Happier Pets By Design
Fans can’t get enough of Animal Planet’s hit show, Animal Cribs. The show—a unique combination of high-end design and a deep love of animals—depicts professional designer Antonio Ballatore creating extravagant living spaces with four-legged family members in mind. His mission? To create environments that will allow families and their animals to live together in harmony.
Growing up in Manhattan, Antonio didn’t imagine he’d become a designer—he wanted to be a rock star. His parents Tony and Virginia were both artists who met at The School of Industrial Arts in New York City. His father was well known in the fabric and design industry and created many of the window displays along Fifth Avenue as the creative director for such internationally recognized companies as Zafero Studios, Henri Bendel, and Saks Fifth Avenue. When Antonio’s father bought a home in upstate New York, his family raised ducks, goats, and rabbits—but not in any basic hutches or boring goat houses. These animals were housed in plush accommodations, thanks to his dad’s love for style. Looking back, that was surely a hint of what was to come for Antonio.
Between musical gigs in the 1990s—playing bass, guitar and singing in New York punk rock bands—Antonio spent time learning how to build homes. This experience led him to design restaurants and clubs in Manhattan, and he became the creative genius behind the set design for hundreds of ad campaigns, television, movies and fashion spreads, as well as sets for world-famous photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and David LaChapelle. He ultimately moved to the West Coast, settling in Los Angeles.
In an unexpected turn of events, Ballatore found himself competing in Season 4 of HGTV’s design competition show Design Star, putting his eye for design to the test. He took the top prize, and throughout the competition, Antonio’s love for animals always shone through. After winning Design Star, he hosted his own show on the channel, The Antonio Project, and his charming 85-pound bulldog Chewie—who passed away in 2017—made frequent guest appearances and became a celebrity in his own right. With every design on The Antonio Project, Antonio would always throw in something special for the homeowner’s pets—and that’s what inspired producers from Animal Planet to propose his latest television show, Animal Cribs.
Antonio and Chewie
With the success of the show, Antonio was inspired to start his own line of merchandise—Born With a Tail. It’s Antonio’s personal creative outlet that mixes his love for animals and eye for design. His line of products include apparel for humans and their pets, dog and cat accessories, kitchenware and more.
As he was in the middle of packing up to move to a new home in Los Angeles, Antonio took the time to speak to Pet Companion Magazine.
Many people know you from your television shows, Animal Cribs, The Antonio Project, and, of course, Design Star. How did you get started on this amazing career path?
It’s funny, I really didn’t even know about Design Star. A good friend of mine who is in production knew me from working on set (I design sets for photographers such as David LaChapelle, Amy Leibovitz, and Mark Seliger), and she sent photos and a short writeup in without even telling me. The production company saw it and asked to talk to me. I honestly didn’t know what it was. I watched a YouTube video on some of the Design Star shows, and I thought, “Oh, I can do that!” I went in blindly, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I went in just hoping not to go home first … and I ended up winning it! It’s crazy how I got drawn into the whole thing.
From Design Star, you went onto Animal Cribs on Animal Planet. How did that transition from designing for people to designing for pets come about?
An Animal Cribs goat episode brought back memories for Antonio, who grew up around goats.»
First, I was on the competition show Design Star, and after I won, they gave me my own show, The Antonio Treatment. In The Antonio Treatment, I would always roll with my bulldog Chewie and, in all the rooms I designed, if people had pets, I always did a little something for their pet. It might be a crazy little dog house in the home or some cat tree I would build. It was always a secondary thing, just a little bonus thing that I would throw in. Some producers did a little research and heard about me and how I took my dog with me, as well as all of the animal stuff I did. We met, we talked, and we came up with Animal Cribs. It evolved into what you see now!
It’s the perfect match—my love for animals and my love for design. Putting the two together, I’m doing custom designs for people who have challenges with their animals. It’s a good mix, and I lucked out.
I go into all these projects—with the animals on Animal Cribs and my business Born With a Tail—where first I make a scene for the animal and make it functional for the owners, and then I get crazy with the design. It’s a challenging process that I really love to do. It couldn’t have worked out better.
What has been your favorite project on Animal Cribs thus far?
That’s a hard one. It’s hard because the payoff is when you see the animals react to it and then the owners react to it—there are so many different aspects to it … you’re helping the animals, you’re helping the owners, and you’re enriching the life of the animal. There are so many different levels of satisfaction with all that, and then there is the satisfaction with the design.
We did this goat episode that kind of struck home with me. I grew up with goats, and I used to hate going into the goat barn and cleaning the barn out. My dad was an artist and designer, so our goat house looked really cool, but it wasn’t really that functional. So it was kind of a challenge for me on that episode to create a design to overcome the problems I had as a kid cleaning the goat house. It was like an evolution from my childhood to where I am today. I got to redo the whole goat setup, and it was so gratifying seeing the owners and goats react positively to it!
We even did one episode with a 20-foot python in a basement, and that was a fun one. They’re all really awesome, and I love every single project in different ways.
What are some unexpected problems you’ve encountered while creating spaces?
There are so many different challenges that you can run into. I did work for The Gentle Barn in Los Angeles County, and they had emus and all kinds of different animals that lived together, so there were safety issues. Every single job has some challenges.
