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Gay Georgetown designer says homes should be efficient and calming

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Ernesto Santalla is being honored with a minority business leader award from Washington Business Journal this month. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Walking into the upstairs offices of Studio Santalla in Georgetown on a warm, sunny spring day this week, it’s clear that different people designed the exterior and interior. You climb an almost fire escape-like set of outside steps to get to the nondescript door but upon entering the spacious office a different vibe emerges. There’s one mammoth room with a day bed and coffee table in the entry way, a conference table nearby and a fleet of desks on one side of the room while large protruding bookcases built into the walls on the other side jut outwards in perfect synchronization.

Owner Ernesto Santalla emerges from a rear corner with a soft-spoken greeting. Over the course of a nearly two-hour conversation, the unflappably calm gay architect and interior designer explains his philosophies, peppering his postulates with biographical rabbit trails and side projects that reveal a modern-day renaissance man.

Without a trace of ego, it emerges from the natural flow of conversation that he’s also a writer and photographer who speaks four languages. Even with piles of work paraphernalia around — backdrops he’s planning for the gay chamber of commerce dinner, mammoth enlargements of his photos propped against a desk — the office doesn’t look like a mess, though he apologizes for the slight disarray.

Santalla, whose work is contemporary, uses the office to illustrate one of his design principles: welcoming rooms should create a sense of calm. He points to blinds on the windows that form large white rectangles. They’re echoed on the floor in swatches of white carpet that divide the room. They appear again as doors on the ends of the bookshelves.

“It doesn’t hit you over the head, but your mind reads it and it’s unconscious and you say, ‘Oh, this is a well-organized space,'” Santalla, 49, says. “And so that’s part of how we use colors and materials to create a sense of calm. You’ve come in from the outside where you’re on information overload. In here is more of an oasis.”

One imagines — though it isn’t discussed — Santalla has been just as careful planning and arranging the intersections of lines and planes on his face. Impeccably manicured eyebrows peer above tiny but severe rectangular silver glasses. He’s a striking presence and much more soft-spoken than one might guess.

Santalla — who was profiled in the Washington Post in February and is getting a minority business leader award from Washington Business Journal this month — is a local entrepreneurial success. He and a former boyfriend moved here immediately after finishing college at Cornell in 1984. He worked for a local architectural firm for 10 years, then started Forma Design Company with his former colleague Andreas Charalambous in 1994. In 2001 he started Studio Santalla and has stayed busy with it ever since. He usually has between eight and 10 projects on the table at once. Spring and fall are his busiest seasons. He’s rebounded nicely from the recession, though there was a rough period.

“One fine day the phone just stopped ringing,” he says. “The summer had been slow, but it’s always slow. Or slower. But then people start calling in September. Well in 2008, they didn’t. And of course it kept going down, down, down, down, down until April of last year because the luxury business was affected immediately. It’s the first thing people give up. But we started to rebound last year.”

Santalla was born in Cuba but immigrated with his family to the U.S. 11 days before the missile crisis in 1962. He was 2. They lived in St. Louis where they had family until Santalla was 10 when they moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico where he stayed until college. It was a tough move, he says. He and his sister had been completely assimilated into U.S. culture and then had to radically switch gears. He found it a blessing in retrospect, though.

He knew he had an artistic drive early on but found few outlets for it in school. He was discouraged from taking an art elective course in junior high and opted for French instead.

“There was a stigma with it,” he says. “You either took one or the other, French or art, so it was kind of like, ‘Oh, well you can’t do French, then you do art.”

It came in handy years later though. Six years of French study proved advantageous for the biggest project of his career — renovating a 700-year-old, five-story second home of his clients Holly and Jan Grent in the south of France. He’d already done two houses for them in Gainesville, Va., where they live about half the year. He imagined a radical redesign that incorporated nearly all facets of his architectural and design skill, knocking down walls, taking out staircases, building new rooms, installing a swimming pool and a patio and terrace.

“He did a complete redesign and an architectural miracle on this place,” Holly Grent says. “Everyone who comes to the house in France, even just people selling magazines, the minute they walk in the door, they say, ‘Oh, I love the way your house is.'”

She describes his work as “simple yet elegant, straightforward and contemporary.”

He elicits similar raves from another former client who became a friend. Nancy Penczner was getting her nails done shortly after moving to Potomac, Md., from Nashville where she and her husband, Marius, directed country music videos. She knew she wanted some radical work done on her new house but didn’t know where to begin. She and Santalla clicked immediately.

“He said, ‘You know, Nancy, the most important thing in the room should be you,'” Penczner remembers with a laugh. “I said, ‘You’re hired.'”

