Modern Man

Modern Man

Written by Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04
Photography by Don Hamerman

David Netto ’92 was shopping for a crib for his daughter, and he was dissatisfied. It was 2002, he was an up-and-coming interior designer with handsome homes on both coasts, and there was not one crib on the market that fit his modernist aesthetic. Everything he saw was cheaply made, overly ornamented, and obviously disposable. In other words, junk.

So Netto did what anyone would do. He grumbled, dithered, and then handed over his credit card for baby furniture he didn’t really like. For most people, the story would stop there: They would live with the charmless items for a few years and throw them in the trash once the kids got older. But Netto was just getting started. The world needed sleek, luxurious, modern baby furniture, he decided. And he was going to give it to them.

Even when he’s wearing comfy Ugg boots in July, Netto manages to look like the kind of person who has mastered the rules on exactly which blazer buttons to leave undone. He has the casual poise of someone reared on good taste. Which he was. He grew up on the Upper East Side, his father ran a high-end textile business, and apartment layouts and furniture choices were perennial conversation topics among the fashionable adults who visited the Netto home. Like any normal kid, David found this talk completely boring. He was fascinated by cars and ships and engineering, though, and took “a Jules Verne-level interest in design.” (This hasn’t changed: He still loves looking at fancy cars on the Internet, and cites his Vespa as an example of a perfectly designed object.)

He first experienced the power of good design at age 7, when he devised a shelving system for his room. “I had utopian ideas about how it would change my life,” he says—“and it did.” He could reach the bookshelf from his bunk bed, he had a nice spot for doing homework, and everything had its place. The shelves gave him what he now tries to give his interior design clients: a “whole new life order.” He contends that, despite the current fascination with home design in shelter magazines and on cable television, many people just don’t know how to arrange their homes to best suit their lives. His job, he says, is “to give them what they didn’t know they wanted.”

Despite this auspicious beginning, Netto’s path to becoming a designer was a meandering one. He relished Sarah Lawrence, where he studied art history and film and had as much fun as possible. His don, film faculty member Gil Perez, was impressed by his architectural knowledge early in their First-Year Studies class: “He was the only student who knew what egg-and-dart molding was.” (It’s a design carved into Ionic columns—and if you’re wondering why they were talking about classical architecture in a film history class, well, that’s Sarah Lawrence for you.)

Netto still speaks warmly of Perez, who “played a quasi-parental role in my life,” as well as Bill Park, with whom he studied art history. At a loss after graduation—“I didn’t want to leave”—Perez and Park convinced him to apply to graduate school, and he went to Columbia for a master’s degree in architectural history. Still unsure of his course, he then studied architecture at Harvard, but dropped out after two years, for the simple reason that he didn’t want to be an architect. “I was feeling my way along a wall,” he says, “trying to find something between being an art history teacher and an architect.” That something was design.

Back in New York City, he set up an interior design shop at the architectural office where he’d been working during graduate school. The fact that he hadn’t studied interior design didn’t bother him—in his view, design is either in your blood or not; it can’t be taught. His own meticulously well-dressed apartment served as his portfolio, and rich friends who admired it became his first clients. He would start the design process with a fantasy, imagining the people who would live in the new space. Then he would create a beautiful environment for those characters, mixing antiques and modern pieces, emphasizing the warmth of their books and collections, and always finding a place for a funky lamp or two. (He has a minor obsession with lamps.) Within a few years his client list included Rockefellers and he was being hailed as a hot young designer in magazines like Metropolitan Home, Elle Décor, and Domino.

Which brings us to that fateful crib-shopping trip. Netto’s discovery of the dearth of cool baby furniture came at a propitious time. By then he’d worked as an interior designer for five years; he was feeling restless, weary of the service industry’s vicissitudes and eager to make a more permanent—and more lucrative—mark on the world of design. So he pared back his client list and went on “a vigilante mission to return quality to the baby furniture market.”

He started with white lacquer, rich wood, and simple lines. “I knew I wanted to use white lacquer,” he says: “It’s very happy-making, very sleek, and very practical, because it’s easy to clean.” The result was an elegant crib, dresser, and changing table made with the same care as furniture for the rest of the house. The pure aesthetics and solid construction imbue the pieces with lasting value, Netto says. Unlike other baby furniture, it need never be thrown away, which makes it relatively friendly to the environment (as does the use of sustainable woods and non-toxic finishes).

Of course, this high quality comes with a price tag to match. Each piece costs upwards of $1,500, for which Netto is unapologetic. “Netto Collection is luxurious, sensual, somewhat decadent,” and worthy of any room in the house, he says. A Netto crib is not just a place for the baby to sleep, but an anchor, both spatially and aesthetically, amid the chaos of a child’s room.

Netto Collection debuted in 2003, and his instincts about the desire for well-designed baby furniture were quickly affirmed. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jerry Seinfeld bought Netto furniture—though his most prized celebrity endorsement is from Jack Black (“I’m a huge Nacho Libre fan”). Interest in hip, upscale baby products has exploded, and modern baby paraphernalia—clothes, toys, and accessories, as well as furniture—is now widely available, although it still represents a fairly small percentage of the total baby market. Shelter magazines laud Netto as one of the pioneers of this trend, calling him “the father of modern baby furniture.”

In Netto’s Soho design studio, samples of four lines of cribs, changing tables, and dressers gleam in the light from the lofty windows, at home among the Hans Wegner chairs and cool concrete floors. Netto recently launched CUB, a less expensive line of products, and will soon introduce a line based on the more voluptuous Louis XV style. He’s tweaking designs for a low wingback chair meant to be comfortable for both toddlers and parents and is toying with the idea of designing a lamp.

Now that the nursery has been embraced as a forum for high design, the challenge for Netto is to build on his early success and make his business profitable in a lasting way, while taking the time “to enjoy the fruits of our pioneering, reckless, overspending vision.” He worries that someone else will come along and make a fortune in modern baby furniture, “while I’m this sort of anecdote, I’m the Tesla of modern baby.” But that seems fairly unlikely. Modern baby has arrived, and so has David Netto.