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Top of Her Game
After a Bravo Show And 'Sex and the City,' Ondine Karady Brings Her Style to D.C.

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

The judges on the season two finale of "Top Design," Bravo's reality decorating show, assessed Ondine Karady's rooms as inventive, playful, whimsical and ambitious. The same can be said of Karady's own Danish-modern-meets-boho condo just off Logan Circle.

Karady, who decorated sets for HBO's "Sex and the City," didn't win "Top Design." But her career is on fire. She has started a D.C. branch of her New York-based design business. She also was one of the designers invited to submit a portfolio to be considered for the job of the Obamas' White House decorator, a gig eventually landed by Californian Michael S. Smith.

"It's been crazy," says Karady, 39, sitting down (for a nanosecond) in the sunny two-bedroom condo she shares with husband James Rutenberg, a political correspondent in the New York Times' Washington bureau. The couple and their pets commute weekly between their Washington digs and their apartment in Brooklyn. "So much has happened in the last few months," she says.

Wherever Karady focuses her eye, she brings a modern, high-impact look infused with an offbeat energy. Here in Washington, Karady took the boxy apartment the couple bought in 2006 and gave it a jolt with overscale vintage lighting, bold wallpaper and mid-century modern furniture. Making the most of the 12-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, she hung big pieces of art, propped up a surfboard and stacked cantilevered Ikea shelves.

"Top Design" judges praised her sophisticated style and can-do attitude. "She did a great job on the show making her spaces look really lived-in and layered," says one judge, Margaret Russell, the editor in chief of Elle Decor. "The fact that she has been a set decorator means she knows how to conjure a place and channel someone's personality."

Karady (pronounced ka-RAH-dee) is decorating a mansion in Bedford, N.Y., for rock guitarist Warren Haynes, of the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead, and his wife, radio host Stefani Scamardo. "It's got Moroccan, American industrial, Navajo tapestries and a bit of Bollywood. It's all over the place," Karady says. Then there's a 19th-century townhouse on the Upper West Side for a family of five. Locally, she's working on a house in Chevy Chase.

Karady's background is steeped in European tradition and iconic 20th-century design. Her father, a chemist and woodworker, emigrated from Hungary. Her mother, an architect, was born in Estonia. Karady grew up in Mountainside, N.J., where "our house was constantly under construction," she recalls. She and her mother designed prom dresses and elaborate birthday cakes.

Her fascination with the 1979 movie "Kramer vs. Kramer" was a first hint at a future career. Karady, then age 10, fell in love with the clouds on the walls of the little boy's bedroom. She painted cloud murals in her bedroom with her mom. After graduating from New York's Barnard College in 1991, she moved to Los Angeles to get into the movie business. Working in set decoration for several movies, she found her calling.

She moved back to New York in 1994. In 2002, she landed a job with a show whose glamorous interiors became part of 21st-century American pop culture. She joined the team of set decorators for "Sex and the City" for seasons four, five and six. "It was a really great job," Karady says. "We had very generous budgets, and it was high-end, cutting-edge design."

At the same time, friends began calling for design advice. Actress Molly Shannon became her first interior design client. "I found my style to be very versatile from being a set designer," Karady says.

When the "Sex and the City" run ended in 2004, she was given the chance to buy pieces from the sets. Those became the design core of her Logan Circle condo. The minimalist oatmeal living room couch came from Charlotte York's pad. The pony-skin bench appeared as a piece made by Carrie Bradshaw's onetime flame, Aidan Shaw. The billowing silk curtains had hung in the penthouse of Vogue editor Enid Frick. And then there are a couple of illustrations from another of Carrie's loves, Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky.

Karady and Rutenberg's 1,050-square-foot apartment had a bit of a bare, industrial feel at first; she says she had to "add personality." A large open area combines the living, dining and kitchen functions. She has infused this space with spots of color and favorite vintage furniture, such as a Danish rosewood dining table, Arne Jacobsen's 1950s egg chair in cranberry and a Harry Bertoia 1950s welded steel Diamond chair that belonged to her parents.

A fan of dramatic wallpaper, she used it in the bathrooms and bedroom, and she papered the den in a black-and-white design of tree limbs and birds (Blackbird by Cavern Home). She bought area rugs at Ikea, including an off-white graphic cut-pile rug for the window corner of the bedroom. This cozy spot, which they call the reading lounge, is lined with kilim pillows and folk dolls.

As she finished decorating the apartment a year ago, she was chosen as one of 13 contestants on the second season of "Top Design." They filmed the 10 episodes last spring in boot-camp conditions. Designers were kept sequestered in lofts in downtown Los Angeles. "It was like living in dorm rooms," Karady says. "No sleep and no privacy. It's crazy stressful." She literally let her hair down on camera when schlepping shopping bags, spray-painting tables and outfitting bunkers. Her final design, a three-bedroom townhouse done in three days, had a pair of fuchsia sofas and a black-and-white wallpapered room that gave her the idea for her D.C. den.

Karady is still figuring out Washington. She likes the Georgetown Flea Market, Daniel Donnelly's modern classics in Alexandria and the vintage finds from Miss Pixie's on 14th Street NW. Can she persuade button-down Washingtonians to mix it up? "There seem to be a lot of formal houses here; people are more conservative in their taste," Karady says. "I can do tradition, with an edge and a bit of a sense of humor."

Karady told the judges on "Top Design" that if she won, she would use the $100,000 prize to open a store in Brooklyn to showcase her own furniture, fabrics and wallpapers. She has ideas for expanding her design connections in New York and Washington.

"Ondine did very well, but the fact that she didn't win is no reflection on what her brilliant future is," says Russell. "I can't wait to see what she does next."

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