It was the first week of March, and interior designer Abigail Marcelo Horace was welcoming some big changes: Not only had her family just moved into a new rental home in northwest Connecticut, but she’d also left her job at a boutique interior design firm after years in the industry to start her own business. "I was literally starting fresh in many different ways," she explains.
Then came a major curveball in the form of COVID-19. Suddenly, her husband, a youth football coach, and her three-year old son, Ezekiel, were home all the time, and Abigail realized that she needed a separate space to focus and work, whether it be communicating with clients, tuning into webinars, or selecting furnishings and finishes for a new project.
The duplex the family currently lives in comprises a historic, original home and the unit they rent, a renovation completed by builder Thomas Vigeant of Cedar Creek Wood Works LLC. This meant that character-defining features, like the ceiling rafters, weren’t original to the home, but they were definitely a big draw for Abigail.
New construction also meant that the home was filled with "natural light, a great stain on the wood floors, clean trim and baseboards, a modern look, and insulated windows," explains Abigail. She ended up selecting a space off of the dining room for a substantial office for her and her husband, prioritizing practicality and affordability in some cases (the desks, for example) to suit the temporary arrangement. On the other hand, items like file cabinets and drawers that she uses every day and see a lot of wear and tear needed to be long-lasting and durable, she notes, and were worthy of a splurge.
With the new office set up, Abigail was able to refocus on her business. "I established Casa Marcelo as a means to express myself outwardly," she explains. "After working in corporate interior design for over 10 years, I felt my design style and expression were stifled. Working under other designers can do that to you." The worker-bee mentality and attendant burnout were getting to her; she realized that she was ready and able to take on projects for herself and "explore my own potential in creative, interior design solutions."
Casa Marcelo references both her maiden name and her background. "‘Casa’ is a nod to my Latin heritage and how I want people to feel when they are working with me," she says. "I want them to feel like family. Mi casa es tu casa." For Abigail, the concept of home evokes memories of her paternal grandmother and mother, "both of whom were heroines of their own stories—my grandmother raised 10 children in the rural side of the Dominican Republic, hustled in any way that she could." Similarly, she continues, her mother "lifted herself up by her bootstraps to have a career, earning two degrees and climbing out of the pit of poverty through education. Both women embody strength to me."
Behind the brand lies an aesthetic that reflects Abigail’s years of experience working on high-end residential projects in a range of styles, from midcentury-modern to rustic New England to California glam. "Most of our clients were business owners, often nearing the top 1% tax bracket," she says, which afforded her the opportunity to work with exclusive brands and materials and to see herself as an "artist and interpreter of clients’ style through our own vision."
Once she started Casa Marcelo and working with more modest budgets, Abigail realized the value of her own versatility. "While my style is definitely influenced by high-end features because of my years working in that sector, I scale it down a bit. I like mixing high and low items, but more importantly, I don’t like to impose my own style on my client," she says. Instead, her projects are successful when they reflect the personality of their owner and when the client truly feels at home. These days, her clients are typically women of color balancing life and work, and she takes on challenges like rooms that are tricky to plan or brand-new homes where the client wants to start fresh.
She’s also noticed that she’s been getting more requests for a room of repose—a place of escape and somewhere to read or meditate or just experience solitude, she explains: "I think people are taking self-care seriously these days, with so much time spent with loved ones in the home."
The pandemic has prompted Abigail to rebalance her own life, too. "My daily routine definitely changed during COVID," she says. "I was looking forward to working alone at home, but then everything was flipped upside down." She decided to ease into it, doing yoga every day at first and trying to get in some reading time, but found herself inspired by the influx of information online for entrepreneurs at the time.
Her husband going back to work was the biggest challenge, says Abigail, "because my son was still at home, and I was feeling extreme mom guilt over the amount of screen time I entertained in order to get my work done without interruptions. However, we as moms have to ‘do what we gotta do.’"
And as for how things are looking moving forward, Abigail says that "work is flowing, and I am thankful. It felt like a bad time to start a business, but it’s actually been a great time for me!" She acknowledges that this is due to a supportive husband and her "easy joy" of a child, but she also knows that a huge part is thanks to herself: "I have a lot of faith in my business because I’ve learned to be an effective leader."
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