Muriel Brandolini

Interior designer Muriel Brandolini doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She leads her life as she pleases, taking on assignments that work for her daring creativity. As a result she has an air of authority that can be intimidating.

Born to a French-Venezuelan mother and a Vietnamese father, Muriel was first raised in Saigon during the height of the Vietnamese war. After the early death of her father her family moved to Martinique where she struggled at a stuffy private school and now acknowledges her ADHD that lay behind the problem. At the age of fifteen she was shipped off to Paris to complete her education and in many respects, to begin her life of fashion, architecture and ultimately her intense interest in design. 

Click to order The World of Muriel Brandolini.
Her next move was New York where she talked her way into a job at Descamps then promptly worked her way up the fashion ladder at Cacharel with the same fearlessness that has been the hallmark of her design and personality. On the way she scooped up a husband, Nuno Brandolini, and it was in the designing of their first home together that Muriel somewhat accidentally found her métier: interior design.

This is not a woman who does things in small measure. She’s clearly fiercely loyal to her family and small circle of friends: “I don’t mind it if people dislike me—a lot of people love me.” The difference between “like” and “love” is emblematic of her passionate nature and her immense creative energy. Recently she published a new book,
The World of Muriel Brandolini Interiors (Rizzoli), auctioned off a collection of furniture at Phillips de Pury, and launched a product line at Barneys, all within a matter of months. When I asked her why she had to take on all three projects simultaneously she replied “Why not?”

My first question is: why are you doing all this at once?

Why not? You know when you create a book what you have to do is basically stop in time and look back: seventeen, eighteen years of my career. And also I don’t like to look back because I have never looked back—I have always looked forward. It’s the way I am.

I think that’s a wise approach if you can pull it off but you can’t help yourself. Your past is part of your future and your present.

Of course the past is inside me. The past gives me the strength for the future.
In the library. Sudare window treatments, made of the same material seventeenth-century monks used in prayer rituals, cover the library window.
In the library, the walls are covered with gold silk taffeta made for Muriel in India. The custom chairs by Gina Bianco are covered in vintage fabrics.
Under the window is a vintage 'ABCD' sofa by Pierre Paulin. The Nada Debs lacquer and bronze 'pebble' coffee table stands atop a rug by Fedora Design.
A view across the library toward the first floor landing where an Asian lantern is suspended from the ceiling.
Muriel's crystal-and-bat chandelier is an expression of her memories of Vietnam. It was a collaboration with French artist Claire Cormier-Fauvel.
The Nada Debs lacquer and bronze 'pebble' coffee table accents the glass, leather and stainless steel chairs by Fabio Lenci.
A custom beaded table is part of Muriel's furniture collection at Barneys.
Fresh white roses enliven the library coffee table.
Part of Muriel's varied art collection covers the library walls.
Another view of the library. Looking into the library from the first floor staircase.
In other words … you’ve never been in analysis!

No … I mean it’s okay. Everything that I’ve done from my childhood to moving abroad, to be disconnected from my country, which was Vietnam … going to a new place, a new place … you move.

You have also taken risks …

What kinds of risks?

Well, you’ve taken risks by moving – a lot of people don’t like transitions, a lot of people don’t like change.

I really don’t feel as if I had a choice. And I don’t think of it as taking a chance. The most important is to keep doing something, believing in life as it grows. And of course I want to grow, never stop. I believe in my first instincts and that is how I have been always.
Muriel wanted more lightness and simplicity and she recently redid her living room in neutral tones, recovering the walls in a silver shimmer fabric.
A 'Smarties' coffee table by Mattia Bonetti rests atop a carpet by Fedora Design.
A charcoal drawing by Georges Condo hangs over a 1950s Italian sofa flanked by tables by Paco Rabanne.
A bone langoustine and other 'objects of vertu' are arranged atop the brass wood and agate side tables by Paco Rabanne.
More objects on a Paco Rabanne side table.
A living room table by Swedish cabinet maker, Axel Einer Hjort.
A beaded shell tribal hat and bronze head sculpture lamp stand atop table by Axel Einer Hjort.
A 'Bing One' side table by Martin Szekely is made from a single block of rock crystal. A friendly pair of hens stand atop an ornately carved Italian marble table a corner of the living room.
A copy of Muriel's book is displayed atop the Mattia Bonetti 'Smarties' table.
In a corner of the living room, an alabaster floor lamp from Galerie Ledat in Paris stands in front of 'Ten Months' by Susan Hiller. An oval portrait depicts Muriel's husband, Nuno Brandolini, as a child.
Brighton chair reupholstered with antique fabrics by Gina Bianco stands next to a portrait of Nuno Brandolini.
A custom appliqué fire screen by Gina Bianco includes the figure of a woman cut out from an antique Japanese embroidery. The black and white print is by artist Sol Lewitt.
A striking linear ceiling light by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld was Muriel's inspiration for redoing her house in more subtle tones of silver, pearl gray and gold.
You seem to epitomize the kind of person who really works on their gut reactions, on their instincts … the way you went into decorating—you seemed to do it instinctively.

