The Rinfret Group, Interior Design

by Carla Hall D’Ambra


Walking into The Rinfret Group design studio late one August afternoon was a breath of fragrant, fresh air. A delicious candle permeated the room, and it was perfect for the late-summer season. Not too much, not too little. Simply, undeniably perfect.

Meeting Denise Rinfret and Missy Rinfret Minicucci, the creative duo of The Rinfret Group was also a breath of fresh air. Denise, beautiful, blonde, sun-kissed tanned, and the mom of this mother/daughter collaboration, greeted me at her office door with a genuine, welcoming warmth and I immediately felt right at home. Missy, her daughter, gorgeous and blonde, wearing a classic shift the color of a yummy orange popsicle, entered the office from another room, glowing with vivacious energy. It is at once apparent that both these ladies have impeccable style, but what is also so evidently striking is their graceful presence.

Denise Rinfret has been designing for twenty-five years. She grew up in Manhattan and attended high school in New York City. Her father took her to art classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they toured all the museums together as she was growing up. Her cultured childhood influenced her tastes in art and fashion. As we chatted, Denise spoke fondly and softly of her wonderful relationship with her father. Her dad passed on recently, and like any loving daughter, she is devastated. Denise keeps a beautiful, timeless black and white photograph of herself with her father, sitting on her desk directly beside her computer screen so her dad is always in her eye’s view.

Denise Rinfret describes The Rinfret Group style as an elegant and refined look. The lines are clean, with tailored upholstery and classic furniture pieces.   Denise has been featured in The New York Times, Newsday, and many publications such as House Beautiful, Traditional Home, Better Homes & Gardens, House and Gardens,and Distinction Magazine, winning the Designer of Distinction Award from the latter publication in both 2000 and 2007. Better Homes & Gardens has referred to Denise Rinfret as a “rising star” and as a “designer worth watching.” She has also contributed to design books Decorating On A Dime and Breaking The Rules. Denise has appeared on Good Morning America and her Hamptons Designer Showcase Kitchen was featured on LNBC’s LX New York. Her kitchen in the Inspired Designs Showcase was featured in November 2009, and Traditional Home Magazine has named the The Rinfret Group as notable designers in 2010, 2012, and 2015.

Missy, who could quite possibly be a Lilly Pulitzer muse, or a J. Crew catalog model, and the other half of the Rinfret design team, describes The Rinfret Group style as traditional with a modern twist and a sense of humor. “We love beautiful, traditional lines and classic decor, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” laughs Missy Minicucci.

Missy Rinfret Minicucci spent her childhood immersed in the design world. She spent her weekends at design showcase houses and weekdays with her mom, Denise, in New York City at the D&D Building and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her grandfather was an architect and put a pencil in Missy’s hand, teaching her to draw, so it was assumed that Missy would indeed follow her mom’s path in the interior design world.   While studying at Fairfield, Missy interned in finance, and worked for a hedge fund in Greenwich.   She found herself daydreaming about being in the studio with her mother working on design projects, so she decided to take some time off and help with her mom’s design business. Missy became so passionate about design that she enrolled in New York School of Interior Design and she never looked back. After design school, Missy worked on her own, first with a Manhattan designer, and for the luxury Italian furniture company, B&B Italia, as well as the renowned fabric company, Cowton & Tout. Missy’s influence is Mario Buatta, and after working in the design world on her own, she feels right at home working with her mother and bringing in young, fun New York City clients.


The Rinfret Group has a distinguished list of clientele in Manhattan, Long Island and Connecticut. They have worked with Nancy Shevell, aka Mrs. Paul McCartney, Frank Pellegrino of the famous Manhattan restaurant Rao’s, and they recently did the Manhattan penthouse of shipping executive Doris Ho. Denise and Missy do large-scale projects and they also do design work on studio apartments. Their clients are business executives, notable stars, as well as local neighbors. The Rinfret Group has a modern but classic approach to their work and their rooms are highly identifiable as a Rinfret room.


Denise and Missy are currently working on a design project for the Ronald McDonald House. As we discuss the project, both women are animated and excited. “We love doing projects such as this, said Denise, “and we believe in the mission of the Ronald McDonald House.”   As Missy shows me the idea board for the project, she speaks sweetly of the creative choices they’ve made for the room. And like everything else about The Rinfret Group, it’s not too much, and it’s undeniably perfect.

First published in 25A Magazine, 2015

Irina Lebedeva, A Ballerina

by Carla Hall D’Ambra


Irina Lebedeva is a ballerina. From the top of her head, down to her toes, Irina exudes the poise and beauty of the classical ballet dancer. When Irina enters the room, it’s with graceful, fluid movement, as if she’s floating. Her voice is soft and melodic, and the accent is undeniably Russian.

