The Home Designers Who Actually Move In

The Home Designers Who Actually Move In

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And there would be napkins and towels and dishes, along with a welcome note written in pencil on a Post-it: “We hope you love everything in this house as much as we do! Here’s to years of memory making. Love, Jersey Ice Cream Co.”

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The Live-In Designers

CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

With their camera-ready good looks and extreme method, Ms. Mangini, 33, and Mr. Bright, 32, seem to have tumbled out of a hipster reality show: “The Homeless Home Designers.” Their company name, Jersey Ice Cream Company, is courtesy of an antique embosser they bought at Brimfield on their second or third date.

In the last four years, the couple has camped in (or near) eight houses, performing their meticulous D.I.Y. design mostly throughout the Berkshires and the Catskills, but also in Long Island, N.Y., Tennessee and London. Lovingly chronicled by Design Sponge, Remodelista, Lonny and Apartment Therapy, they have become design-blog superstars.

As Dr. Rachael Bedard, Client No. 3, said: “I was following them on Remodelista and I couldn’t figure out: Were these people famous and expensive and inaccessible or just weirdos from Philly? Were they humans or some kind of reality show?”

Outside of reality TV, their methods may be unique in the interior design profession. It’s hard to imagine Mario Buatta or Nate Berkus spending three months sleeping on a mattress in a corner of a client’s farmhouse in New York’s Hudson Valley scraping up old linoleum with a putty knife, or cooking chili in a makeshift outdoor kitchen.

Ms. Mangini, elfin and energetic, was once a nerdy teenager, she said, who was voted most likely to be president by her New Jersey high school classmates. She and Mr. Bright, a lanky classics major who burned out on a Ph.D. track and then discovered a talent for graphic design, met just after the recession, in Philadelphia, where he had grown up.

Mr. Bright had been laid off from a job in advertising (and she had quit a job in advertising), and both were struggling, existentially. He was collecting unemployment and fixing up a rowhouse he had bought just before he was fired; Ms. Mangini was waiting tables.

Two weeks after an epic (and out of character) first date, that lasted more than 12 hours and involved the World Cup and many whiskey shots, Ms. Mangini said, they decided to drive to Brimfield to shop for his house.

“All our friends were like: ‘No, not a road trip! It’s going to be over!’” Ms. Mangini said. “But the whole week we were like: ‘What if we had an Etsy shop? What if we had a store and did our own designs?’ By the end of the trip we’re like: ‘We’re doing it. And it’s going to be called Jersey Ice Cream Company, because we found this seal.’ We’re reusing everything else. Why not reuse someone’s name?”

Back in Philadelphia, they styled sections of Mr. Bright’s house with winsome touches like a row of antique theater seats. They painted a bathroom wall with chalkboard paint and, in place of the real things, drew an ornate mirror, a soap dish with soap and a glass filled with a toothbrush and toothpaste. They sent photographs of these elements to Design Sponge, which posted them almost immediately.

When they moved to a sublet in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for eight weeks and decorated it with their Etsy wares and flourishes, like a wall hung with pastel-colored ribbons, Design Sponge posted that, too. (With two million daily visitors from all its platforms, the 12-year-old site can be a marketing powerhouse for unknown designers.)

It was an accident that led to their first design-camping gig. While racing to move her parked car, Deborah Billinge, now 62, had fallen down the stairs of her Brooklyn apartment and broken her leg. She and her three teenage children had just moved, her husband was in Europe and Ms. Billinge was surrounded by unpacked boxes and hobbling on crutches.

Design

She saw Mr. Bright and Ms. Mangini’s sublet makeover on Design Sponge and wrote them: “Maybe you could help me?” And after they did, winningly, she wondered, “Maybe you could help me upstate?” she said recently, recalling the episode. Ms. Billinge and her husband had bought a farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, closing on the place while she was still in the hospital. She had seen the house only twice.

“I sent them to pick up the keys, and they moved in,” said Ms. Billinge, who is a landscape designer. “Because I do gardens, I understood that you can accomplish more when the owner isn’t around. I gave them free rein. I had no choice, but I’d also seen what they could do. They would leave little notes, ‘We’ve finished this with love.’ It was all very, very emotional. And what a joy to not have to make those decisions, like, if you spend $30 more, you can get this faucet.”

When the house was finished, after five months of live-in work, it featured what would become Jersey Ice Cream Company signatures: smoky plaster walls, reclaimed wood furniture made by Mr. Bright, a farm-style kitchen with an apron sink, and curated objects and dishware.