She says the renovations, completed five years ago, haven’t aged at all and she still loves her home.

“I just admired his style and I wanted a clutter-free home,” she says. “I think you have to find somebody whose style you admire but he was also good at collaborating with me. My furniture was in a jumble. I had inherited a lot of stuff. He did a great job of understanding where I came from. It’s modern and sleek, but it also has charm.”

Grent says it’s amazing to watch Santalla at work.

“I’m not exaggerating — he can walk onto a room. He puts his hand on his chin. I know because I’ve seen him do this so many times. He pans the room and he starts seeing things and starts verbalizing and then Jan and I see it also once he describes it. And really, like 99 times out of 100, we agree with him.”

Santalla’s motto is “sustainable space for life.” He’s committed to moving toward sustainable living and work spaces and believes houses and offices should be designed so all their space is used. He loathes big McMansions in which certain rooms or spaces sit empty. He says his architectural training gives him an edge other designers don’t have.

“They’re one in the same in a way,” he says. “Architecture doesn’t end at one certain place where design picks up. It’s our unique selling point, this whole integrated approach.”

So how true is the stereotype that all interior designers are gay?

“The word on the street is yes,” Santalla says with a chuckle. But he quickly points to several famous architects who were straight. He says it’s not a big deal and most of his clients have been straight.

“I know a lot of artists, they might be straight or gay. I don’t really care one way or the other. It’s like there’s this big thing now, ‘Oh, Ricky Martin’s gay.’ So? It’s not like I stand a chance anyway or any of my female friends did, so what does it matter to me?”

One of Santalla’s gay clients ended up becoming his partner — local attorney Glen Ackerman, whose condo Santalla renovated when Ackerman relocated here from Florida in 2006. They’d both been in long-term previous relationships but were single and bonded during the project, which was featured in the Post in February. They live together now with their two dogs.

“We’re just a same-sex couple,” Santalla says. “We live together and we’re part of society in general. … I don’t segregate myself. I’ve been invited to join people of color groups and that’s fine, it’s my heritage. But it should really come down to am I good or not. Hire me because I’m good, not because you think it’s going to be cheap, because it’s not, or because you want to work with a Hispanic or a gay. Work with me because I’m good and you like me.”

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Real Estate

Maximizing your homebuying strategy amid changing interest rates

Consult an expert when navigating unpredictable market

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If you’re looking to buy, stay up to date on market trends.

The Federal Reserve’s recent decision to pause its rate hikes and signal potential reductions in 2024 has sparked a wave of interest among prospective homebuyers. As the housing market remains dynamic, many are wondering if now is the right time to connect with a LGBTQ Realtor and embark on the house hunting journey.

In today’s real estate landscape, where factors like interest rates, market conditions, and personal financial readiness intersect, making informed decisions is key. Let’s explore the considerations involved in maximizing your homebuying strategy, even in the face of potential interest rate reductions down the road.

Assessing the Current Market

Before diving into the homebuying process, it’s crucial to understand the present real estate market conditions. Key factors include housing prices, inventory levels, and local real estate trends. These factors vary widely by location, and what may hold true in one area may not in another. The availability of homes, their affordability, and the demand for properties all play a role in shaping your homebuying experience.

Interest Rates and the Fed’s Actions

While the Federal Reserve’s influence on interest rates is substantial, it’s essential to remember that mortgage rates are influenced by various factors, including market forces, economic conditions, and global events. Predicting the exact timing and extent of rate reductions can be challenging. It’s wise to stay informed about financial news and seek guidance from experts when making rate-related decisions.

Your Financial Preparedness

Homeownership requires a solid financial foundation. Assess your readiness by considering factors such as your credit score, down payment savings, and debt-to-income ratio. Lenders scrutinize these aspects to determine your eligibility for a mortgage. It’s vital to have a stable income and job security, as this will impact your ability to handle homeownership costs.

If you’d like to get pre-qualified for a mortgage, ask your real estate agent for a referral.

Long-Term Plans

Think about your long-term plans and how they align with homeownership. Are you planning to settle in the area for an extended period, or is this a short-term investment? Evaluate your financial flexibility and whether you can comfortably manage homeownership expenses like maintenance, property taxes, and insurance.

Consulting with a Realtor

Connecting with a Realtor who understands your goals and the local market is invaluable. Realtors from platforms like GayRealEstate.com can provide insights into market conditions, housing options, and potential investment opportunities. They can help you assess whether now is the right time to start the house-hunting process based on your unique circumstances.

