Second Acts: Designing a New Life

Karina Gentinetta spent 13 years as a lawyer, but antiques were her true love. Now she’s turned her eye for quality into a business

by Margot Dougherty
woman couch image
Gentinetta among some of her restored pieces. She discovered her talent for furniture design after Hurricane ­Katrina destroyed her home.
Photograph: Cedric Angeles

To buoy her spirits, she pored over design magazines, imagining how she’d furnish her new home. On weekends she hit thrift shops and flea markets looking for pieces she could afford on her shoestring budget. “It was the only way I could keep the hope and faith that I would be able to come back to New Orleans,” she says. The owner of her favorite consignment store showed her how to use paint, wax and glaze to refresh a piece while respecting its history. Initially, Gentinetta’s interest was merely aesthetic. “I thought, How can I make something look like a million dollars?” she says.
At night, while the children slept, she spread her paints and project pieces on the kitchen floor, experimenting with coats of the milky blues and soft whites and grays that would become her trademark, sanding here and there to achieve a look of distressed elegance. The hobby was therapeutic, symbolic even, as Gentinetta breathed new life into the dilapidated castoffs. She stored her finds in the garage of the Covington cottage until it was packed so tightly, nothing more would fit.

Family issues continued to distract her from the practice of law, absorbing her time as well as her energy. Life with McAlear had become increasingly tense (he would later be diagnosed with ADHD and successfully treated with medication). Her father had gone blind, and Gentinetta was helping to take care of him. The cumulative demands took a toll, and Gentinetta lost her biggest client. “I had my moments when I’d just cry,” she says. “But on the outside, I had to be OK for A.J. and the kids.”
Meanwhile, the couple suffered a series of construction disasters. The first contractor Gentinetta hired for the new house ended up way over budget. The second ran off with a $95,000 down payment from their grant money. With each defeat, Gentinetta readjusted her design. “There were times when selling the lot and moving somewhere else seemed like the easiest and fastest way to get back on my feet,” she says. “But I stuck it out.”

With McAlear still in accounting school and waiting tables, “we were so frugal,” she says. “It was, Don’t spend, don’t spend.” All along, though, she continued to dabble in furniture rehab: “I’d look at a piece and imagine, If I sat on this chair every day for 100 years, what part would get rubbed off? I wanted to get better and better.”

Finally, on New Year’s Day 2009, after more than three years in Covington, the family moved into the four-bedroom cottage they now call home. That week, McAlear landed an accounting job that paid $45,000 with benefits. The following month, Gentinetta’s father passed away. His death was a blow, but it delivered a revelation: Life is too short to spend it doing something that drags you down. In April 2009, Gentinetta gave up her law-firm partnership to work on an hourly basis. A month later, they parted ways. “It got to a point where I couldn’t stand what I was doing,” she says. “I wasn’t afraid of losing anything, because I’d already lost everything.” She spent the summer devoting herself to her kids. “It was unbelievable, the quality of life I got back,” she says. “My sisters were saying, ‘You’re really good at this furniture stuff.’ But what was I supposed to do? Put the pieces outside and say, ‘Here! They’re for sale!’? That’s when I started doing my research.”
She heard about a nearby antiques mall and rented space there to sell her pieces. She had posted them on Etsy​.com as well, and it wasn’t long before two side tableswere snapped up. Gentinetta was ecstatic. “They were beautiful, with cabriole legs that I’d painted a sage green,” she says. “I’d bought the pair for about $50 and sold them for $650. I couldn’t believe I could make so much money doing something I adore!” She was more ecstatic when, during the payment process, she realized the buyer was Courtney Love Cobain: “I thought, I’m on to something!”

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