Tara Mangini and Percy Bright, the couple behind the influential interior design company Jersey Ice Cream Co, have spent the best part of a decade moving from job to job and living in the houses they’re working on. Tara talks to Jessica Jonzen about their unique approach
BARE PLASTERED WALLS, HANDMADE CABINETS AND VINTAGE FINDS ARE THE JERSEY ICE CREAM CO DESIGN SIGNATURES. IMAGE: NICOLE FRANZEN
Anyone who’s lived through a house renovation probably still feels an eye twitching when they recall the noise, dust and general chaos. The silver lining with building work, of course, is that you get the reward of a beautiful new home at the end of it. But imagine doing all the work, getting the house exactly as you want it – from the paint colours and the furniture to the art on the walls and the cutlery in the draws – and then handing the keys over and moving on to the next building site?
That’s precisely what Tara Mangini and Percy Bright, the thirty-something couple behind the influential American interior design company Jersey Ice Cream Co, have done for the best part of a decade. As the self-proclaimed ‘homeless home designers’, the couple’s USP was that they themselves were of no fixed abode.
They would live in the houses they renovated, which allowed them to understand the property and what it needed to look its best. “When we went to look at our first project in Upstate New York, really out of necessity more than anything else we thought ‘ok, we’ll live up there and work on it’ and that kind of became this trademark of how we work,” says Tara.
Their design signatures of artfully plastered walls, reclaimed wood and vintage furniture have made them the design stars of Instagram and Pinterest. Their pared-back style led to them renovating the homes of chef Skye McAlpine and the hugely influential cook and photographer Beth Kirby, whose beautifully plastered walls you’ve no doubt swooned over yourself.
CHEF SKYE MCALPINE’S LONDON HOME AFTER ITS JERSEY ICE CREAM CO RENOVATION. IMAGE: SKYE MCALPINE
With no formal training but a natural eye for what works, their designs are purely intuitive, taking a house back to basics. The couple does 90 per cent of the work themselves, only calling in help for plumbing and electrics. “Percy’s really handy and does the plaster work and cabinetry but we’re both very involved in the overall design,” says Tara. “I do pretty much all the sourcing – lights, furniture, kitchenware and a lot more of the finishing work. Percy’s the big picture person and I’m the details person.”
When you look at the images of Tara and Percy’s projects you can almost hear the walls breathing a sigh of relief as decades of bad paint jobs are replaced with the unembellished beauty of bare plaster. Stripped of the glitz and gloss of the modern renovation, Jersey Ice Cream Co’s houses are subtle and elegant, as though they finally look just as they should have done all along.
PERCY BRIGHT AND TARA MANGINI AT ONE OF THEIR PROJECTS. IMAGE: TRISTAN SPINSKI
But their methods are extreme – they want to be able to move in, or live nearby, and have full creative freedom. The reason, says Tara, is simple: “When we’re working and living in the space, have creative freedom and are doing the whole thing ourselves the whole thing is enjoyable. We can respond to what the house needs and it feels very natural – making decisions is easy and the whole thing feels as it should do.”
The couple have tried working in more conventional ways and found themselves frustrated by how computers and middle men slowed things down. “When we try and work this other way on a computer, sending plans and trying to get furniture approved it’s a struggle. We’re not traditional designers and if that was the only way we worked that would be really tough for us. I always want to say to the client ‘you’re wasting money! You hired us because you like our work, if you just let us do it we would be finished already but now we’ve spent two months just trying to agree on something,’” says Tara.
THE BALLROOM, A BATHROOM AND BEDROOM AT MINWAWA, A SPRAWLING HOUSE IN THE MOUNTAINS IN THE HEART OF NEW YORK’S CATSKILL STATE PARK, RENOVATED BY JERSEY ICE CREAM CO. IMAGES: NICOLE FRANZEN
The couple started their business through accident rather than design. They met in Philadelphia in 2010, and Percy had just been made redundant from his graphic design job. “I was waiting tables and had no idea what I wanted to do – design wasn’t even on my radar,” Tara admits. Having just bought a house, Tara suggested that they should go to the famed Brimfield antiques flea market – the US equivalent of Sunbury Antiques Market – to shop for his house. It was there that they found an antique stamp which bore the company name ‘Jersey Ice Cream Co.’ Their business was born.