I started off being a designer, so I am constantly learning about animal behavior and what’s best for the animals in terms of functionality, cleaning, and enrichment. This is always evolving, and there are always new things that come up. But they’re all good challenges, and there is nothing that I can’t tackle. As a set designer, I’ve had a lot of crazy things thrown at me at the last second—there is nothing that can really throw me. Nothing is so crazy that I can’t handle it.
What are some tips and tricks that you can share with pet owners who want to design a functional space?
I think the biggest tip is to do your research—every animal has different needs. There is so much research out there—don’t just go to one source. Do your due diligence and use multiple sources. Then, just be creative! Create what suits you and your animals. Everyone’s situation is different, and everyone has their own style.Antonio and a 20-foot python
Follow your heart, get crazy with it, and enjoy being in it. You’ll see the difference with your animal when you enrich their life … they’ll be happier.
Most of the problems owners have with their pets occur because their pet is either bored or doesn’t have the right setup. Once you enrich their lives, they get so much happier—you can tell, you can see it. That’s the payoff right there!
Dog misbehavior usually happens when they don’t have enough to do and so they get into trouble. It’s like when I was a kid—my mom would yell at me, because if I wasn’t doing something she was worried I’d be getting into trouble. Same thing!
On the topic of dogs, you have three amazing rescue pups of your own! Can you tell me about them?
I rescued Edith in Seattle—I was working up there and I saw her on the MaeDay Rescue site. I was watching her Instagram, and when I saw Edith, it was love at first sight. She was found in the trunk of a car, and she had a bit of a rough start … she was pretty scrawny and frazzled. I flew to Seattle, grabbed her, and flew back. This was before my bulldog Chewie passed away, and I wanted Chewie to be a part of the next dog that I had. I had another dog before Chewie, named Chomper—a bullmastiff—and when he died it was really hard on me. I just wanted a little transition dog. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do, but it was—Edith got to hang with Chewie and be a part of Chewie’s life, and there was a little crossover in the passing of the baton.Chewie and Edith»
Once I got Edith, it was true love—she was truly unlike any other dog I had before. I had a 135-pound bullmastiff, Chewie was 85 pounds, and then I went down to a 13-pound chupacabra (Edith). Edith was in pretty bad shape and it took awhile to get her out of her shell. When I would answer the phone too loud, she would literally fall over.
After Edith, I met my fiance through her dog. I was following her dog on social media—I didn’t even know who owned the dog or anything. She had this little three-pound, three-legged chihuahua called Leon. We started talking and one thing led to another, and now we are getting married! We really bonded over her dog. That dog passed away, and then we got Paolo.
Paolo is a Xolo mix who was about to be put down in Louisiana. This little network of people kind of helped me get to Houston to rescue him. Some people dropped him off at one house, drove an hour and dropped him off at another house, and my fiance and I drove all the way out to Houston, grabbed him, and drove him back. That was our second rescue together.“Every job I do is so different—we’re working with ducks, chickens, turtles, tortoises, horses, cows…”
Then we wanted to rescue a senior, so we got Nessie. Nessie is a 10- or 11-year-old that was found wandering the streets of Los Angeles. She’s really come into her own—we brought her back to health, as she was in pretty bad shape.
Now we’re looking to rescue another senior. My fiance and I need to stop looking at so many rescue Instagram pages, because every night it’s the same thing: “Should we get him?”
How do your pups influence your work?
As far as influence, I think it’s about just making the pups happy. When they’re happy, you feel that happiness in return. Helping out other people, especially people who rescue a lot of animals—that’s a big thing that we do, help a lot of people out that rescue pets. As far as the dogs helping me, they come to work with me and their love is the inspiration. Looking at them is where I find my inspiration.
Every job I do is so different—we’re working with ducks, chickens, turtles, tortoises, horses, cows—we’re all over the place. Our love for pets is the thing, because they are family.
You have your own project called Born With a Tail. Can you tell me more? What cool projects are you working on?
Born with a Tail is Animal Crib’s and my gig, helping out people with their animal challenges.“Our love for pets is the thing, because they are family.”
Right now, I am working on an Alice in Wonderland-themed tortoise area, which is pretty awesome, with like eight-foot-tall mushrooms and hobbit houses and little tunnels for these tortoises.
I am also working on another project in San Francisco with some Savannah cats that have taken over a man’s house. One is an F1 Savannah cat—so crazy. Savannah cats are beautiful, and he has three of them, plus a bengal. They took over his house, and he started living in the basement. He’s living in the basement in one room, and meanwhile the cats are wrecking his beautiful house! It’s a crazy setup, so we’re helping him out. We’re doing a really awesome “cat-io” (patio) and tons of enrichment features in the house, so that he can take his home back.
Another project I’m working on with Born With a Tail is a senior dog rescue in Denver. It’s a facility on an old horse farm, with stables and an arena. It’s basically an old folks home for senior dogs! We’re doing indoor/outdoor sensory gardens, and all these awesome features to help these senior dogs live out the rest of their lives as happy and comfortable as possible. There’s even a little bingo hall in the lounge area [laughter]. It’s going to be cool! In the evening, there will be music to calm everyone down. It’s called Pepper’s Senior Dog Sanctuary, and it’s a project I’m excited to be a part of.
Born With a Tail has really taken off, and we do projects all over the country. We do everything from a Zoom call and brainstorm meeting to actually creating plans and building it. Whatever you need!
All my design experience and all my pet experience melded together perfectly. I learned a lot of my compassion and love for animals from my parents and all the pets we had growing up. I’m so honored that this has become my life’s work.