How Interior Designer Taniya Nayak's Days as a Boston Bartender Helped Her Land a Gig with Ellen DeGeneres

By Nichole Bernier | April 14, 2016 | People Feature

Style multi-hyphenate, blinding beauty, proud Weymouth native—decorator extraordinaire Taniya Nayak brings intuition, (effortless) effort, and gratitude to American interior design.

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Valeska jacket ($570) and Parisa shorts ($190), Sandro. Bloomingdale’s, The Shops at Chestnut Hill, 617-630-6000. Double stud ring, Jennifer Fisher ($325). Barneys New York, Copley Place, 617-385-3300

The road to the design studio of the next Martha Stewart isn’t lined with clematis pergolas, antique equestrian paddocks, or chicken coops. Inside, there are no herb window boxes or matching bins of Good Things on every surface.

Taniya Nayak’s turf is more industrial-hip Brooklyn than bucolic Bedford. Tucked in the exposed-brick loft of an old riverfront mill in Milton, her workspace is styled with a modern, almost masculine aesthetic, monochromatic and richly textured with just a pop of bling. There’s little canning, cookie baking, or cake decorating going on—not much time for cooking when you’re on the road designing restaurants—so most of her own meals come prepackaged via Blue Apron. She and Martha may both own bulldogs, but that’s pretty much where the resemblance ends.

Today’s design world has been thoroughly charmed by Nayak, the interior designer, entrepreneur, television personality, and owner of a smile so far beyond electric that it’s nearly radioactive. She’s been a featured designer on HGTV and Food Network programs including Restaurant: Impossible and Designed to Sell and has made guest appearances on shows like Oprah, The View, Ellen, Rachael Ray, Good Morning America, and the Today show. She’s currently designing the home of Bruins hockey player Patrice Bergeron and redesigning several Ruth’s Chris Steak House locations to give them a more unique geographic feel.

And as if that didn’t keep her busy enough, she’s also the new brand ambassador for Ellen DeGeneres’s QVC décor line, where she makes scented candles and fleece-lined sweater blankets feel like irresistible must-haves (see smile, above). Taniya has the travel schedule of a superstar—she’s on the road about 85 percent of the time—but her dreams are soothingly simple: to help people marry their living environments with feeling good.

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Orvieto ivory jumpsuit, Max Mara ($1,290). 69 Newbury St., 617-267-9775. Earrings, Giorgio Armani ($1,195). 22 Newbury St., 617-267-3200. Oracle silver cuff ($400) and Peaked Three Piece rings ($175), Eddie Borgo. Saks Fifth Avenue, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617-262-8500. Wedge sandal, Jimmy Choo ($1,195). Copley Place, 617-927-9570. Diamond ring, Taniya’s own

Guests enter her studio through a nondescript industrial door. Inside: design heaven. The expansive single-room space has a flow that works on all levels: charm, mood, utility, originality. Exposed timber beams stripe the ceiling above the computer workstations by the windows. Giant wrought-iron light fixtures hang like cages glowing with steampunk-style bulbs. Bookshelves filled with design volumes and textile samples are a buffer zone, segueing to a cozy sitting area and test kitchen. Yet amid all the eye-candy and ambience, the focal point in the loft is as basic as child’s play: a giant chalkboard filled with quotes that are totally Taniya, and serve as mantras in her everyday life.

Nayak doesn’t have any tattoos. She can’t imagine getting one, can’t envision anything she’d want to see on her body year after year, decade after decade. Except maybe this word: Gratitude, possibly in Hindi. Though her mother would have to tell her what that word would be.

She moved with her family from Nagpur, India, to Weymouth as an infant, following her father’s career as an architect. Throughout childhood, she’d travel back to India with her parents and sister every few years, and be dazzled by the “insanely vibrant” culture and beauty. “I remember once we were on a long-distance train ride, looking out the window at the women taking laundry to wash in the river,” she says. “The baskets were on their heads and saris blowing in the wind—bright orange, cobalt blue, emerald green—so bright in the midst of the dirt all around them.” A deep appreciation remains for the early richness of that color dynamic—neutrals with a pop of color— that is now her trademark. “It was before cellphone cameras and all that, but I’ve never forgotten it. It’s an image burned in my brain.”

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Suede top, Joseph ($945). Neiman Marcus, Copley Place, 617-536 -3660. Leather legging, Vince ($995). Copley Place, 617-236-5535. Striped clip-on earrings, Missoni ($350). Barneys New York, Copley Place, 617-385- 3300. Metallic gold bangles, Escada ($450 each). 308 Boylston St., 617- 437-1200. Light gold disk bracelet, Oscar de la Renta ($390). Saks Fifth Avenue, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617-262-8500. Diamond ring, Nayak’s own. Cashmere suede bootie, Jimmy Choo ($995). Copley Place, 617-927-9570

In high school she loved architecture and décor, but her parents wanted to see her settled more securely in a traditional field like business or medicine. After an undergraduate degree in marketing (“not really my thing”) and several years as an account executive (“I was horrible”), she found herself dreading work every day. That’s when she glanced longingly back at her first love, interior design.

“One morning I had the realization, ‘Enough is enough. I’m too young to do a job I hate,’” she explains. “That afternoon, I walked into Boston Architectural College and applied to the program for a master’s degree in interior design.”

Attending a program with an architectural backbone offers a designer the added chops of understanding the skeleton of a client’s building. Still, she didn’t tell her parents what she’d done, at least not right away. “Most people don’t tell their folks they got a tattoo or a piercing. I didn’t tell my parents I was going back for a master’s degree,” she says with a laugh. Starting over in a new field is difficult enough, but Nayak also took up bartending as a means to support herself through school.

