AFTER GROWING UP IN NORTH JERSEY, HGTV’S STAR COUSINS JOHN COLANERI AND ANTHONY CARRINO ARE NOW SHARING THEIR TALENTS WITH AMERICA
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSKI
Before the emergence of media outlets like HGTV and the Food Network in the mid-1990s, chefs, interior designers, and contractors beyond Bob Vila and Julia Child were largely unknown. Today, constellations of stars in those fields have become celebrities with their own shows, books, product lines, and legions of fervent fans.
Count among them two popular Garden State cousins, whose rugged good looks, affable personalities, and skill with saws and décor have made them household names. So, how did John Colaneri and Anthony Carrino ultimately find outlets in the shows Kitchen Cousins, Cousins Undercover, Cousins on Call, and now Grand Design on Ellen Degeneres’s digital network? The tale starts in 2010, when a friend asked to tape the cousins for her production company. After a year of shopping the tapes to various outlets like HGTV (Home and Garden Television) which was seeking a kitchen renovation show, the network reached out and asked Colaneri and Carrino to film a pilot. Kitchen Cousins soon debuted.
The pair fit the bill. They began working in construction with their own fathers and uncles in Hudson County as teens. (Carrino and his father started their own business, Brunelleschi Construction, in Jersey City.) The cousins grew up in a close extended family and spent much time together as kids, including attending Ramsey’s Don Bosco Preparatory High School for a time. Carrino graduated from there, as well as from Babson College in Massachusetts. Ramapo High School alumna Colaneri is a Penn State grad who joined the family construction firm circa 2004. While HGTV bills Carrino as the builder, with Colaneri as the designer of their on-air team, we asked them to detail their roles a bit more.
“The shows give us those labels, but we are a team and bounce ideas off each other for everything,” Colaneri said. “We both love design and construction. That is why we can do some of the crazy projects we’ve done. We have been co-designing and building for nine years now.”
“Our titles for TV are just that, titles,” Carrino concurred. “We work cooperatively. We both design, and both build.” Their television success resulted in the closure of Brunelleschi Construction, but both still work for private clients.
Their televised home construction projects, seemingly completed in under an hour, are in reality much more complex and fraught with challenges, especially time constraints, the cousins revealed. All their shows follow fast-paced schedules; projects on America’s Most Desperate Kitchens, for example, were finished within four days to meet production deadlines. On Cousins Undercover, where some 100 people descended on residences to surprise deserving homeowners, jobs were completed within three days.
“It was insane,” Colaneri said. “We would have so many people all over the place, it was hard to keep track of them. The work never stopped, and things always got done on time. We would stop shooting around 7 or 8 at night, then other construction crews would come in to take over to make sure things were completed.”
While the pair is famed for using reclaimed materials and cutting-edge design, the explosive growth of HGTV has turned many of its series into showcases for sponsors’ home-related products.
“If a specific advertiser has bought into the show, you use their products, but for the most part, the majority of the products are our decisions,” Colaneri explained. “We have a budget we need to stay within, so sometimes it can get tricky. Cousins Undercover and America’s Most Desperate
Kitchens are 100% paid by the network, sothe homeowner doesn’t put in any money. It is like hitting the lottery!”
“The nice thing is that the brands that work with HGTV are quality brands, so we are always happy to use those products,” added Carrino.
Being on HGTV and television in general, “pushes you as a designer to keep doing better,” Colareri said. “Average is not good enough if you want to keep exceeding your last design. The rush of these shows is the challenge you throw at yourself to have a design millions of people will love.”
The cousins have been judges on a number of design shows, too, and even faced off on Family Feud with the wildly popular Property Brothers’ Drew and Jonathan Scott, with winnings going to charity (the cousins beat the twins).
“One of the best parts about HGTV is getting to know the other hosts,” said Carrino. “Everyone actually works, or has worked, in their field, and everyone I have met and hung with are real and genuine people. The Property Brothers are always fun to work with. We all like to keep it loose on set.”
