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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.