Beauty and whimsy.
That’s the combination that has fueled the success of the Danbury home decor duo Michael Partenio and Stacy Kunstel, whose company Dunes and Duchess has become a favorite source for interior designers all over the country since they launched their business just over five years ago.
The inspirations for their pieces run the gamut from the nautical, beachy lifestyle Michael and Stacy both love, to such offbeat references as the sexy stiletto-heel silhouette in one of their candelabras.
Shelter magazines ranging from Better Homes & Gardens to Coastal Living have taken notice of Dunes and Duchess, along with the Oprah Winfrey’s powerhouse O.
Just back from the mammoth fall furniture exposition in High Point, N.C., the couple still seemed to be adjusting to the growing popularity of their brand. The large workshop behind their office is best described as organized chaos, with Dunes and Duchess staff working on tables, benches, sconces and the candelabra that put the business on the design map.
You don’t have to spend much time with the pair at their Brookfield headquarters to see that they really like to have fun with their work — and each other — and enjoy laughing about the surprising turn their life together has taken.
Before the crash of 2008, Michael was a busy professional photographer and Stacy was juggling as many freelance magazine stories as she could schedule. Suddenly, the assignments dried up, leaving the couple with a lot of time on their hands, and bills to pay.
“Michael has always been a maker, but I had never really made anything,” Stacy says, with a grin.
“Of course, I had a romantic view of us making things and giving people jobs,” she adds of her post-crash fantasizing, but it was Michael’s 20 years of experience as one of the main photographers for the Ethan Allen furniture company that started the couple down a new road. Why not make something that would look snazzy in a home-design photo layout?
Fooling around with his tools and some wood one day, Michael made a few spindly candelabras that caught the eye of a designer friend.
“These are really cool,” the friend said. “You should sell them.”
The designer steered Stacy and Michael to the annual New York Gift Show. Armed with 12 candelabras — two versions in three different colors — they were a hit. “We sold ‘em all,” Stacy reports, still looking slightly amazed by their immediate good fortune.
Michael smiles as Stacy explains her first thought after the gift show. “OK, we have to go home and make more stuff!”
Much of the business still rests on those classic early pieces, but with Stacy and Michael visiting several home furnishing shows every year, they have to keep refreshing the line. The name of the business derives from Michael’s lifelong love of beaches and a time when Stacy was known as “the Duchess of New Hampshire.” (It’s a long story.)
One of their first big hits after the candelabra was a sconce that “totally took off,” particularly among clients who owned inns.
“It gives you the ability to put lots of colors on a wall,” Stacy says, pointing out some orange and red beauties headed for a resort in Florida.
“It’s much like fashion where you have to do something new every six months. Now when we go to a show, we create a whole world,” Stacy says of the room sets filled with Dunes and Duchess pieces.
People still love the hand-turned maple candelabra with a wide range of laquer colors. Michael says, “We still sign and date all of those” and proudly notes that Harrod’s in London took four of them recently.
“Everything we do is really a riff off that original candelabrum,” he adds. “We take that form and then ask, ‘Where else can we go with it?’<TH>”
Word of Dunes and Duchess’ quirky pieces spread quickly and the couple now works with many designers, including a big project they are putting together with Thom Filicia (the interior designer from the reality series “Dress My Nest,” “Tacky House” and Filicia’s launching pad, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”).
Looking around at the flurry of activity in the workshop and Stacy’s office piled high with orders and different pieces ready to be shipped, I remark that she must be a master of organization.
“I have no time-management skills at all,” Stacy says, laughing, “I just jump in and go to work every day.”
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