Irina Lebedeva is one of the North Shore’s treasures. As artistic director of Long Island Ballet Academy in Sea Cliff, Irina shares her vast talent, experience and art with her students, both children and adults, teaching Vaganova method of classical ballet. The Vaganova method has become the foremost Russian technique, based on a grading system, and many famous ballet dancers including Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, have trained in this method.

On a sunny, summer afternoon, we sit outside in my garden, and Irina is in awe of the butterflies around us. She notes how beautiful they move and flutter, and as she speaks of the soft yellowness of this flying insect, she moves her hands softly, with a slight twirl from the wrist and for a moment, she becomes the butterfly, and I am in awe.

Irina was born in Siberia and started dancing at five years old. When she was nine she moved away from home to begin training for professional dancing at the Perm Ballet Academy in the city of Perm. In order to study at this prestigious school, an audition was required.   For each available spot, 250 children auditioned, 25 were chosen and Irina was one of them. Her first teacher, Antonina, loved Irina, and she told Irina’s parents that Irina was gifted and special.

When she was eleven, Irina was awarded a more than perfect grade score of 5 ½ at Perm Ballet Academy where the highest grade possible was 5. She was the first student to be offered an extra two years of study before moving on to the professional dance company. Because the government paid for the dance education, her parents were thrilled and extremely proud of this honor for their daughter. The professional company was also fighting to bring Irina in, but Irina chose to accept the two additional years of ballet training.

“You fall in love, and it’s a tragedy if you can’t continue,” says Irina, “when you fall in love with performing.” And indeed, Irina was in love with dance, and began performing professionally in Russia and around the world. She danced principal parts early on, skipping the corps de ballet after breaking her toe while dancing with the corps. Irina laughs and admits that she and some of her fellow dancers were known as “spoiled” because they trained hard and they liked the “star” treatment.  Her favorite roles are in the ballets Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake.

As Irina developed as a dancer and artist, she felt she didn’t have the freedom of expression she so longed for while living in Russia.   With each trip out into the world, Irina dreamt of being free. On one specific occasion, her dance company was coming to the United States. At first Irina was told she would not be included in the trip, but at the last minute, her director told her to pack her bags and be ready “just in case.” In the final hours, Irina received a call that she would, after all, be going, to the United States. This was the trip that forever changed her life. Irina arrived in America, she danced, and she defected.

Irina was one of the last persons to defect from Russia before the Peristroika and before the Berlin wall came down. When she finally got to New York and felt safe, she began to carve out her new life. In New York, Irina reached out to Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he asked her, “Where do you want to work?” Irina told him, “Anywhere I can stay in shape.” He liked that answer and helped Irina find her classes and eventually get back to work. Irina’s first job in the United States was with a ballet company in Buffalo, New York.

After years of concentrated performing, Irina began teaching as well.   While still living in New York City, she and fellow defector and dancer Andrei Bossov opened a cultural center in Waterville, Maine, where the two performed and taught together for fifteen years.

Eight years ago Irina bought a beautiful, spacious studio, LI Ballet Academy, in Sea Cliff, where she now teaches children and adults classical ballet, and where she rehearses her productions. Today, Irina is focused on teaching and giving to her students. With her young students, her philosophy is that “whatever you offer them, they will get it. Ballet is a difficult art, and it is hard, but children are strong.”

As we sit under the patio umbrella on this summer day, Irina tells me, “Children need freedom. When children are free to try things, and not be afraid, they grow.” She mentions that years after her defection, she has seen her fellow dancers from Russia and their response is always, “You are my hero, Irina. I didn’t have the courage to do what you did.”  Irina assures me that she never had one moment of thinking she’d done the wrong thing by defecting as she did, and coming to the United States.

Currently, Irina also teaches ballet to adults at her studio, and has found that ballet is therapeutic for adults. “Ballet training gives you everything,” she states, “and it prepares you for the day and it makes you strong. The music and the movements keep your mind sharp.” According to Irina, it is never too late to begin dancing, and enjoy the benefits of adult ballet, even if you have never had dance training. She teaches adult morning classes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10:30am – 12noon.

Irina’s ballet students are now winning scholarships and some are dancing professionally. It makes Irina happy to see her students dancing out in the world. One of her students recently said to her, “Miss Irina, you made me stronger.” Irina is looking forward to producing The Nutcracker this winter, and she often has guest artists from the Bolshoi, Kremlin, and Moscow Ballets during the summer months teaching master classes at her Sea Cliff studio.

As we take a walk through my garden after our interview, Irina says, “I want to take off my shoes and feel the grass.” We remove our shoes and the lush, thick grass feels heavenly on our bare feet. She tells me she was always running and dancing in barefoot as a child back home in Siberia. She says in her beautiful Russian accent, “The grass is wonderful. There’s so much energy coming up from the earth. It’s good for us, you know?”

For more information: 516-801-4393

First published in 25A Magazine, 2015