Except for a plumbing emergency, a new door frame and a botched floor refinishing (which they ended up fixing), the couple did all the work themselves. It is an exquisite renovation.

“It’s a D.I.Y. ethos with impeccably modern taste,” said Grace Bonney, the founder of Design Sponge.

A word about money. Ms. Billinge had a budget of $45,000, out of which the couple paid themselves a scant few thousand dollars each, even though the job took the better part of five months. They have since learned to charge for their time and materials, as other designers do.

In late 2013, Dr. Bedard, a geriatric and palliative-care doctor in Manhattan, and Gideon Friedman, 33, a real estate developer, bought a 220-year-old farmhouse in Earlton, N.Y. “We wanted to do something fantastic,” said Dr. Bedard, 34.

Since college, the couple had a fantasy about a communal living space for family and friends they called the Magic Egg. In Earlton, they had found their egg.

“Tara and Percy came over for lunch,” Dr. Bedard said. “We made macaroni and cheese, and we just really liked them. At that point, they were still basically homeless, and they moved in upstate and lived there on and off from January to June. It was totally nuts: They moved walls, knocked out closets, laid in floors, built beds.”

Between jobs, the couple traveled: yoga training in Costa Rica, hiking in Argentina, a motorcycle tour of Vietnam. Early on, they had turned Mr. Bright’s house into an Airbnb workhorse, but a few years ago, he sold the place.

Is there a trick to getting Jersey Ice Cream Company to take you on as a client?

They have to like the house, Ms. Mangini said, and they have to have the time, since the method is serial. A compelling narrative helps.

Gary and Karen Schneider, owners of the Canaan, N.Y., cabin, said they emailed them “our sob story.” Mr. Schneider had been working in finance for seven years in Pittsfield, Mass., while his wife and their three daughters lived in Rochester, N.Y., and the cabin, though small, was going to bring the family together at last.

The more personal an inquiry is, “The more of their story they’re willing to expose, the greater the likelihood is that a job will work out,” Ms. Mangini said.

This year has been complicated and something of a watershed, as their practice has veered into more traditional design territory. Some new clients have asked for millwork plans, which meant hiring an assistant with computer skills.

Finding a place to sleep between jobs has been stressful. For the last five years, Ms. Mangini and Mr. Bright have been living out of suitcases, juggling three storage spaces in two states, and shuffling clothes, antiques and objects.

“We had a kind of breakdown,” said Mr. Bright, and in June rented a one-bedroom apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It’s now filled with 20 chairs, more or less, a mattress and not much else. By late September, the two had spent less than two weeks there, and not at the same time.

That same month, Devin Friedman, 44, the editorial director of GQ (and no relation to Gideon Friedman), and Danielle Pergament, 42, the executive editor of Allure magazine, booked Ms. Mangini and Mr. Bright to build a new kitchen for their late 18th-century farmhouse in the Berkshires. “They are so funny and so brash,” Mr. Friedman said. “And their aesthetic is so great: If you were cool, you would have this stuff in your house.”

But just as they were about to start, Mr. Bright came down with a nasty respiratory infection.

“Percy can barely walk, he’s laying on the table,” Ms. Mangini recalled, “and I’m like, ‘It’s cool. We got this.’ Percy’s like, ‘I have to go to a hospital.’ And, fun fact: I don’t drive.”

Mr. Bright recovered, the couple made a Brimfield run in July, and by early August they had finished Mr. Friedman and Ms. Pergament’s kitchen (Mr. Friedman was particularly impressed with the accessories: succulents in weathered clay pots) and were knee-deep in the Canaan cabin.

They had more help than usual: Amber Jane Eaton, 24, who had become a fan from following them on Instagram, drove from Crane, Tex., to work free.

Ms. Mangini and Mr. Bright are pining a bit, they said, for their leaner days. In a few weeks, they will return to a complicated job in the Hamptons, after having spent late August and all of September working on a lovely shingled house in Rockport, Me.

In Long Island, an architect is involved, along with a landscape architect, a lighting designer and the owners themselves. “It’s made us appreciate how we normally work,” Ms. Mangini said. “It’s so weird having clients have the final say in everything.”

The job has also made them realize, she said emphatically, that they do not want to become a traditional design practice or morph into a larger company.

A few months ago, when they were in Philadelphia working on the new studio apartment Mr. Bright had bought to run as an Airbnb, they posted this rather mournful Instagram update: “Back to basics today and it feels so good. Just two kids, some orbital sanders, dirty chambray shirts and TGIF pizza guiding the way.”

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