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Faith by Design

AS HOME DESIGNERS known for specializing in “downtown chic,” Bob and Cortney Novogratz can be seen applying their talents during their HGTV series, Home by Novogratz, which has added to the couple’s phenomenal success as interior designers and house flippers. Their success has brought them international fame, loads of money, and three houses scattered from New England to Brazil.

They’ve also received effusive compliments on their work, such as national publications that have praised “the design duo [who] create downtown magic” and lauded how they “have infused entire city blocks with sophistication and style.” But the Catholic pair—married for two decades and counting—looks much higher than lighting fixtures. As they raise their seven children to be religious, they also apply their faith to their work. Bob comments on the latter when he tells St. Anthony Messenger that their TV program de-emphasizes frivolous spending.

“You can have good design on a budget,” he states. “You don’t have to break the bank. Good taste and money don’t always go hand in hand. We have a European design philosophy. Americans are consumers and have too much stuff, so we use a little less stuff.” To that end, they often employ found objects, large family photographs, and unusual flea-market finds to decorate rooms.

The religious side of the family has occasionally been displayed on their TV series, which originated on Bravo and moved to HGTV. One episode, for example, dealt with the Baptism of their seventh child in a house crowded with relatives, friends, celebrities, and a priest.

Cortney’s blogs on their room designs are often packed with words like “chic,” “pop,” and “bold blasts of color,” but she is equally enthusiastic in talking about prayer, Church, and faith.

Love at First Sight

The Novogratzes came to their religious views from two different directions. Both were born in the South, but Bob traveled widely in Europe as a youngster because his father, a West Point graduate and Army officer, was assigned to various postings on the continent.

Bob jokes that “we probably saw every cathedral in Europe. I came from very old-school Catholics. My grandparents went to church every day; both of my parents went to Catholic school through high school.”

In contrast, Cortney grew up a Southern Baptist, surrounded by friends named Jennifer. She jokes that she must have known 20 girls by that name and had to resort to nicknames—Jen and Jennie, for example—to keep them straight. As a result, she and her husband have invented unusual monikers for their kids: Wolfgang, twins Bellamy and Tallulah, Breaker, Five and Holleder (also twins), and Major.

“I knew right off the bat that I wanted unique names,” Cortney declares. “We chose names that meant something to us. Breaker Morant was an Australian movie about a Renaissance guy who was a poet and could break wild horses. Each name has some kind of meaning for us.”

The couple first met at a party, and “it was love at first sight,” Bob recalls. As their relationship grew and marriage was discussed, the couple realized they wanted to share the same religion.

“We figured that we needed to have a foundation for kids and something for them to grow up believing in,” Cortney says. “I didn’t always agree with everything Southern Baptists taught. The Catholic religion encompassed more of our beliefs. For us, the fact that our children are Catholic and own it is who they are. That’s important for them: to have something to believe in.”

She adds that Catholicism “is more accepting of people’s thoughts and more embracing of everyone—people who are struggling or have some kind of issue or problem.”

Bob jokes that another factor could have played a role in their choice of a denomination.

“I was one of seven; we have seven,” he notes. “People laugh and say, ‘It’s got to be they’re Catholic.’ Cortney likes the whole idea of a big family and the community of that.” But he adds, “We’ve quit; we’ll give the Duggars the title. Seven is a lot.”

Besides not wanting to reach that level, Bob notes that he and his wife now have their attention on raising their growing brood.

“The teenage years are upon us,” he explains. “As we say, the puppies are becoming dogs, and they’re a little tougher.”

“Every age is a learning curve for us,” Cortney adds.

A Sense of Community

The Novogratzes have firm ideas about how to bring up their children.

“We try to raise our kids with the same middle-class values [we had],” Bob says, including working hard and doing well in school. He adds, “They’re polite. The worst thing someone could say to me is that my kids are rude or spoiled.”

To assure good grades, Cortney and Bob regularly assess the educational needs of their offspring and choose the proper venue for each one. Since “each kid is different,” as Bob puts it, one child is currently homeschooled while three attend private schools. Five and Holleder go to a Catholic school, where, he says, their matching tendency toward wildness can be tamed by discipline.

Seeing to their children’s religious development is another primary goal.

“All the kids were baptized in the home, which is not traditional,” Bob says. He adds wryly: “My father for years said, ‘I don’t know if that’s official.’ We’re probably liberal in that sense. The older ones have received their first Communion in church and been confirmed. We have big family gatherings for that. I run a youth basketball organization out of our church, so we’re pretty involved in the parish.”

Sundays find the family worshiping near their homes, whether that means Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the Big Apple, or Trancoso, Brazil. Most often, it is at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City.

The Catholic idea of community—in their houses or in their churches—is something the Novogratzes emphasize. In a blog entry about their Brazilian house, for example, they wrote: “Over the past few years . . . we have gotten to know many of the people who work and live there. Whenever we entertain, be it a dinner party or an impromptu beach BBQ, we invite neighbors, storekeepers, people we have met on the beach, as well as friends we have in town. This is a great way to meet fun and interesting people when traveling or vacationing. You never know whom you might meet.”

“On a given day, we can have 40 people walk through our New York home: teachers, students, friends stopping by from all walks of life,” Bob says. “It’s an open-door policy. I think the one thing we love as Catholics is having a sense of community, which we want to give our kids as well.”

