While it does stretch credulity, I have often said that my car was idling in the football stadium’s parking lot on the day I graduated from college. Don’t get me wrong: I had a remarkable experience earning a BFA at Kutztown University. I was just eager to leave small-town Pennsylvania.
I’d studied printmaking and photography, and part of the program’s experience required monthly visits to galleries in New York City and interning with two artists practicing there. After four years of school, as an aspiring artist myself, I knew the city was where I needed to be. So, with my diploma in hand, two suitcases in the back seat, $400 in my wallet and an empowering dose of naivete, I arrived in the summer of 1983, joyfully immersing myself in all things art and design.
In those early years, I had a few fashion seasons as a young photographer’s assistant, five years creating print textiles for the apparel industry, tried my hand at decorative painting (remember when faux marble was all the rage?), and the list goes on. Then in 1997, a colleague and I opened a curtain and upholstery workroom in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, introducing me to countless interior designers, including the late David Easton and Mario Buatta, for whom I tailored curtains and built furniture. My association with these two industry legends was a complete education in itself. Come to think of it, I should write about that! But I digress.
Fast-forward to today, with me in my 60s, you could say I’ve been around the design block, and having tried my hand at many creative endeavors, I have learned many lessons. Thinking back on my professional life, I’ve concluded there is but one universal truth about design in all its forms: Design is—first and foremost—an exercise in problem-solving.
Let me give you a personal example.
In 1998, I purchased a 19th-century poultry farm in Columbia County and set about rehabilitating the dilapidated buildings. Once the house was complete, I started decorating, adopting the tried-and-true blue and white color scheme, which I intended to accent with complimentary colors throughout. Eventually, my focus turned to summer slipcovers in the living room. I wanted a striped fabric in pale blue, off-white, sage green and espresso brown. It’s a combination that turned out to be impossible to find. Then, I had an idea for how to solve the problem.
Designer: Sarah Bartholomew; Photographer: Melanie Acevedo
Because I owned the curtain workroom with a dozen seamstresses and as many sewing machines, what if I made the fabric myself? And what would it look like?
So, I set off to find 24 yards of solid sage-green linen and then for a pit stop at my favorite trimming store on 38th Street, where I purchased 600 yards of grosgrain ribbon in the shades of cream, blue and brown I wanted to create the stripe.
Back in the workroom, we carefully plotted the pattern out in white pencil on the linen and began the two-week-long process of appliqueing one ribbon row at a time until all 24 yards were embellished to create my custom fabric. With the applique work complete, we resized the linen, then cut the slipcovers, which were beautiful (if I do say so myself.)
I decided to take the idea one step further and designed 12 unique stripes with grosgrain ribbon and took them to Dominique Browning, then editor a House & Garden. With her encouragement, I established a boutique fabric line, CJ Dellatore Textile, which was sold nationally at Holland & Sherry. Things were going great until the fall of 2008.
When the banking industry collapsed, it took my textile brand with it. I know many people in the design industry who had similar experiences. I eventually filed for bankruptcy and began pondering what I’d do next.
That brings me back to the idea that design is a problem-solving exercise.
While design is intrinsic to my character, I’d not been to design school, which is what I decided I wanted to do. But how? At 50, the logistics seemed problematic at best and impossible at worst. Then it hit me.
From left to right: Literary Agent, William Clark; Author, Carl Dellatore; Rizzoli Editor, Kathleen Jayes.
Since then, I’ve published three more books for Rizzoli, with another on the way in spring 2025. I have also established a consultancy
, helping designers with content development to support their brands online, on social platforms and by project management of design monographs.
In this monthly column, I’ll share more of what I’ve learned in producing my books—and beyond—that might empower your design business.
Click here for an inside interview with Dellatore and follow his Instagram to stay updated.