Sam Allen’s Designer Genes

Talking with new talent in the field of interior design.

On a recent drive from Connecticut to the Vineyard, nineteen-year-old Sam Allen and his mother, Leslie, a well-known designer and stylist, spent much of the ride discussing fabrics, to the dismay of Sam’s sister, Phoebe. (“My sister was rolling her eyes. She wanted to talk about something like politics,” says Sam.) A lifelong seasonal resident of the Vineyard, Sam first impressed Sofya Nadelstein and Molly Finkelstein five years ago when he began working at Nochi, their Vineyard Haven boutique. His design drive and talent gained him entry to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and he became the youngest person ever to intern there. Sam recently finished his freshman year at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. However, given the rapid ascent of his new design business, Sam Allen Interiors, he’s decided not to return as a full-time student this year.

Martha’s Vineyard Magazine contributing writer Kate Feiffer recently sat down with Sam at his family’s summer retreat to find out more about this burgeoning young talent. Their house, and a smaller guest house, sit tucked away in a secluded section of West Tisbury, where both structures have served as canvases for three generations of a family that possesses a strong sense of design and style. Sam’s grandfather Leonard Leibman worked closely with the architects and builders; his grandmother Roberta decorated the main house and worked with Leslie on the guest house.

The following is an edited assembly of their chat.

When did you realize you had an interest in design?

At a young age. My mom has been an interior designer for, I don’t know, over thirty years, and a stylist and contributing editor at multiple home magazines like House Beautiful and Country Home. I would come home from kindergarten, get off the bus, to photo shoots going on. I would always rather stay home than go to school. I knew that I was young enough that she wouldn’t leave me at home, so I would get to go to her clients’ houses with her.

And when did you start exhibiting your own sense of design?

I would have play dates with my friends and I would leave all the kids playing in the basement and make my way upstairs with the moms and rearrange furniture with them and move throw pillows.

How did you end up working at Nochi?

My mom was in town one day shopping and she said, “Sam, I have to take you to Nochi. You are going to die.” She had told the owners about me. She said, “My son is going to flip when he sees the store.” I was instantly obsessed. I said I have to work here. When I started working, they saw my work ethic and how I was willing to be there however early every day, breaking down the boxes, putting them in their car to take to the dump. They taught me how to do flower arrangements. I really bonded with both of them, with merchandising. They would always love to hear my take on redoing the store window and moving all the furniture around. They saw that I was a really good sales person and thirty-, forty-, fifty-year-old women were taking fashion advice or home advice from a kid, not knowing my age. No one ever really knows my age.

In high school, you started getting actual home design work, right?

My dad has a farm stand [in Westport, Connecticut]. This woman walked in and she was venting about how she wants to change this little apartment above her garage into a hangout suite for her three daughters – to kind of have their own escape from the actual house. So my dad said, “My son is into interior design.” She said, “Okay, have him come over for an interview.” So I go over to this beautiful old house and she shows me the room. I tell her some of my ideas, walk her through it, and then I was hired there on the spot.

You must have been thrilled.

Right after I finished it, I posted some pictures on Facebook and this girl who I know said to her mom, “I saw these rooms that I’m obsessed with that Sam Allen decorated.” They were just moving into a new 7,000-square-foot house and she’s like, “Can Sam do my room?” I got this call right as I was leaving the Vineyard, at the end of August going into my senior year. I go over and she shows me the room with her mom. Then afterwards, I’m expecting her mom to walk me down the steps to the door, but she starts walking me around the rest of the house. “This is what I want to do in this room: I want to keep the headboard, if possible, but I want to change the window treatments.” I was like, I guess I’m doing the whole house. I was a little overwhelmed, but I wasn’t going to say that at the time. I was only seventeen. I was like, what person is going to trust me with a 7,000-square-foot home? Crazy. And then it all began.

That is rather remarkable.

A few days later, I got a call from another girl who saw the room on Facebook. She says she showed the pictures to her aunt. “They have a really modern house on the beach in Fairfield. They would like you to come over and look at her daughters’ rooms.” So I go over. Same thing happens. She shows me her daughters’ rooms, then starts walking me around the rest of the house – and I’m doing the rest of this house also. Within a week, I’m like, oh my God.

How did you balance all this with school?

I was taking a minimum of other classes. I wasn’t taking AP classes, like my sister is. We’re complete opposites. Luckily my school is very flexible. For free periods, we were allowed to leave campus. One woman, her house was right around the corner from school; I would set it up so I would go before school started at 7 and go right to school. My friends would go to lunch and go to town, and I would go to my client’s house. I’d be getting e-mails and texts in the middle of class asking about ottomans. It was really hard to balance school, but I still went to all my classes.

Your family’s house on the Vineyard is beautiful. I can see where you get your talent.

My mother and my grandmother are very into interior design and they decorated both the houses and I kind of shadowed them and have learned so much from them and have given my input over the years in making little changes. My grandparents have been coming to the Island for forty years. My mom is one of three siblings. My first summer after I was born, we rented a house on Pond View Farm Road, and we would, every summer, rent with my [extended family], and it became this summer ritual just like my mom had growing up. Finally my grandparents wanted to have their own home where we could all come together every August – other months also, but primarily August. So, this house was built first. They bought the property at auction, and Joe Grillo built the house. My grandfather has always been very interested in architecture and woodworking, so he was really involved with the layout of the house. It was primarily my grandmother’s taste, but a few years after, the guest house was built, and that is more of my mom’s and my taste. As I got older and realized I was more into interior design, I gave more of my input in moving things around and bringing things in from Nochi.

