A designer of distinction

“If you love your house and you love your environment, that’s true luxury,” says Denise Balassi, founder of luxury design firm Spaces of Distinction.

Celebrating 25 years in the design field as well as a recent name change, South Salem-based Spaces of Distinction — originally known as Interior Consultants — is a multifaceted design firm specializing in high-end, luxury residential and hospitality design. 

I am sitting with the firm’s president and lead designer, Denise Balassi, in the not too shabby kitchen of a patrician 9,000 square-foot Greenwich mansion, the home of one of Balassi’s clients, a house that she first worked on 15 years ago and where she has just finished a magnificent, yearlong renovation. Despite a power outage following a major mid-summer storm, there’s great coffee to drink and a tray of freshly baked muffins and mid-morning cookies to enjoy, thanks to a generator and a gracious hostess. And electricity or not, there’s no shortage of mood lighting to set the tone, but frankly, the natural light flooding in through the kitchen and football-field-sized family room windows gives us all the light we are going to need or want. 

After studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she got her interior design degree, Balassi went to work in Manhattan, putting in time with two commercial design firms before taking a break to have a family. She returned to work full-time when her youngest child reached school age and worked at first for a residential and commercial design business in Westport before going out on her own two years later.

Although the business has changed and developed over the years, many essentials remain the same. She has a core team of just three. Her design assistant, Sage Bardani, is fully proficient in CAD (computer-aided design -— the thrilling, computer-generated constructions you see on TV design shows, more of which later,) while the business would not run, says Balassi, without her amazing office manager, Judy Romano, who has been with her for 13 years.

Sophisticated clients know what they want, and Spaces of Distinction knows how best to meet their demands. The tech-savvy team uses the latest CAD and 3D modeling software and is exceptionally skilled at space planning, architectural detailing and interior design, from creating initial floor plans to placing the last decorative detail. 

Covid-19 has meant incorporating new safety features into home design, as well as repurposing existing rooms, and the three colleagues are absolutely up to the task. The new protocols, meanwhile, are going to have to fit seamlessly into the big picture. For instance, Balassi just received a request for a mudroom that will allow people to sanitize themselves on entry, which is to say hand sanitizer and wipes at the ready, a comfortable bench to change into indoor shoes and somewhere to drop clothes for the wash, as soon as you get inside the door. “The pandemic has really prompted people to rethink their homes,” she says.

Balassi works not only in the tristate area but also in Massachusetts, the Carolinas and Florida. Good planning and excellent organizational skills see projects completed on time and to the clients’ complete satisfaction, with their highest expectations not only met but often exceeded.  Although a recent commission in Saddle River, New Jersey — which Balassi refers to as the project from hell, not altogether jokingly — certainly had its challenges, even that was successfully concluded, leaving a happy and satisfied client at the end of it.

For any project, a great contractor is key, says Balassi, supported with weekly or bi-weekly site meetings.

“People don’t understand the process until they go through it. They don’t understand how time-consuming it is, how expensive it can be if you don’t do it right the first time around, and how important it is to find those right professionals to get you from point A to point B.” She adds that while some people can handle a major renovation alone, for others the process is completely overwhelming, and that’s where she comes in. 

On a tour of the Greenwich home — which includes a sumptuous library, a dream bedroom suite for a teenaged son and even an indoor kennel (with an inbuilt food and water station) for the much-loved family pet — Balassi explains her unique approach. “We’re basically psychologists,” she says. “When you get to design someone’s personal living space, you get to know every little nuance — which child excels in this, which child does that; the work habits of the parents; is there a nanny in the house; are there grandparents to consider?”

Meanwhile, I’m keen to know her thoughts on HGTV and the endless diet of home-improvement and DIY we viewers are continually fed, and for which we seem to have an insatiable appetite. Have they been helpful? She shrugs. They have, she says, but in one sense only, and that is opening people’s eyes to what can be done. “You have this tiny house, say, and “Property Brothers” or “Love It or List It” comes in, and they knock a wall down here or build something there and it shows people all the possibilities which would never have occurred to them.”

Where the shows fall down, however, according to Balassi, is that they put out the false message that major renos can be done in just six weeks, or that a dazzling, new, state-of-the-art kitchen can be installed for $20,000. While this by no means detracts from the overall entertainment value of the shows, it is nevertheless hugely misleading. Balassi puts it simply: “Their budgets are very unrealistic. And what you don’t see on the camera is a lot.”

At Spaces of Distinction, they listen carefully. As they work with clients for one, two or even three years, she and her team get to meet the extended family and develop a clear understanding of their lifestyle. “We are more than consultants and decorators. We’re designers and creators, who offer our clients a timeless home environment.”

Back in the Greenwich all-white, all-bright kitchen, with its two vast islands, top-of-the-line Lacanche stove imported from Burgundy, France, and its adjoining, midnight blue butler’s pantry leading through to the formal dining room, Balassi is keen to point out that a smaller space might have its challenges but can absolutely have “distinction,” too. Her own 1,800 square feet condo, she says, is just one example, somewhere she has worked creatively to utilize every spare square inch. 

And indeed, right now, she is working on a 1,500 square-foot condo in Charleston, renovating the kitchen and enlarging the master bathroom. And in a changing marketplace, where people are valuing their personal space more and more, she has recently renovated four homes, two in Kiawah and two in Palm Beach, converting them for use as rental properties. One, which was formerly the Palm Beach home of Lily Pulitzer, was a poorly laid-out 1920s plantation-style house. It is now a swish seven-bedroom stunner that rents for a not-to-be-sneezed at $125,000 a month. 

Interestingly, while Balassi’s homes would all seem to be luxurious, her own definition of luxury has more to do with comfort and ease of living than with size, “You know, people live in ‘smart’ homes and it causes them more stress than it does anything else,” she says. And modern technology, as used for instance in “luxury” five-star hotels, can be a curse as well as a blessing, she observes. The Greenwich homeowner agrees. “We spend a lot of time away, and when we come back from the airport and walk in through the garage door, I say to myself, ‘I love my home.’”

Balassi enthusiastically concurs. “If you love your house and you love your environment, that’s true luxury,” she says.

For more, visit spacesofdistinction.com.

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