Refinancing as a Future Option

While securing a lower interest rate in the future is a possibility, it’s not guaranteed. Refinancing depends on your creditworthiness at that time and market conditions. Additionally, there are costs associated with refinancing, so it’s essential to calculate whether the potential savings outweigh the expenses.

The decision to buy a home should be a well-thought-out process that considers multiple factors, including interest rates. While the prospect of rate reductions is enticing, it should be evaluated alongside other crucial elements that shape your homeownership journey. Consulting with real estate professionals at GayReaEstate.com will empower you to make informed decisions, ensuring your homebuying strategy is optimized to your advantage.

Jeff Hammerberg is founding CEO of Hammerberg & Associates, Inc. Reach him at 303-378-5526 or [email protected]. You can also visit GayRealEstate.com.

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Advice

Gay clone wonders if he’s part of an ant colony

Why do we cede control of our social lives to others?

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(Image by Tamara Luiza/Bigstock)

Michael,

Looking at some photos from my weekends at the beach this summer, it struck me that me and my friends (gay men in our 30s-40s) all pretty much look alike. Practically the same haircut, gym body, swimwear, smile. I almost couldn’t tell who was who.

This got me thinking. I live in the same apartment building as a lot of my friends. We all have similar furniture and watch the same shows and eat at the same restaurants and go to the same clubs and dance to the same music and drink the same drinks and vacation in the same places and work out at the same gym and belong to the same sports leagues and go to the same concerts and have the same routines.

I’m not even sure who makes the decisions about what to do. Something is popular, or becomes popular, and it seems like fun and we’re all doing it. Then it’s on to the next thing. But who is deciding what all of us are doing, not doing, or no longer doing?

I think I’m happy, generally, having fun, but I have this strange feeling like I’m part of an ant colony instead of being an individual.

Is this just the way it is? We find our tribe and then we’re all going through life together like this?

Michael replies:

I think you are facing an unavoidable dilemma that comes with being human. How much do you give up your own individuality to fit in? Put differently, what price are you willing to pay, to live an honest life and be known as the person you really are?

Did you come out—which takes great effort and brings some risks—to live a life that is right for you? Or to live pretty much the same life that your friends are living?

If you are happy doing all the same things as your friends, without even knowing for sure why you’re spending your time (that is, your life) doing these things, no problem.

But you feel like you’re part of an ant colony. So clearly, this way of living doesn’t sit all that well with you.

What would you be doing if you weren’t following the group agenda? How would you cut your hair? Would you go to the gym as much? What shows would you like (or not like) to watch? Where would you vacation? Do you like the drinks you’re ordering?

And some more important questions: What do you deeply care about? What are your values? What are the sorts of things you want to dedicate your life to? Are you living in a way that reflects any of this?

This may be the only life you get. Using it well (in my view, at least) means deciding for yourself who you want to be and how you want to live.

Sometimes people are afraid to be different out of fear that they won’t fit in with their friend group. People often tell me they’re worried they will be criticized or viewed negatively for wanting to do things that are different from what “everyone” likes to do. No one wants to be left out of parties or dinners or vacation plans.

Do you think your friends would still want to spend time with you if you weren’t always on board with “the plan,” or suggested some new ideas for activities that you were genuinely interested in?

It’s possible that if you start developing more of an individual identity, you might fit in less with some (or even all) of your friends. Feeling lonely or unpopular is not fun. You may have to decide if that’s better or worse than putting on a persona to fit in and be accepted.

It’s also possible that you can be more thoughtful about what you do, sometimes say “no” and still be part of your friend group.

Even if your friends aren’t always on the same page, I’m hopeful you can continue to have close relationships with at least some of them. A real friendship should be able to tolerate different views and different interests. How could it be otherwise, when all of us are different in some big ways, even from our closest friends?

Thinking about your dilemma through this lens, you could view sharing more of yourself with your friends and letting them know you better as an invitation for greater closeness.

If you make any moves along these lines, perhaps you will find that some of your friends have similar feelings. You might be less alone than you think.

In any case, you will be choosing a more honest life and the opportunity to be known for whom you really are.

(Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].)

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Financial

New Workforce Program Aims to Help Expand Economic Opportunity for the Trans Community

Finding inclusion while pursuing sustainable careers.

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Sudhesna Kusulia recently graduated from the internship program as a full-time employee at JPMorgan Chase. Photo courtesy Sudhesna Kusulia.

It was only a few years ago that Sudhesna Kusulia would travel 10 kilometers (about 6.21 mi) from her rural village in India to be able to connect to the internet. 

