Karina Gentinettapoints to a chandelier hanging in the master bath of her New Orleans cottage. “I got it for $40 on eBay,” she says cheerfully. The early-19th-century Empire -daybed in her living room? A broken discard until she restored its old-world elegance. The pair of Louis XIV chairs—with their dainty curved cabriole legs and white Belgian-linen upholstery—were castoffs, too, before Gentinetta reimagined them with new fabrics and carefully applied layers of paint, gesso and wax. Beautifying old furniture, she says, “is like dressing Cinderella for the ball.”
Gentinetta, who was born in Buenos Aires and came to the U.S. with her family at 12, is a graceful combination of sophistication and Southern charm. A self-schooled antiques dealer and furniture restorer, she sells her work on the high-end retail website 1stdibs .com (karinagentinetta.1stdibs.com), at the 1stdibs Manhattan showroom and in a by-appointment space in New Orleans. Gentinetta, 44, also helps interior designers and decorators source one-of-a-kind pieces: an ancient stone basin, a Murano glass chandelier, a draper’s table. While you might call those talents impressive, you wouldn’t call them surprising—unless you knew that for 13 years, Gentinetta was a lawyer. As a partner in a respected New Orleans law firm, she handled product-liability cases and made close to $200,000 a year.
But then came Hurricane Katrina. On August 28, 2005, the day before the storm hit, Gentinetta and her husband, A.J. McAlear, evacuated their leafy Lakeview home with four dogs, their toddler son and infant daughter and McAlear’s eight-year-old daughter from a prior marriage. Their destination was Covington, a small town across Lake Pontchartrain, where McAlear’s father had a getaway cottage.
Three weeks later, returning to assess the damage, the couple came upon an eerie landscape. Their three-bedroom house, less than a mile from the 17th Street Canal’s ruptured levee, had been destroyed. “It was as if a bomb had exploded,” says Gentinetta. “I remember screaming for my mother in Spanish and then just thinking, Where do you begin? We left there pretty numb.”
The process of picking up the pieces went slowly. McAlear, who’d sold real estate before the storm, enrolled in accounting school and waited tables. Gentinetta’s round-trip commute from the cottage to her office took three hours. She made the trip when she could but spent most of the time juggling child care and wrestling with FEMA. After receiving $250,000 in flood insurance, she says, she “felt rich for about five minutes.” But their mortgage agreement stipulated that if they didn’t rebuild the house within 90 days of its destruction, the bank could call in the loan—about $320,000—in one lump sum. So she handed the check to her mortgage company along with $70,000 from her savings. She was left with $1,250 in her checking account.
Gentinetta and McAlear immediately started saving to rebuild their property. After a year, they qualified for Louisiana’s Road Home grant and a Small Business Administration loan, and Gentinetta hired a contractor to build a new place. But the grant money hadn’t yet arrived, and the couple was stretched to the limit. McAlear, in school by day and at the restaurant by night, “was around only briefly,” says Gentinetta. “It was me and the kids living in the country on a dead-end road in the middle of nowhere. I was very lonely. A.J. and I were going through a rough patch.”