Athena Calderone, EyeSwoon: Turning A Dream World Into A Real World
Athena Calderone creates beauty. Whether in a space, in the kitchen, while entertaining, or through the interactions with the people whose paths happen to cross with hers, she blends authenticity, playfulness, and a seriously talented eye to create beauty in all the nooks and crannies of life. When we sat in the Hamptons home she personally created from the ground up (#ThoughtsToThings), munching on a farm fresh salad, and talking about everything from Jean Georges to surfing, it felt like we were in a dream world. Best part of all? Athena's mission is to show you how to turn that dream world into your real world (did we mention #ThoughtsToThings?).
What has the journey been like to where you are now?
I don’t think that I could have ever planned, even if I tried my hardest, how to get to where I am right now. For a while, I kind of felt like I was doing things backwards or “wrong”, because I got married really young and had a baby really young. All of my peers and friends in their 20s were either going out partying or they were really developing themselves in the career space, and I was somewhat doing neither. I was a bit of a homemaker and a yogi with a little baby on my hip. I was just loving life and family was my goal. It was my everything, but I definitely struggled to figure out what my creative voice was. I knew that I had a lot inside of me that was bursting to get out, but I couldn’t really find my platform.
In my 20s, I tried on so many different things for size — whether it was singing or acting or dancing. I had all these creative outlets but none of them were really my thing. Then I fell into design and that really ignited something within me. But that alone still didn’t fulfill me and touch upon all the things I was passionate about. When I was struggling to figure out who and what I wanted to be when I grew up, the kitchen was where I sought solace and where I found myself happiest. My husband always traveled on the weekends, so I would put my son to sleep and just kind of play and riff and be creative in the kitchen. I found this artistic expression in the kitchen that I didn’t even know I needed and yearned for. I would always crank up the music and sing as I cooked by myself. I was just kind of playing. Just being in the kitchen became this thing that made me feel so full. It made me feel so realized and creative and it was really profound. I still didn’t know that it was going to parlay into a career.
For all of those years when I felt like I was doing it wrong, I was traveling with my baby. We were going to Europe and Morocco and all these incredible places, and it was feeding my eye for design. It was giving me a kind of cultural palette that I hadn’t yet found. Every step that I thought was a misstep was leading me to where I am right now. It’s such a reminder that you just don’t know what your path and what your journey is going to be, and sometimes, you just have to surrender and it reveals itself to you.
I started EyeSwoon because my friends would come over and be like, ‘People need to know what you do.’ I started a Tumblr strictly for my friends. I had just finished designing our Hampton’s house and it was dilapidated and there were gaping holes in the ceiling. It was literally breathing with moisture and mosquitos when we bought it. It was nasty. Bulbs of black mold were growing. I took so much pride in making it what it is right now. That coupled with friends asking me for recipes, I just felt like I had this wealth of design resourcing information to share with friends, plus recipes that everyone was always like, ‘Oh can you give me that?’
A friend of mine shared my EyeSwoon Tumblr on Twitter — and Twitter was really big at the time — and I was like, ‘No that was just supposed to be for my friends!’ So it was really him that gave me the little push out there. Then, this house was published in Elle Décor and I did something with Harpers Bazaar. It just felt like the right timing. I remember, 6 months before all this started happening, I was in a pretty major funk and walking along the Brooklyn waterfront with my husband just saying to myself, ‘If I don’t figure out who and what I want to be, I’m going to become a really unhappy person.’ I was really worried that I wouldn’t find my voice. Lo and behold, it was like I was being led. I feel really fortunate because what I do is really what I love.
When you're looking at spaces and designing them, is there a relationship that you feel to the space? What's that process like?
I am innately super spiritual. I really follow my intuition as far as the composition of a space and what feels balanced. I feel like a space needs to be a pure expression of your inner story — your inner life expressed outwardly. I feel that way about style in general. I feel like there’s been a movement more so now than ever in not following the rules when it comes to design. You don’t want anything to ever feel like it’s one note. You want your house to tell your story — whether it’s from your travel, or history. I don’t think it should be all modernist or all classic or all high end or low end. I think that it should be kind of eclectic and juxtaposed. It should make people curious about who this person is that settles their body into this home that grounds them. I think that your home really says everything about yourself.
Do you feel like your food and cooking has changed over time?
