On speed dial when décor advice and gear trends for infants, babies, and toddlers is needed, this New Jersey baby whisperer creates inspired spaces
by Gilda Rogers • Photos By Alan Barry, Christine Farah, and Chris Veith Photography
Dancing with the Stars dynamic duo Peta Murgatroyd and Maksim Chmerkovskiy sought the services of interior designer Vanessa Antonelli prior to the birth of their son, Shai. Ditto Kevin Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, along with his wife Danielle, who availed themselves of the imaginative creator’s fashion-forward nursery design services.
However, Antonelli’s style comes with a disclaimer: Those in the market for a run-of-the mill nursery with obligatory explosions of primary colors, choo-choo trains, or Mickey and Minnie Mouse appliques should be forewarned that this is not her forté. Instead, this designer’s philosophy is: “You’re bringing the baby into your [the parents’] world and the room should fit into the parents’ lifestyle.”
Antonelli has become known as “The Baby Stylist,” and her room designs have been featured on HGTV and in national magazines and online media. Among other famous clients are Lacey Chabert, Kendra Wilkinson, and Rosie Pope, and she advances markedly different ideas about spaces; what she does to a baby’s room can be described as tastefully decadent, like a delicious piece of chocolate—striving to give clients a champagne and caviar look within a proseco budget.
“I focus on the needs of the parents and what their nurseries will likely look like or need to accommodate in five years…how the room can be best transitioned over time,” she said.
When it comes to playrooms, the married mother of two relies on her own experience to give clear direction.
(“I understand how many toys kids have, so I get more creative with storage,” she explained.)
Antonelli graduated from Rutgers University with a journalism degree. While working with a celebrity booking firm in 2003, she travelled to Los Angeles with her boyfriend, Jordan (now her spouse). While in line waiting to get into an event, a young lady in front of them was wearing what Jordan characterized then as a pair of unusual boots. Antonelli knew a good thing when she saw it, however.
“Those are going to be the next big thing,” she recalls saying. Prophetic words indeed, because Antonelli had recognized the dawning craze over the Australian brand, Ugg. Once back home, she convinced her parents to buy $30,000 worth of the footwear on their credit card, then sold them via internet auction sales at $300 to $1,200 a pair. She repaid her parents, and launched an e-commerce website solely dedicated to selling merchandise worn by celebrities.
“Between 2003 and 2008, people would buy anything a celebrity was wearing,” she explained. Market savvy and intuitive, she took notice of another shift in purchasing trends when stores like H&M and Forever 21 emerged. As the recession hit, Antonelli shifted gears again.
“I spent two years researching home and baby gear, but never planned to do nursery design,” she said, and elected to become a brick-and-mortar entrepreneur in 2010 with the first NessaLee Baby in Manalapan—intending to sell strictly baby gear, until a friend urged her to add furniture to the inventory. In time, she moved to a new Manalapan location on Route 9 (increasing from 1,200 square feet to 6,000), scaled back on clothes, and increased baby furniture offerings, creating a showroom in the process.
“I’d give customers suggestions on how to style their room,” she explained, “offering a service…a specific kind of niche.”
Word spread, and she opened a second showroom in Livingston. The store there boasts the most au courant baby merchandise available, including the latest in functional, easy-to-use, and collapsible strollers (such as the sleek, futuristic $1,400 Mima Xari model seen on Snap Chat when
Kourtney Kardashian and her kid take a stroll). An actual track with different simulated street surfaces was installed in the showroom, too, so parents could test maneuverability.
From ornate, diminutive chandeliers to a playpen that converts to a changing table, from ergonomic baby carriers to décor, travel items, toys, books, and music—essential, surprising and innovative products in all categories await discovery at NessaLee Baby—many gratifyingly devoid of the pastel hues long standard in the infant industry. Instead, Antonelli’s color palette often includes black and chrome. Her décor pieces draw from 21st-century styles, like acrylic high chairs that have replaced Little House on the Prairie-style wooden seating.
“I look for unusual things that make a nursery look almost like an art installation,” she said.
The distinctive niche this interior designer carved out has also propelled her to become a sought-after consultant for product manufacturers seeking feedback on what customers want now and will crave next.
With additional asset of being camera-friendly, Antonelli has been approached by television producers to create a show of her own, but declined after realizing, as she explained, “They wanted to change what I do.” The babies’ habitat style maven, already a recognized trendsetter, added, “[Instead] I foresee a private label of products and my own furniture line.”
Harkening to her early entrepreneurial days, the brand extension guru still carries items bought by celebrities, but today they lean toward strollers, toys, and other children’s necessities. The NessaLee Baby website offers, for example, a giraffe teether bought by Elton John for his kids, the crib mattress favored by Halle Berry, and bassinet sets selected by Matthew McConaughey and his wife Camilla Alves.
Not letting celebrity status affect her mission to serve all clients, Antonelli maintains a playful, humble spirit and a simple joy for creating environments that fill needs.