Dunes and Duchess: Turn , Turn, Turn
July 7, 2016
A creative couple takes the handcrafted furnishings world by storm, one hand-lathed spindle at a time.
Text by Maria LaPiana
If ever a couple seemed wired to run a business together, it’s this one. Entrepreneurs to the core, Michael Partenio and Stacy Kunstel are Dunes and Duchess. They’re both intensely visual but with complementary skill sets. Partenio is an artist with the mind of an engineer (she lovingly calls him a geek), while Kunstel is a visionary with an uncommon eye for design. She’s the storyteller who dreams up many of the fanciful ideas that he, a gifted woodworker, brings to life.
Purveyors of romantic lighting and home furnishings since 2010, Dunes and Duchess (the company) is known for its traditional influences and modern vibe, as well as its impossibly high-gloss lacquer finishes. Its hallmark feature—lathe-turned wood spindles combined in artful ways—graces every one of its chandeliers, candelabra, sconces, frames, benches, dining tables, and more. Kunstel and Partenio dream up, sketch, build, finish, and ship all of their merchandise out of a 3,500-square-foot shop in Brookfield.
The two worked together for years—he as a photographer and she as a stylist and writer for interior design magazines (including New England Home, where Kunstel is homes editor)—before their relationship blossomed into romance. It was actually a sweet gesture that inspired the new partnership. They were working on location in Florida when Kunstel fell in love with a vintage Napoleonic-era candelabra. Partenio later thoughtfully made one like it for his favorite stylist: “It was the first ‘I love you’ gift I gave her,” he says. It was also the start of something big.
Curious to see how the piece, along with two variations, would play to the market, they took a space at the International Gift Show in New York City in 2010. To their sheer surprise, they tallied up $35,000 in sales by the end of the show. It didn’t hurt that a buyer from Gump’s in San Francisco placed a large order, but Dunes and Duchess had attracted the attention of designers, and the word spread quickly.
Six years later, they’re working with the likes of designers Amanda Nisbet, Jamie Drake, and Thom Filicia. They collaborated on a Mabley Handler showhouse room, and have been featured in publications such as House Beautiful, Coastal Living, Elle Decor, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others.
“From the start we got a lot of traction with social media,” says Partenio. They post frequently, sharing images and ideas with thousands of followers. “We like to post interactive stuff, showing our lives, too,” says Kunstel. “We want to be as authentic as possible.”
The company is evolving, producing more streamlined pieces, many of which are larger in scale, including stately floor lamps and outsize sconces. “All of our designs are derivative,” says Kunstel, so there’s no telling where the next idea will come from. “I take huge inspiration from fashion colors and structures,” she says. “We’re starting to think of matte finishes, softer tones,” she says. “And we live in New England, so there is all of that inspiration, too.”
They pride themselves on being an American company. They source North American maple and oak, and all of their turned pieces are made to order by woodworkers in the Buffalo, New York, area. They use as many local services as they can and do everything else in-house. Partenio developed the lacquering process they use to create their finishes.
Kunstel is a natural marketer who’s passionate about everything they do. “We know every piece intimately,” she says, and every detail matters. The logo, for example, had to be “nautical and royal,” and it is. “With its swoops and an infinity symbol, it sends the right message,” she says.
And the name? Kunstel was living in New Hampshire when the couple started dating, and Partenio often spoke glowingly of her to his teenage sons. In jest they started calling her “The Duchess of Hampshire.” It stuck. Partenio has always loved the beach, so he was dubbed Dunes.
The couple never imagined how consuming this joint venture would be—nor how rewarding. “We’ve never worked harder in our lives,” says Kunstel with a satisfied smile. “It’s funny, but now when we go on a photo shoot together, it almost feels like we’re on vacation.” •
Dunes and Duchess