Definitely. I feel like there's been an awareness of sustainability and supporting local farmers. Just being brighter and cleaner and being in line with the seasons. I also feel like when I started cooking more, I started realizing all this alignment between how I design a space and how I cook and even how I dress, because I always like to fuck things up a little bit. I’m not ever there to do the obvious in a space — with how I dress or on a plate of food. I’m like, ‘What’s that shocking moment to your palette that’s a little unexpected? What doesn’t exactly work in a room but you’re kind of obsessed with it at the same time?' I feel like there’s this layering of textures and opposing elements that comes into play in almost everything that I do.
When I’m doing a space, I just intuitively buy what I love, sometimes not even knowing where it’s going to land. I feel like I used to only buy something if I knew it’s home. But I just started trusting that if I love something, it will find a place, whether or not it’s in a few years. Every room in this house has little trinkets and stuff. The day the contractors left, I just started playing in the same way that I would in the kitchen, and everything just fit. One room became kind of deeper and darker and moodier, and one was pinks and blues. I didn’t realize that I was buying little things that fit the same palette, but I guess I was.
Is that what your process in the kitchen is like too? Do you follow recipes?
I just play. When I first started, I started baking. Baking appealed to me because it’s a science — a precision. I was probably insecure, and that's something I could count on when I was just starting. At the time when I started really cooking, I feel like Brooklyn was having, and still is having, such a big food moment. I would try a dish that I’d never had before and be so inspired by it, and the next day would go out and try to recreate my own version of it. I feel like that’s what started really giving me the legs to start riffing and playing with flavors. I like sweet and spicy and briny. I like all different kinds of elements playing with one another.
I’m actually working on my first cookbook right now. I’ve been in recipe development just non-stop. When I cook, I find whatever is beautiful and fresh at the market and I just play. But now, I have to really think about what this is all going to look like on the pages, to make sure that they stand alone and stand out, but also work cohesively together.
When you were little did you have an idea of what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Not really. I studied dance in college and I knew I wanted to do something creative. I wasn't super clear. I used to sing in the back of the car as a little girl and I always just wished that someone would be like, ‘Athena you have such a good voice!’ I wanted to be discovered [laughs]. Looking back now, there’s so many things I wish were put in front of me more. I never thought to be a prop stylist or a food stylist or a food editor. I mean, maybe those weren’t my interests back then, but sometimes I feel like guidance counselors need to get on it a little bit more. Anyway, I wish I knew more when I was younger. But I’m here and I’m so happy where I am, so whatever journey I was on that brought me here is how it was meant to be.
Do you have any rituals that you do everyday? Morning practices or evening?
I love rituals. I wish I could say I was better at them. I was doing Head Space for a while in the mornings, but I’m not going to say that I do it religiously. My life has been a little bit imbalanced right now. Everything ebbs and flows. When my career wasn’t in the right place, I was Miss Yogi, practicing every morning and meditating. I’m not making any excuses, but I feel like now, the balance has shifted and I haven’t been taking care of myself as much as I should be. But it’s definitely something that I need to work on because things have felt like a bit of Tasmanian craziness.
I used to practice Anusara pretty religiously. My teacher, who also became my best friend, just left and now she’s doing her own yoga. And my friend Kumi teaches at Sky Ting downtown. When I take a yoga class now, my body just screams with joy. I’m a yogi. It’s deep rooted within me. I just need to get back into it because my nervous system feels a little fragile right now. I think it needs that grounding.
We just came back from a surf trip, and I won’t call myself a surfer, but there is something pretty unbelievable about being out there on a wave. It requires every single bit of your attention. I realize that every wave I’m on, my ego is on it with me. Then I walk out of the water and I’m like, ‘Ugh I don’t like this.’ But then I’m like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, my ego doesn’t like this because I couldn’t get up!’ Then the next day when I go back and I’m killing it, I’m like, ‘Oh I love surfing!’ It made me realize in a kind of gross way that your ego is always with you. When I’m out on that wave, I cling so tight to perfectionism and to being in control. When you’re out on that wave, you have to let go. You panic and you grasp with all your might about controlling the wave, but you can’t. It hits you and you get tumbled, and the best part about it, is that you pop back up to the surface and you're like, ‘Okay, I just got thrown, got my ass kicked, but I’m okay!’ That’s such a metaphor for life because we’re so afraid to fall and get tumbled, to get tossed and to lose control, because we think we won’t be okay afterwards — but we will be. With surfing, I can literally find every excuse not to go, even when I’m in the water. I resist it because I’m not in control, and that’s what I need most.
