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

Love Cobain also bought a $700 pair of antique chairs inlaid with mother- of-pearl. The sales inspired Gentinetta to set a new goal: to be accepted as a dealer on, where she could command top dollar. “The process was like getting into a small club,” she says. One requirement was that she have a storefront. She gave up her space in the mall and opened a shop on Magazine Street. Then she badgered 1stdibs nonstop. “One thing I am,” she says, “is persistent.”

It paid off. Gentinetta was accepted on the site in February 2010, and when 1stdibs opened its New York showroom, she was one of only 56 dealers (out of the 1,200 who work with the site) asked to set up a display. Since then her business, Disegno Karina Gentinetta, has grown exponentially, and she has amassed a team of local and overseas artisans. There’s the Russian sculptor who repaired a rabbit marionette that Courteney Cox then bought from Gentinetta, and two artists in Italy who make Murano glass fixtures. In New Orleans, there’s a woodworker, an upholsterer and a metal fabricator who constructs iron chandeliers from Gentinetta’s designs. (She then gilds them in her kitchen, applying paper-thin gold leaf and layers of glaze.) “I ask a lot of questions,” Gentinetta says. “I guess it’s the lawyer in me—I used to depose people. If a guy comes to hang a chandelier, I’ll ask him, ‘What’s the best crystal?’I learned how to splice the wires so I can repair them. I want to learn things.”

Chandeliers have become a specialty, as Gentinetta’s client Mindy Schapiro will attest. Schapiro wanted one for her Georgian-style home in Baltimore. Her requirements were so precise that Gentinetta had the chandelier custom made in Italy. “She keeps her sources secret,” Schapiro says. “Karina knows her antiques, and she also knows how to find pieces that look old, not like reproductions. She just has this eye.”

Gentinetta is still earning considerably less than her lawyer salary, and she admits she finds it hard to set prices. “I get carried away, and I feel guilty about charging when I’m having this much fun,” she says. “I hate asking for money!” Early in her new career, Gentinetta spent hours calling sources and searching online for a wood refectory table. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she says. “I was so good at it in law. Sure enough, I found this gorgeous 18th-century walnut table for $18,000.” Gentinetta sent photographs to the client, who said she wanted the piece but asked if Gentinetta could get the price down. She did: As a designer, she got a $5,000 trade discount.


Furthermore, the shipping fee would be minimal. Final cost for the client: $13,000. Deal! “I’m happy, happy, happy,” Gentinetta remembers. “The dealer’s happy—she made a sale in 20 minutes. It’s not until I go to bed that the lightbulb goes off: My client got my trade price. And what did I get?” She had forgotten to add a commission. “I wasn’t used to people having that kind of money to spend on a table,” she says. “It was my first time seeing what someone was willing to pay for a one-of-a-kind antique.”

Starting her own business has brought its share of self-doubt. But for Gentinetta, reinventing her career was a soul-saving move that allowed her more time with her children and a chance to express her creativity.

McAlear lost his accounting job in July 2010 but found work as a sommelier and waiter. He has always supported Gentinetta’s career change, and she’s hoping to return the favor. “He’d love to be in the restaurant business. That’s where his heart is,” she says. “One day I hope I’m successful enough that we can focus on him. I’m seizing moments more than I ever have—I jumped off the cliff, and everything started falling into place.”

Margot Dougherty is a writer and -editor who lives in Venice, California. She profiled Madeleine Stowe for the June 2012 issue.

Running the numbers
$700/Retail price of a yard of Gentinetta’s favorite Fortuny silk in the Vivaldi 5687 pattern

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