In some ways, it’s a strange twist that Les Bernabi, owner of Ciao Interiors, and his wife, Linda, run one of the most successful home design firms in the Northwest United States. The pair met in North Carolina while working as designers on yachts and boats. Les owned and operated a yacht yard facility that offered repair, refurbishing, redesign, and design; Linda was a partner in a firm that designed the interiors of 100-foot plus mega yachts manufactured locally.
After they were introduced on the job, they fell in love first with each other and then with Montana while on vacation. In the early 1990s, they decided to leave the coastal south for the landlocked Northwest. They appreciated Kalispell’s centrality in the Flathead Valley and were excited to be in the middle of the growing community, so in 1992 they opened the doors to Ciao Interiors.
The multi-pronged business offers project management from concept to completion for any sort of architectural venture, including commercial, residential, and institutional projects. The showroom in downtown Kalispell is the home base for all this creativity, a fitting spot filled with inspiration and seemingly endless products displayed for any style and budget.
“We do a lot of luxury, expensive homes, but we do smaller homes like the one you or I live in,” Les said. “We want to also sell good, well-built products that anyone could buy.”
One of the firm’s strengths is its flexibility, something Les attributes to his and Leslie’s experience working with boats.
“When you learn design to fit small, tight spaces, there’s not much you can’t figure out,” Les said. “I have a good feel for spaces.”
A childhood spent sailboat racing led to an interest in boat design, and Les took courses through the Westlawn School of Yacht Design to learn and refine his craft. Though he became specialized and experienced in this field, it wasn’t difficult to transfer his knowledge to mainland design.
“Boats are different, but when you start doing the interior, they’re very similar,” Les said. “Every project has a restriction of space.”
Ciao’s designs tend toward a modern aesthetic, but Les is eager to work with every new customer to figure out their specific taste and needs.
“We do spaces all over the west, the east, in Canada, China, and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “And we use materials natural to the area. It depends on what the client wants.”
Les says that when they first opened up shop, there was a lack of quality homebuilding product and services in the valley. The product showroom helped with this aspect, and Les began cultivating relationships with quality service and labor providers.
To manage the showroom and balance up to 15 projects at a time, Les has a handful of staff designers as well as two in-house architects. For projects in the valley, Les relies on a coalition of local builders that he’s worked with for years.
“I’ve seen growth over these 20 years,” he said. “And as Main Street gets more pedestrian-friendly, shopping-friendly, consumer-friendly, everyone will get more business. We really enjoy what we do here.”
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