For 13 years—while in school and while getting her own design practice going—she supplemented her income as a vivacious mixologist at some of Boston’s trendiest restaurants and clubs, including Venu, Felt, and Pravda. (The restaurant scene is where she met her husband Brian O’Donnell, who owns and manages restaurants in and around Boston.) Though her career change made her parents anxious initially, her father was nevertheless her first and best mentor. “My folks are those beaming-with-pride parents now. It just took a little while.”

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Pavilion dress, Akris ($4,990). 16 Newbury St., 617-536 6225. Silver small Chaos ear cuff, Jennifer Fisher ($195). Barneys New York, Copley Place, 617-385-3300. Bracelet, Vita Fede ($250). Saks Fifth Avenue, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617- 262-8500. Diamond ring, Nayak’s own

There’s really no such thing as effortlessness when it comes to meaningful work, though, according to Nayak, that’s precisely what it looks like when a home’s décor is in sync with its owners. Natural. Individual. A room that says, Of course this couldn’t be done any other way—and now, there’s nowhere these people would rather be.

“There’s a lot of work behind it,” says Nayak. “The design in my head is effortless, but the implementation to get it where it needs to be—that takes work.” Namely, getting on the same page as clients, understanding how they live, what they want, reading between the lines (“because a lot of times they’re not even sure of what they want”), then sourcing the project and making sure it comes in at price point. “At the end of the day, it should be breezy and not too matchy-matchy. That’s when it looks like someone tried too hard.”

Nayak’s own career ascent follows the effort/effortless motto. As much as she’s a believer in following her gut, and as much as she loves the spotlight (“being a nightclub bartender is a lot like being on stage”), she never set out to be on television. She credits her first break to a combination of luck, putting herself out there, and extreme preparation.

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Suede top, Joseph ($945). Neiman Marcus, Copley Place, 617-536 -3660. Leather legging, Vince ($995). Copley Place, 617-236-5535. Striped clip-on earrings, Missoni ($350). Barneys New York, Copley Place, 617-385- 3300. Metallic gold bangles, Escada ($450 each). 308 Boylston St., 617- 437-1200. Light gold disk bracelet, Oscar de la Renta ($390). Saks Fifth Avenue, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617-262-8500. Diamond ring, Nayak’s own. Cashmere suede bootie, Jimmy Choo ($995). Copley Place, 617-927-9570

As she was finishing her master’s degree, Nayak responded to a casting call recommended to the student body as a learning opportunity: ABC Family was launching a reality show on designing teens’ bedrooms (Knock First), and wanted young designers to audition. They gave her two scenarios: a high-school boy who had to share a bedroom with his infant brother, and a tween girl who wanted a room that would bridge her love of being on stage and her love of reading books.

Nayak gathered “a ridiculous amount of materials” for the presentation, and because the audition staff didn’t have a table for her to use, she had no choice but to spread her collection across the floor. When she landed the part—which would lead to designing the bedroom for the son of Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry—she realized how arbitrary success could be. “The producers said afterward, ‘You know why you got the gig? Because you knew to get on the floor and get down [to] the kids’ level.’ But it was 100 percent not intentional,” she says. “I had nowhere else to put my things.” And with that, her television career was born.

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Dark spruce Beya jacket ($2,990), and dark spruce Mapon pant ($1,990), The Row. Saks Fifth Avenue, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617-262-8500. Mia Due crystal collar, Vita Fede ($590). Saks Fifth Avenue, see above. Double Organic stud ring, Jennifer Fisher ($325). Barneys New York, Copley Place, 617-385- 3300. Diamond ring, Nayak’s own

A similar thing happened when Ellen DeGeneres’s design venture with QVC put out a casting call for a brand ambassador. As she waited her turn, Nayak wandered into the staff kitchen and noticed a refrigerator clipping that mentioned the product line was pronounced ed (as in education) and not ee-dee (like DeGeneres’s initials). During her audition, she worked that nugget of information into her bit. The producers looked at one another, eyebrows raised in a “how’d she know that” expression. Effort, effortless.

For a tiny, svelte 43-year-old who spends most of her days in and around restaurants, Nayak has a surprisingly angst-free relationship with eating. Her preference is “clean food,” like quinoa and fish, but she’s capable of being “that scary eater, shoveling in food like a beast.” Her secret? If she’s going to overdo it one day, she doesn’t overdo it the next. However, the one non-negotiable piece of the food pyramid, she says with a wide grin, is chocolate. “If there isn’t chocolate at the end of every meal, someone’s going to get hurt.” Which, she concedes, just might be the best recipe for happiness. At gut level, she understands that well-being means the balance of self-control and pleasure, and focusing on what you do have rather than what you can’t. Also, sometimes, on feeding the beast.

Categories: People Feature

photography by eric leviN. Beauté: Oribe Imperial Blowout Transformative Styling Crème ($68 for 5 oz.), Dry Texturizing Spray ($44 for 8.5 oz.), Shine Light Reflecting Spray ($39 for 4.9 oz.). Mizu Salon, 39 Dalton St., 617-982-6696. Chantecaille Iridescent Eye Shade Refill in Rose Gold ($26). Saks Fifth Avenue, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617-262-8500. Sisley Phyto-Touche Gel ($95), Phyto-Lip Star in Light Amethyst ($57), Sisleÿa L’Integral Anti-Age ($525 for 1.7 oz.). Saks Fifth Avenue, see above. Styling by Lydia Santangelo of TESstylis.t Stylist Assistants: Dianna Bedrosian and Rory Patten of TESstylist. Hair by Miguel Nicolau Pires, Mizu Makeup by TAVI for Sisley Paris

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