“We have a great relationship with Drew and Jonathan,” added Colaneri. “When judging other HGTV experts, you know they know their stuff, so you want to see them come up with ideas that take you by surprise. We designers can be our own toughest critics.”
Currently burning up the Internet is Grand Design on Ellen Degeneres’s ellentube.com. The cousins’ relationship with the comedian began five years ago during Kitchen Cousins, and solidified during work they teamed on for first responders’ damaged homes post-Superstorm Sandy.
[Home + Design]
“Doing the special episodes with her were emotional and action packed,” Colaneri said.
“We love to help and so does she—to be able to work with her on an original digital series like
Grand Design is the next evolution of our relationship.”
The cousins completed ten episodes, plus a Christmas special in which they refresh one room for a deserving family in 24 hours for $1,000.
“When John and I brought this concept to the Ellen team they loved it,” said Carrino. “For us it was important to show people that good design is attainable on a budget.”
They also make a point of staying in touch with many of those they have helped over the years, including exchanging Christmas cards and notes through social media.
“To hear that a project we did changed lives is very humbling and makes me realize I really do have the greatest job in the world,” Colaneri said.
On the Home Front
Among the cousins’ high-profile clients are Vanessa Williams and her brother, Chris, make-up artist Jeannie Mai, actor Alfonso Ribeiro, and chef Robert Irvine, on the Food Network show Restaurant Impossible.
Carrino now lives in an 1892 former police headquarters in Jersey City he acquired when the city put it up for bid prior to his television career. His 60-page proposal prevailed over other developers; his father purchased the property, and they applied years of skill in restoring and renovating architecturally significant urban buildings to convert it over the course of 18 months. The structure began as the state’s first NY/NJ Bell Telephone switching station, evidenced by antique phone equipment in the lobby.
The 37,000-square-foot building was converted into 16 lofts, one belonging to Carrino. Two restaurants occupy the ground floor. The design presents an industrial-chic aesthetic, allowing rough, natural materials to shine, balanced by sleek Italian kitchens and polished concrete floors. (Over 10,000 original bricks were re-utilized for the project.) Green features include formaldehyde-free insulation and tankless hot water heaters in all units. With floors three feet thick, adaptive re-use challenges included moving mechanicals like plumbing and electricals.
Carrino’s top-floor loft is 1,200 square feet, with 18-foot ceilings and a 600-squarefoot roof deck featuring a shipping container converted into a cabana and art studio.
A married father, Colaneri lives in Ramsey in a “contemporary barn” he renovated with his wife—one that features an impressive outdoor kitchen.
“We wanted to create a space that was warm and inviting, but had those contemporary elements I love,” Colaneri said. “I have so much reclaimed wood inside…all over 200 years old and from a barn in Ohio—the home is something people take notice of and love.”
Its outdoor kitchen features a 42-inch low-maintenance Coyote grill, a smoker, refrigerator, Dekton countertops, and Danver cabinets.
“When I build something, it has to look great, but also be functional, and those were the priorities when it came to building that outdoor kitchen,” Colaneri said.
Regarding kitchen design trends for 2017, the cousins say mixing and matching natural materials like metal, wood, and stone is on the upswing. Colaneri particularly likes eliminating upper cabinets and replacing them with exposed shelves and backsplashes up to the ceiling. Colored appliances are on the rise, too, as are clients’ desires to have unique, personalized spaces.
Dealing with sudden fame and public recognition was a challenge at first, but the pair eventually acclimated. They’ve come to accept some negativity as well, particularly on social media—recognizing that it comes with the territory and is best ignored. Observed Colaneri, “Not everyone will love you, and I’ve learned that’s okay.”
“The first time you get recognized is definitely interesting and catches you off guard, but being recognized for something that you do that you are passionate about makes me proud,” Carrino said, adding that their favorite projects involve military veterans and cancer survivors.
“These are the true heroes in this country, and to be able to help them is one of the greatest and most rewarding things I could do,” Colaneri said. “When you see the struggles that so many go through in life, you understand how lucky you are. If you can pay it forward, that is what you must grasp onto…to help as many people as you can.”
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