Hospitality designer David Ashen and journalist and artist Manuel Santelices forge a dynamic creative duo. And they’re nice, too.
By Bill Henning
Photography by Fahnon Bennett
Artist Manuel Santelices thought Dutchess County might be a mistake. A big one.
“We decided to rent a house there in fall 2012, while in Milan,” recalls his husband, David Ashen, “and Manuel was like, ‘Don’t rent the house. We’re not gonna go up there.’” The problem wasn’t the area, exactly. The pair, who met on America Online in 2000 (ah, the romantic screeching of dial-up modems), had been spending time visiting friends in Gallatin and loved their weekends in the Hudson Valley. The problem was what Ashen calls “the most expensive rental in the world.” And he’s not talking about the monthly ask for the Milan house.
“I rented a house for 16 years in Amagansett,” Ashen says. “The last couple of years, we had the house for a year, and we only went one weekend.”
Santelices feared an Upstate repeat.
“But we actually used the house,” Ashen says. “We’d drive up every Friday, and we’d stop for dinner in Rhinebeck. We decided at the end of the year to buy something, but we didn’t know where we wanted to be: In the village? In the country? Finally, we thought, ‘Well, we’re in the village every weekend, so why don’t we try Rhinebeck?’ It seemed to be the place we liked the best.”
They looked at four houses, took a shine to a fifth, and made an offer. “We thought, ‘If we hate it, we can flip it,’” Ashen says.
Demand for Rhinebeck real estate made flipping a safe backup plan, but Ashen had an additional edge: a master’s in architecture. “I trained as an architect, but all my work is interiors,” he says.
Designer David Ashen is the founder of dash design, a bustling firm based in Long Island City, Queens (site of my first New York City apartment in the late ’80s). High-profile dash projects include Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino, the restaurants at Mandarin Oriental Shanghai, Godiva boutiques worldwide and Resorts World Casino (opening imminently in Newburgh, NY).
The firm’s designs are varied: from Art Deco opulence to urban farmer to beachside Victorian boarding house. Ashen’s acclaimed work has no signature style, and he likes it that way.
“I worked for a number of years at a large branding agency, so my work is diverse purposely,” he says. “I have good friends, designers I admire, whose work is very identifiable. I always hope my work isn’t. Sixty or seventy percent of my work is hotels or restaurants, and you’ve got to develop a narrative around each project, one that’s relevant to the area, and that inspires you to create a specific experience for the people who’ll be in the space.”
As you may have guessed, there was no need to flip the Rhinebeck house, which Ashen and Santelices, married in July 2021, now share with gorgeous housecats Leon and Ivan. While Ashen travels extensively for work, and they still maintain a NYC home, Manuel, a journalist who grew up in Santiago, Chile—and had those initial misgivings—is in Rhinebeck full time.
“I go to the City every other week for a night or two, but the rest of the time I’m here,” he says. “It’s weird, in a way, because I always wanted to live in New York City. It was the reason I came to the US. I’m at this point of my life where I’m happy here. I was never really a nature person, but I’m a tree hugger now! [Laughs] As for the City? I don’t miss it much. I was there for 30 years and it was an intense, wonderful life, but I’m not missing it at all.”
With a degree in journalism, Santelices covered fashion and culture for decades, first in Santiago, then in NYC. His byline is familiar to readers of Spanish-language editions of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire in Spain and Latin America.
But there have been big changes on that front, too. Santelices continues to work the same beat, but about seven years ago, he set aside the laptop and picked up a paintbrush. “Illustration was always in the back of my head, and I thought one day I’m just gonna do it,” he says.
What finally sparked the change? “Do you know Donald Robertson?” Santelices asks. “He’s an illustrator I follow on Instagram. I was interviewing him, and I asked, ‘What are your influences?’ And he said, ‘You know what? I admire anyone who does something creative every day.’ And I thought, ‘I should do that. I should do something creative every day.’ And I started to draw and draw and draw.”
More than just a font of inspiration, Instagram also made it easy for Santelices to share his work which quickly garnered attention—from all the right people. “I had a book (Drawing The Line) published in Chile in 2017 and a show at Soho Beach House in Miami the same year,” he says.
Ever since, Santelices’ impeccably detailed watercolors—“Fashion and interiors, mostly,” he says, “and pop culture, which I love!”—have been in hot demand. His A-list roster of corporate clients include MAC Cosmetics, H&M and Tiffany & Co. He’s also done a range of editorial projects. He’s illustrated House Beautiful Style Director Robert Rufino’s bi-monthly column and sketched the Fall 2020 collections for Modern Luxury magazines. “The pandemic, weirdly enough, was very good for me professionally. Magazines couldn’t shoot fashion spreads, so I’d do complete portfolios. It was great!”
Santelices’ art has also strayed off the page. He’s created murals in stores and hotels, collaborated on a clothing line and has a range of wallcoverings due out this fall. In a word, it’s impressive.
Meanwhile, there’s a growing list of projects in and near Rhinebeck to keep both Santelices and Ashen quite busy. Across the Hudson River in Kingston, the talented couple opened dash gallery, where Santelices curates exhibitions with titles such as “Tarts and Vicars.” His “Beats & Buddhas” last summer featured materials from Allen Ginsberg’s estate.
Ashen and Santelices have also bought two additional houses in Rhinebeck, which they’ve decorated and rent on Airbnb. “The homes really represent our style,” says Ashen, “very eclectic, full of art and objects that are very personal to us. We’re both Tauruses, unfortunately. We like to nest, we like to collect stuff, and we don’t like to get rid of things.”
“We’re not hoarders, though,” Santelices interjects. “Not yet!”
What they are, unsurprisingly, is excellent hosts. “I’m always fussing over what needs to be in the Airbnb,” says Ashen. “So, I’m very excited when we get compliments about the bed or the sheets.”
At their own home, Ashen will often make dinner for 8 or 10 people. “A couple years ago at Christmas, we had 22 on the porch, mostly neighbors,” he says, which reminds him of an earlier meal.
“When Manuel and I first met, 22 years ago, we had a dinner party,” he says. “There were a lot of media people: the president of Univision, magazine editors. We had this glass dining table that you could expand by flipping a leaf over. Manuel said, ‘I’ll do the table. I want to do it.’ Well, he did it. But he didn’t know you had to lock the leaf in. I made beef bourguignon, and as we served, the table flipped and the bourguignon flew all over everybody—one magazine editor in particular.”
“It was a very memorable evening,” says Santelices [Laughs].
One might call it a unique experience with a strong narrative, though a little off- brand.