t a lot to save on the inside. But we kept the windows. It’s going to look like a castle and it is going to honor L.A., but the inside is going to be Novogratz.”

“We aren’t going to be there forever, but we still wanted to leave our mark on L.A. and what better way than with a castle,” Robert says. “We’ve worked in all the great cities in America, from Austin to Nashville and Seattle to Chicago. Going back to Coppola, we wanted to take our show on the ro ad.”

Still, the family considers Manhattan “home base” — and Downtown remains the focal point of their work. In total, the Novogratz have built nine homes in the city — four of which they have called home. Two are at 22 and 24 Thompson Street in Soho (which sold to “Grand Theft Auto” co-creator Sam Houser for $3.8 million and NBA superstar Zydrunas Ilgauskas for $6.9 million, respectively).

The Novogratz consider the townhouse at 400 West Street their greatest accomplishment. (As LLNYC went to press, news broke that Heidi Klum is renting it for the summer.) “We had been building a lot by the time we found this property,” Cortney says of the sprawling five-story townhouse. “We were right on the highway and wanted to make a big statement. Robert really wanted to bring art to the exterior of the house, so we collaborated with Richard Woods.”

Woods created a brightly painted plank façade for the home, which started off as a one-story gun shop. Naturally, they also brought art to the interior of the home, where a favorite piece resides in a rather unusual location: over the bathtub in the master suite. The work is “Button Queen,” a large replica of a Queen Elizabeth postage stamp done in shimmering pearl-white shirt buttons on black canvas by English artist Ann Carrington.

“This was the first piece of art we ever bought. We got it at What Goes Around Comes Around in Soho for like $1,500,” Robert says. ”Over the last 10 years I bought about eight more of her pieces for myself and clients. We decided to film with her in London for our show and she blew up. She became an overnight sensation.”

During LLNYC’s tour of the home, works by Andy Warhol, Vik Muniz, Jane and Louise Wilson, Olafur Eliasson, Enoc Perez, Paul Pfeiffer and Albert Watson were all on display. Most strikingly, a large photograph by Laurie Simmons depicting a Japanese sex doll clutching a mixture of prescription pills and candy dominates the stairwell.

The 23-foot-wide home also features a massive indoor basketball court, which doubles as a theater and a party space, furnishings by Zaha Hadid, a garage, elevator, five bedrooms and a large roof deck complete with a full kitchen and a hot tub — not to mention stunning views of the Hudson. The space is now on the market for $17.9 million.

Ultimately, the Novogratz family hopes to continually “up their game” through a semi-nomadic madcap existence, surrounding themselves with creative influences and immersing themselves in rich urban spaces. So, for the foreseeable future, they’ll likely be on the move — perhaps even moving overseas (Robert says Tokyo is on his bucket list).

“Cities are great for a visual person, because you are going to see more stuff. And that makes your influences change and your taste better,” Robert says. For instance, he adds, “The day we finished the Soho house [22-24 Thompson Street], I walked outside and there were about five supermodels doing a shoot on our doorstep, and I thought, ‘This is going to be a nice place to live.’”

Cortney adds that “even the greatest city in the world gets sterile after awhile.”

“New York isn’t the same place it was 20 years ago and it isn’t going to be the same place 20 years from now,” she says. “Sometimes you have to break out of that and reopen your eyes.”

Still, don’t expect the prolific family to stay away for long. “We are New Yorkers,” Robert says. “The weather is better in L.A., but the people are better in New York.”

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