People who stop by don’t have to guess the faith of their hosts. “We have a lot of crosses in our home,” Bob confesses. “There are religious artifacts throughout the house. You definitely know we’re Catholic.”

Accentuate the Positive

Cortney addresses faith and their family when she says, “We have a 14-year-old down to a 2-year-old, so my kids aren’t always getting the full benefit of what going to church can be. But what they do get is that they are memorizing the prayers, hearing the songs, and, for a minute, stopping themselves from arguing with a sibling.

“Just for an hour, they are in a calm, peaceful place, even if they’re daydreaming or dozing off. You keep repeating that through a childhood, and there’s only good that comes from it.”

Cortney calls Sunday Mass not just a time of worship, but also a time to decompress. St. Anthony’s is beautiful, she says. “To me most churches are because you feel a peace and calmness when you enter them. I feel blessed when I see a beautiful church, whether it’s a modern one or one that’s 100 years old. For me, my house and my life are so chaotic and busy that I need an hour of quiet calm and a peaceful time.”

Such religious devotion, the pair admits, places them apart from their social set.

“In New York,” Bob observes, “it’s sad not to see a lot of young families in church. We don’t see our friends or peers there. We march to a different beat. People respect our beliefs; maybe it’s not for them.”

Cortney agrees. “It’s unfortunately the times we’re in. I don’t say they are not spiritual persons, but they just don’t take the time to worship. Maybe they do yoga and find that that’s spiritual.”

She adds, “The Church definitely has had its problems, but I try to emphasize the positive parts. It’s got tradition, and it’s strict in the ways we need. Also, [Sunday is] a time to rejoice and celebrate.”

Bob believes that living their faith might inspire their friends, noting that his parents’ example led some of their friends to convert.

“We never said a lot; we just lived our lives,” he notes, recalling his childhood. “Good Catholics live their lives and hopefully people get it. I’m kind of proud of that. I try to be a good person. If someone came to me for advice, that’s a different story. But I don’t feel religion needs to be sold to anybody.”

Inspiring Designs

Since they design together, Bob and Cortney can never escape each other by going off to work separately. But the pros of side-by-side labor outweigh the cons, Cortney says.

“I definitely recommend it. We help each other, and we have the same goal in the end,” she notes. “Sometimes, we play good cop/bad cop, or if one of us is tired, the other one picks up the slack. When we are successful, we have someone to celebrate with. We have carved out a life where we are able to be with our children more, work from home, and work together.

“We’ve been doing it for 20 years now. It’s been wonderful. That doesn’t mean we don’t have bad days or need a break from each other,” Cortney admits. “Most people juggle career and family. They see us [on TV] juggling the same kinds of issues. We enjoy every minute of it.”

That joy shines through their TV program. Bob says, “We want to show America a lot of interesting ideas. Some they might love and some they might not, but we give them some they might possibly have never seen before. We always try to be a little different. There are a million great designers out there, so you have to have your own look and taste.”

Cortney is pleased when viewers follow their advice, right down to adding oddly colored appliances.

“Some of the nice comments [we hear] are that we inspired people to use bright colors in their homes, which is nice,” she says and adds an example: “We used a pink stove in a kitchen, and a woman stopped me in an airport and said that she did as well. That was pretty neat.”

Catholic Chic

Given their expertise in design, it might be expected that the couple would be eager to apply their talents to sprucing up a church. But they demur.

“I feel like you can’t beat the old-school churches. Don’t touch them,” Bob comments. “I love the old stuff: the crosses, the statues, the smell of an old church. People ask us, ‘What’s your dream job?’ We say, ‘To design a hotel in Paris,’ but we would never take it because we couldn’t do any better. If you have a beautiful church, it would be sacrilegious to touch it.”

While Cortney agrees, she does have one idea for improving Catholic worship: “I would change the music. The Catholic Church isn’t known for amazing music. When I go to friends’ services, you can feel the joy in their churches.”

Assessing the couple, their work, and their children, a London newspaper dubbed the Novogratzes the “coolest family in the world,” a designation that Cortney says is hard to live up to.

“I think it means that we do what we love to do for a living, live life the best we can, and follow our moral compass. We love our successes, but we don’t take them that seriously. We take a lot of risks and keep trying to challenge ourselves to move forward. We really enjoy our lives, and I guess it shows.”

 Parish the Thought!

Father Joseph Lorenzo, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in the Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Tribeca neighborhoods of New York City, has developed a joshing relationship with the Novogratz family.

“Their taste is a little eclectic for me,” he says. “I tease them and say, ‘We’re Franciscans here and, therefore, not accustomed to elaborate decorations. They kind of live a life opposite to mine.”

As noted on its website, the family’s parish, founded in 1866, has a number of distinctions: “the first Italian church in New York, the second Italian church founded in the U.S., the oldest existing Italian parish in the U.S., the first church building built by the Italian immigrants.”

When asked whether the family’s fame distracts Sunday churchgoers, the priest laughs and says, “We have other celebrities in the parish, some more famous than Bob and Cortney. People are very respectful of them all. They don’t cause a stir.”

Father Lorenzo credits the couple for their contributions to the parish.

“Bob is involved in the athletic program. We closed the school and were trying to utilize the gym. He helped with that and still does. The whole family is involved with religious education. They’re also friends of mine who are a great couple and a great family. The children are very respectful. They’re a nice group of people.”

James Breig is a veteran writer for Catholic newspapers, magazines, and books. He now authors a syndicated media column for dozens of Catholic  papers.