How would you describe your taste?

People always ask me. It’s really hard to describe it. It’s eclectic, but not eclectic in a folksy, antiquey kind of way. It’s more a mix of French-Parisian meets Hollywood glam or LA glam, but also a mix of appreciations for chrome, Lucite furniture, armoires. Kind of a blend of different time periods.

Is your taste much different from your mom’s?

My mom’s style is much more European, British, traditional. We still see eye to eye on a lot of things and have appreciation for the same things and have similar taste in some aspects.

What’s it like working in the same business as your mother?

I look for her opinion and advice about the business. She’s been in it so much longer than me, and there is so much more I need to learn and want to learn. I think people should always be learning more about their fields. There’s always more you can know. So in that sense, she’s always patient and helps me. But as far as working together, we have our own offices. There’s, from time to time, a little bit of fighting, like every family. It’s great to ask someone’s advice who lives in your family and it’s not another designer that I don’t know if they’re, you know, lying to me or stealing my idea. What I’m telling her is safe and sound.

And you know she is always looking out for you.

She does have my best interest at heart, and I forget that sometimes. I’m so happy that we can do so many things together, like going antiquing together or getting excited over nice hotel bedding.

It seems like you have design in your blood and your bloodlines.

I’m not okay for even a month being away from interior design. I want to be able to be decorating and surrounding myself with interiors. I think with interior design, you get it or you don’t. Some people are amazing at school and have other talents. That’s not my forte. School was never my strong point at all and I knew that and I was okay with that.

What did you do here when you were a child?

Go to the beach every day; we are right on Tisbury Great Pond and we take our canoe to Quansoo; Vineyard Youth Tennis clinic; golfing at Mink Meadows; and I always, even from a young age, loved working. I used to baby-sit for the people who lived next door. I’ve always been mature for my age and I’ve always liked hanging out with older people and my mom and my friends’ moms. I’ve always loved working and selling and being around housewives.

Does the Vineyard inform your sense of design?

When I come here, I think of new ideas. Seeing other homes on the Island. I love it here. It’s just so much more relaxed. It isn’t like the Hamptons. I can wear the same thing every day – who cares? The beaches, the outdoors, it’s all so beautiful. It goes into my designs, the colors even. The homes in Edgartown I love – I could look at them all day. I really love it up here. It’s my second home and always will be.

A partnership at Nochi

Nine years ago, Sofya Nadelstein and Molly Finkelstein joined forces and opened the Vineyard Haven store Nochi. Situated on the corner of Main Street and Cromwell Lane, Nochi is a little gem in shades of gray, a sanctuary for sartorially and design-minded people. “Molly’s an amazing artist and her strength was in antique shopping and decorating,” explains Sofya, “so we decided to kind of go with this theme of luxurious linens, country antiques, and flowers.”

They named the store Nochi – “night” in Sofya’s native Russian. “We thought it was original,” says Sofya, adding, “We’ve probably regretted it many times since – when people say gnocchi, like an Italian pasta.”

On a recent morning, Sofya and Molly discuss Sam Allen. The two recall their initial reluctance to taking on someone so young, but quickly call to mind his numerous strengths and dash them off in rapid tempo.

Sofya: Sam and his mom must have come to the store one year. He really liked it and told his mother that the following summer he’d love to work in a store, and the only place that he could see himself working that was worthy was Nochi, because it really appealed to his artistic sensibilities. So in the middle of the winter, his mother called and said, “I know this might sound a little strange, but my son loved your store and he would love to be an intern. You don’t have to pay him; he’s fourteen years old. We’re going to be on the Vineyard for six weeks and he’d love to work in the store.” Molly and I were mortified [laughs], because I didn’t know how to say no.

Molly: I’m a magazine nut and I was very aware of his mom as a decorator. She’s very talented herself, so I remember having cut out something many, many years ago and her two-year-old son, Sam, was in that picture.

Sofya: I told Molly that Leslie Allen’s son is interested in interning and I just hope by the time July rolls around he’ll forget all about it and we can go on our merry way. But they didn’t forget and he showed up just as he said he would. He was very responsible for a fourteen-year-old. He showed up, and twenty minutes later, we looked at each other and said, “He’s amazing. We love having him.”

Molly: All of a sudden I turned around and said, “Whoa, the refrigerator’s so clean.” And the next thing I know, there’s a ninety-year-old woman in the dressing room and she’s coming out so happy with all these clothes, and Sam had brought them to her. And then the next thing you know, he’s off getting sandwiches. And then the next thing you know, he’s saying, “You know you ought to have better music in here. Let me do this.” And the next thing you know, you’ve got much more current music.

Sofya: He would come in the morning, put his hands on his hips, and say, “I think the entire baby area has to be redecorated today.” And we would just say, “Okay, if you have the energy for it, let’s do it.”

Molly: And he can dress a mannequin really well. And when he dresses it, somebody will buy what’s on it.

Sofya: He’s an amazing folder. He folds like nobody’s business.

Molly: And he’s always hoping for famous customers. He’s so enthusiastic. He has so much talent and he picks up our game.