The community she grew up in, Dangaria Kondh, had no network, electricity or constructed houses. When Kusulia got a smartphone in 2020, she gained a window to another world—one where she was able to explore the aspects of her identity she had suppressed since childhood. 

“I realized I’m not alone,” says Sudeshna, who identifies as a trans woman. “I belong in the LGBTQ+ community, there are millions of people like me living life authentically.”

Growing up, Sudeshna had a love for fashion and Bollywood dancing, and recalls carefully selecting dresses and accessories for her sisters, while secretly wishing she could wear them herself. “The disconnect between my soul and the body I was in was very painful to experience,” she explains. Facing these challenges, Sudeshna struggled with depression throughout her journey to self-acceptance. “From a young age, people started bullying me. I isolated myself. I would just cry in my bedroom, beating the wall with no one to hear my pain.”

Social stigma, barriers to opportunities, and lack of family support often push transgender people to the fringes of the society. Though recent policy changes in India have reduced barriers and provided rights to the broader LGBTQ+ community— India’s Supreme Court decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations in 2018 — there’s still a long way to go, especially when it comes to advancing equity and inclusion for the country’s gender expansive (transgender and non-binary) population. 

India is the JPMorgan Chase’s second largest market worldwide in terms of number of employees, where is has been providing services to clients since 1945.  Today, the bank has expanded its presence in India, growing its corporate centers across the country, which act as strategic hubs for JPMorgan Chase.  Here, employees are working at the forefront of cloud computing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, data science, operations and so much more that is used around the world.

At JPMorgan Chase, the Office of LGBTQ+ Affairs is committed to advancing equity and inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community globally. One of the ways the office works to do this is by ensuring all employees and potential employees have an equal opportunity to pursue their full potential and enjoy a fulfilling career. Recognizing both the unique struggles of the trans community in India as well as the immense talent pool that is leading the way for new business and innovation in the region, JPMorgan Chase worked with PeriFerry to create a transgender internship program in 2022. PeriFerry is a first-of-its-kind social enterprise in India that creates upskilling and employment opportunities for the gender expansive community. 

“Across industry, we see that transgender and nonbinary people do not experience equal opportunities to thrive in their careers and achieve sustainable livelihoods,” says Brad Baumoel, global head of JPMorgan Chase’s Office of LGBTQ+ Affairs. “At JPMorgan Chase, we’re committed to creating pathways for the next generation of trans and nonbinary leaders to develop and thrive in their careers.”

Advancing careers in an inclusive workplace

When Sudeshna went to college in 2016 and came out to her parents in 2020, it was a turning point. She finally felt comfortable in her skin and felt ready to pursue her dreams. But while she was ready to enter the workforce, she was worried her identity would hold her back. A friend suggested she connect with PeriFerry.

Sudeshna landed a spot in PeriFerry’s REVIVE program, a residential corporate training program designed for transgender individuals to venture into the workforce with confidence and acceptance, providing training opportunities in professional English communication, digital literacy, financial literacy, aptitude enhancement, resume building, and interview preparation. That’s how she found JPMorgan Chase. 

Through PeriFerry’s REVIVE program, JPMorgan Chase creates dedicated internship roles to gender expansive people across the company’s three corporate centers in India.  The 20-week program, inclusive of on-the-job training, is made up of eight weeks of classroom training by PeriFerry, followed by a 12-week internship with JPMorgan Chase. The first and the second cohort had 13 and 11 transgender candidates respectively, who interned across different parts of the business and in operations teams. Interns also were able to participate with the bank’s internal Gender Expansive Council, which organized sessions where employees shared their personal experiences as trans leaders at the bank.

Since the internship program launched in June 2022, it has resulted in the hire of over twenty full-time employees. 

Connecting with the community for support 

While her personal journey has been challenging, and despite rising anti-LGBTQ+ laws and sentiment across the globe, Sudeshna wants to inspire other transgender youth to recognize the beauty in themselves. “It’s a struggle for us. It will take decades before we feel complete acceptance, but it needs to be done. It has to be done,” she says.

According to Sudeshna, the two critical areas that the trans community needs support on are finding steady, respectful employment and a good, safe place to live. Across the globe, JPMorgan Chase supports nonprofits dedicated to advancing economic inclusion for the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community, including transgender youth and elder communities. 

Learn more about how JPMorgan Chase is helping expand economic opportunity for the LGBTQ+ community, and advance equality and inclusion for employees globally.  

Visit our careers page for opportunities.  

© 2023 JPMorgan Chase & Co. All rights reserved. JPMorgan Chase is an Equal Opportunity Employer, including Disability/Veterans.

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