10.14.11

Design Treasures on the Block

Interior-design maven Muriel Brandolini has never parted with any pieces in her contemporary-design collection—until now. She tells Robin Givhan about the upcoming auction, her style, and home in the Facebook era.

The New York-based interior designer Muriel Brandolini, known for her cacophonous use of color, beaded fabric, and a soft spot for kitsch, has been collecting contemporary furniture for more than 20 years, and in that time, as far as she can recall, has never gotten rid of a single piece. But now she senses the moment has come to sell.

Brandolini is selling, in the midst of an economic downturn and a moribund zeitgeist and in advance of her 52nd birthday, not because she is anywhere close to retiring or because she has gotten bored with her work. Instead, she has recognized that much has changed in the way regular folks—twenty- and thirty-somethings in particular—think about and relate to design.

For them, form and function are now inseparable. Throwaway consumerism is socially frowned upon. It’s better to spend more and buy less. And thanks to HGTV, Bravo, and blogs, interior design is going the way of food and fashion, transforming industry professionals into pop-culture stars—Jonathan Adler, Kelly Wearstler, Nate Berkus, Sheila Bridges—and giving most anyone license to pass judgment on the aesthetics of a room.

Mostly, though, Brandolini explains her decision to sell with this theory: In a Facebook and Twitter era, the home has become the last refuge for desperately needed intimate, emotion-driven communication.

“We communicate widely but never intimately,” Brandolini philosophizes. “People are very lonely because of the computer, because of the lack of picking up the phone. If you text me, I have no idea if you’re up or down. I don’t know your state. I can’t read your expression.”

“Home is about intimacy. If you create beauty at home, you want to invite people in,” she says, lounging in her own Upper East Side living room in a pair of white jeans and a cantaloupe-hued blouse with gold sparkles. “People can get into one another again.”

Brandolini, then, is selling not for herself, but for you, to help you beautify your castle and thus, possibly improve your relationships. October will bring an auction at Phillips de Pury & Company of some 250 lots of furniture she’s acquired over the years. (She also has a 900-square-foot pop-up shop in the Madison Avenue flagship of Barneys New York through November featuring her own furniture designs.) And of course, there is a big, glossy—and celebratory—Rizzoli coffee-table book featuring the homes of some of her clients.

For the auction, Brandolini has been able to pillage two storage units, one in Brooklyn and another in the Hamptons, filled with such distinctive and stunningly expensive pieces as a Pierre Charpin sofa, which resembles a series of sea-colored marshmallows gently squished together, and a Francois Bauchet “Stonehenge” console, which looks like a miniaturized version of the prehistoric monument done up in shades of lemon and spearmint. The former is estimated to sell for $4,000-$6,000, the latter $15,000-$20,000.

Those pieces that aren’t in storage, the ones she is keeping, decorate her townhouse, in which a formal dining room extends into a backyard lush and wild with bamboo and a bedroom looks out onto the discreetly shaded windows of Madonna’s uptown residence.

As one might expect, Brandolini’s home reveals her design sensibility in its purest form.

“I never look at magazines. I fall asleep when I watch movies,” she says when asked where she finds inspiration. “I just kind of dream.”

Still, Brandolini is influenced by her background and her peripatetic youth. She is half-Vietnamese, with a mix of French and Venezuelan tossed in. She grew up in Vietnam and Europe, as well as South America. And her husband is an Italian count with Agnellis on his family tree.

To the layperson, her style resembles an inexplicably sophisticated collision of ABC Carpet & Home, Anthropologie, European minimalism, and traditional ethnic craft. Embroidered fabric of her own design covers the walls, a crystal chandelier commissioned in France in the shape of a tall ship hangs from the ceiling of a sitting room, and yellow and lime metal kitchen cabinets, custom-made in New York, look like they have been indiscriminately pierced with buckshot. Two leather-topped tables, which look a bit like African drums, by Ronan and Erwin Bouroullec hold keepsakes and collectibles. And alongside a Hans Wagner lattice chair sits a Martin Szekely pillar-shaped table hewn from solid crystal that required a year of cooling before it was useable. 

Brandolini began her career as a stylist. So she is intimately familiar with the way in which high design has trickled down from the ateliers of Karl Lagerfeld, Rodarte, and Comme des Garçons to the bargain racks of H&M and Target. Similar shifts have happened in other fields. Top chefs dabble in fancified sandwich shops and pop-up restaurants. In interiors, IKEA has schooled penny-pinchers on the pleasures of contemporary furniture. And the sleek, mid-century modern style of Mad Men has influenced everyone from Banana Republic to the chatter on the blog Apartment Therapy.

All of this has led to a population more knowledgeable about high-end aesthetics and more accepting of the streamlined look of both modernism and contemporary style. “Minimalist style wasn’t seen as good in American culture. The villain always lived in a very minimalist house. A soccer mom lived with clutter,” notes Vincent Sagart, a Washington-based interior architect who collaborates with Poliform and a former design instructor at Marymount University. That has changed. Instead of a showroom filled with credit card-wielding baby boomers—or European expatriates—he now sees people in their twenties coming into his studio. “They may not be settled enough to invest in something extensive. But they’re definitely interested in really good design.” He even had a college co-ed come in with her father. They were looking to furnish her student apartment.

This youthful indulgence would please Brandolini mightily, as her own children’s rooms are the stuff of Architectural Digest. The likes of Target, IKEA, and Design Within Reach might have introduced the masses to the wonders of good design, but Brandolini doesn’t believe in buying down.

She thinks it’s time to trade up. And she believes a newly educated generation is ready to do just that.