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Publication Date: 2012-02-06

Behind the Design

Q&A with Frank Ponterio

Raised between two worlds by Italian parents who brought him back to the family homestead in Calabria in summertime, Chicago interior designer Frank Ponterio is a traditionalist with a pragmatic streak.

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“I was exposed to all the typical things of contemporary American life in the suburbs during the school year,” he explains. “Then I’d have this extraordinary experience on our centuries-old family farm in Italy, where everything from the furnishings to our food was time-honored and artisanal.” The experience opened Ponterio’s eyes to classical architecture, inspired his career, and informed his design perspective: “I’m grounded in the historic influences of the past, but I also look to the present and the future,” he says. “Our environments have to work in today’s world; they can’t be out-of-date in a few years. So I strive for timelessness, authenticity, elegance, and utility in everything I do.”

Q: You’re known for your ability to bring timeless elegance to contemporary lifestyles. How do you do achieve this?

A: I don’t get hung up on design rules. Instead, I try to adapt or reference elements from a range of periods. Good design is all about balance and interconnected details, no matter how subtle they are. What’s wonderful is to have aspects of a room, or a piece of furniture, that people don’t notice right away, so they’re constantly surprised when they use something again.

Q: Give me an example of what you mean by those interconnected, yet subtle essentials.

A: A room done all in period pieces can be too stiff and uncomfortable, but the contemporary elements must relate to the aesthetic. So I may combine a formal Regency sofa complete with curves and tufts with a pair of very sleek, tailored wing chairs. But the trim on those chairs will have brass nail heads and gilded claw feet, which gives them a fresh, eclectic kick.

Q: Your furniture seems to be named for individuals. Can you tell me about that?

A: I designed the Agador Sofa for a historic home built by the noted neo-classical architect Benjamin Marshall. To preserve a long view from the foyer through the living room and out to a gorgeous pool, I needed a sofa with a missing chunk. But it also had to be classical and fresh, so it’s a modified Chesterfield with glided claw feet that gives it wit and glamour. But Agador isn’t the client; it’s my German Sheppard, who happens to be quite majestic, like the sofa. And my other sofa, the Spencer, is named for our Wheaten Terrier.

Q: Tell me about your Salon Sconce. It manages to be glamorous, exuberant, and earthy all at the same time.

A: I’m glad that comes across. The sconce itself gets that unique blend of qualities from its fabrication and form. The leaves are hand-pounded and hand-forged, so they have an artisanal quality that’s both rustic and refined. But it’s also a traditional shape, and when you use them in multiples and site them strategically, they bring symmetry and grandeur to a space. They were a solution I designed for my own home, a historic David Adler cottage that was once the guardhouse to a grand estate. We also make them in myriad metals, and each fabrication really changes their aesthetic. In wrought iron, which mine are, they’re casual and elegant, but in nickel or bronze they’re really quite luxurious.

Q: What is your favorite piece in your collection?

A: My newest, the Martin Ottoman. It was also designed for a Benjamin Marshall home, and my goal was to create something elegant but causal enough to bring balance to a very classical setting. Its tufted seat is edged with brass nail heads and offset with simple saber legs, so it’s both formal and relaxed. Like my other upholstered pieces, it’s named for our family cat. So it’s time for more animals if I want to expand the line.

—Lisa Skolnik

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