For my son, he use to be debilitatingly shy and timid. Even as a baby, he didn’t speak a lot. He was just an observer. He was born with a furrowed brow just watching and observing. Until he found surfing, he hadn’t yet felt like he connected to something, to himself, to a power greater than himself, to nature, or to a community. Once he started surfing, everything in his world shifted. He really found who he was. He was six when he started, so he didn’t have the words to describe that, but I saw him just so connected to nature. It’s pretty powerful. Every time I call it a sport, he’s like, ‘No it’s a lifestyle, mom. It’s not a sport.’ I love that.
What are some of the things that you've learned through motherhood that've surprised you?
In a similar way to how I was just describing surfing — raising a child really puts a mirror in front of you. I would sometimes be sitting and playing with my son, and my ADD and inability to just turn off and relax would kick in. I would find myself going to my computer or to go cook something. I was like, ‘Why can’t I just sit still and let go?’ I started to see attributes in myself through my child as my mirror that I needed to let go of in order to be a better mom and a better person and to feel more connected to myself and to him.
I started creating rituals as well. I might not do them for myself anymore, but I would always create them for my son, whether it’s bath time at the end of the night, or reading together. We would always have this thing we call “family pile up” at the end of the night. My son had a loft bed and we would crawl up and pile on top of each other and tickle one another. It just became our thing. Those are the rituals and the memories that hopefully you and your child will always have. I think that creating that sacred space for family is important.
I’ve created it for my son since he was born — we created a puja in his room, which is just a sacred altar of some kind…it can be anything. I got this little vintage African bench for him to put any special drawings and things that he would make on there. I would teach him to put it out and honor it. There was a picture of him and I, a picture of him and his grandmother. Anything that we made together. I would teach him to change it when he started school so that anything he was proud of could sit there for him to honor.
Who is a favorite interview that you’ve done, or person that you’ve cooked with?
My holy shit kind of moment was — well, theres two: one was with Jean Georges. It was crazy. He was so charming and charismatic. I was so in awe that he was even willing to set aside 20 minutes with me. I was soaking up every last bit. Afterwards, I was like, ‘Did I just hit on him?!’ I actually told him that his eyes were so captivating as we were cooking…
The other time was when I had something with Dan Barber and Bluehill — he is just everything! And really started this whole farm to table movement and awareness surrounding local, sustainable and slow, conscious eating. That was amazing. I also cooked with Peter Som, the fashion designer. I remember being so intimidated walking into his home because he’s this super successful dude, and has a really strong presence. I was walking into his kitchen so nervous, because you don’t always know what you’re going to get and cooking is so intimate. But after talking food with a stranger, you can walk out feeling like they’re your best friend and you always get something different. It’s so much fun.
I get to cook with some fucking epic chefs. It’s kind of amazing — not only chefs, but other people that love food as much as me. So many times on EyeSwoon, I walk into a chef's kitchen, or I walk into someone’s home or they walk into mine and we’re complete strangers, and then all of a sudden, we’re cooking together. Your heart is so open and you’re so vulnerable. You’re chatting about, ‘What do you love?! What’s in your fridge?’ There’s this bubble energy and all of a sudden, it’s like I’ve found my peeps. The kitchen is everything to me. It’s where I found myself earlier on, but now, it’s where I’m finding my community and being inspired by other people and learning so much. I never want to stop learning. It’s amazing to be shown by some epic chef how to chop parsley the right way.
What is your idea of legacy?
I hope that everything that I do will feels accessible. What I put out to the world right now might appear visually elevated but my hope is that I am actually inspiring people — sharing ideas that look elevated on the outside, but my goal is to pull the blanket out from under it all and expose how really simple ideas can be when thoughtfully executed. I always say, ‘Simple ideas, thoughtfully executed.’
When I started EyeSwoon, I never expected or wanted people to follow my recipes verbatim. I want to inspire people to ignite their own journey — to put their own creative stamp on it. I’m a giver and I’m a sharer. I hope that whatever I put out there, and however I’m being seen, that it excites people to set them on their own creative path, because I struggled in mine. I hope that I can actually — now that I’m rooted and I feel good about what I’m doing — that I can spread the love.