The couple decided to start sourcing and selling antiques through Etsy and sent the pictures of their transformation of Percy’s home to interiors blog Design Sponge to see what they thought of their work. “They featured the story which was the most exciting thing. We were like ‘oh my god, people believe that we’re designers, this is so exciting!’” After lots of small jobs, the realised that they wanted to have more control over where the beautiful antiques they sourced ended up.
They put a line up on their website about their dream job being one where we’re just handed the keys and given full creative control and a woman emailed to hire them to spruce up her new home in Brooklyn. “She’d broken her hip and had also bought a house Upstate so she suggested trying us out in her Brooklyn house and if she liked it, she’d hire us for her other house.” She loved what they achieved with the slender budget of $5,000 and they were hired on the spot.
THE KITCHEN AT A NEW BUILD PROPERTY IN MAINE TRANSFORMED BY JERSEY ICE CREAM CO. THE ZELLIGE TILES ON THE BACKSPLASH WERE LEFT OVER FROM A PREVIOUS PROJECT. IMAGE: TARA MANGINI
Having worked around 15 house renovations since that first commission back in 2012, how do Tara and Percy cope with living on site? “When we say we live where we work, some people understand that we carve out a space for ourselves, or there’s a room that’s fine with running water and there’s a kitchen so we can work in a way where we can still maintain some sanity,” says Tara.
And then there are the clients who took the fact that they live where they work a little too literally. After two weeks transforming Skye McAlpine’s home, Tara and Percy moved on to another British project and were in for a shock. “They are barely mid construction – there was no plumbing, no bathroom, no kitchen, no bedroom, no windows and they were like ‘you guys said you sleep on the job site.’ We were like ‘we’re not animals! We’re down for some dust but are you guys kidding?’ Their response was ‘that’s what you said – there’s a public bathroom a couple of blocks away.’ That was a tough situation.”
AN AIRBNB IN ST LEONARDS RENOVATED BY JERSEY ICE CREAM CO. IMAGES: FIONA WALKER-ARNOTT
Tara and Percy now have an apartment in Brooklyn and recently bought an old farmhouse in Parksville, Upstate New York, which they are renovating and planning to either rent out or sell, which signifies a gear change for their business. “We wanted to find a house where we could do things with our own hands, make decisions, manage the budget and enjoy the process of designing the house. Fingers crossed we can make money from it so we can do another one and start rolling things out that way which will work for us way better.” Don’t they want to put down roots of their own? “Not yet. I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe.”
Having had so much success from their work being shared on Instagram and Pinterest, Tara feels conflicted about what the platforms have done for originality. “I used to never look at Instagram or Pinterest and that was probably better for me mentally. It’s hard – I think you subconsciously absorb the things you’re seeing. It’s almost like you have to fight to not reproduce it,” she says. “I find it even with our friends that everyone has this feeling of pressure when they move house. They don’t want anyone to see it until it’s finished. People act like they’re designing their house for a client, like it’s a project but I’m like ‘no one is going to come in a grade you after you’ve done this house,’” says Tara.
“There’s a fear of trying stuff out and I’m not sure where that comes from. It’s nice to see someone with an imperfect space – it’s stressful when someone’s house is pristine and everything is in place. It doesn’t make me feel good about myself – is that what you want? Just enjoy it. Get a house you like for you – not to put on your Instagram.” So after travelling the world from project to project, what’s next? “We’re finishing a huge commercial project in Soho, New York and working on our own place,” says Tara. “That for us is the dream job. Creative freedom is worth so much to us at this point.”
Discover more at jerseyicecreamco.com
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