I was picked up by Wendy Goodman—she called me “genius."

And you did it without professional training.

Yes, which for me is probably very, very good … for me who was not sure what I was doing, but believed in what I was doing.

Do you think that professional training in design puts a damper on creativity.

Absolutely! Absolutely!
The walls of bedroom hallway are a juxtaposition of colors and textures.
Brando's room.
It takes a lot of confidence to do what you want to do.

Well I don’t think I was always happy or always sure. I was probably very criticized for being so forward.

Does that bother you? You’ve been spoken about as being very brash and willing to say that what you want to say—does that bother you?

No. It does not bother me because what I can give back is so huge. And I hope other young people who aim to have a career like mine … I tell them to be free. You know living in the moment and creating your own history—it’s something so remarkable.

You can run into trouble by being blunt with people.

People can dislike me because they have not gotten to where I am. I don’t care if people dislike me—a lot of people love me.
Family photos are displayed on the walls outside Filippa's room.
Filippa's room.
Down the stairs.
You know there is something very appealing about you and I can’t pinpoint it because as much as you are irreverent and outspoken, there’s a very maternal side to you, very caring.

[Laughs] I am such a mama it’s scary! I’m a mother to everyone. I love to nurture the people who work for me—I demand that they be 110%—I want them to be daring. I want them to really push themselves because what can you achieve more in life than to really try?

New York is a very pushy, intense place. Don’t you sometimes feel you just want to run away and hide?

I am very protected in a way because I don’t want to put myself out there. I create in my cocoon. And I create for people that I really care for and love. When I create a home it’s like a marriage—a short one but a very, very good one.
In the master bedroom, a seventeenth-century wood-and-brass bed frame is covered in bed linens that were hand embroidered in Vietnam. The bronze table is by artist Michele Oka Doner.
A drawing of a nude hangs on the camel-colored straw walls of the master bedroom.
A half shade with a tribal pattern tops a ceramic column lamp in the master bedroom. A handsome brass chandeier hangs above Muriel's bed.
A small rattan dressing table is topped with porcelain teapots and a portrait of Muriel.
Part of Muriel's unending art collection lines the master bedroom walls.
detail of the seventeenth-century wood-and brass-Portuguese bed frame.
Hand-block-printed white cotton from Muriel's fabric collection covers the walls of her bathroom. The floor lamp is by Venini, and the aluminum and glass chandelier is from the 1960s. A deep blue-green hue offsets the clean printed white cotton upholstered walls in the dressing area.
How do you “get” a client, how do you understand them?

I say: Tell me what you hate and then tell me what they love. Then I kind of elope for two months while I create. I always give three presentations of one room, three distinctive options. Sometimes we get to a fourth board and we puzzle …

I want to go back to what you said about not liking to look back. Are you a nostalgic person?

I am a romantic person.

You’re still connected to your homeland, to Vietnam, aren’t you?

Well, sure. But what did I do? The book was not enough. The book for me was torture to be working on because I’m not patient—I’m totally ADHD. Going back, sitting down, realizing what I've done over the past seventeen years—it’s dull! But I had to do it. But once I did it and I felt I had a grip on the book, I felt kind of satisfied. But then I said, but what now? Another book? No. I’m going to give thanks to my country. So I called up Barneys and said what about I do a home collection for you and they were brilliant and they said yes! It’s nearly sold out.
A group of prints by Greek painter, Konstantin Kakanias hang in the stairway landing. A group of black and white prints by Dutch artist Cesar Domela hang next to a photograph by David Seidner.
An upstairs bedroom also serves as the media room.
A pair of chairs by Milo Baughman is positioned around a glass coffee table by Fontana Arte.
Since you do have this restless energy, is creating another line going to be something you do again? Are you going to do the next Target line?

Oh no! I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I don’t have the patience to be in retail. This was one moment.

I want to talk about the evolution of your design. In the beginning of the book it looked as if you obviously liked lots of color but gradually it gets toned down.

As you say, it’s an evolution. This feels more intellectual somehow, a reflection of my life. [When I created the interiors] at the beginning [of the book] I was 20-something—I’m 52. I need quietness, richness. This house is soothing for me. A house should protect you.

I agree with you. I think in New York in particular there are so many homes that almost like corporate lounges.

Hostile! I love to live my house.
Peeking into the downstairs dining room.
The walls of the dining room are covered in white corduroy from Holland and Sherry. They were hand-beaded in Vietnam by Trinh Ly Quynh Kim with a quotation from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Muriel re-covered the tufted seats of the mid-nineteenth-century Louis-XV style wood and copper boulle chairs. The chain-stitch rug is by Fedora design. A 1950's steel shelving system is by Vittorio Introini.
The lacquered wood- and-steel dining table is by Paul Evans.
Bamboo trees line rear yard of the townhouse.
A view of the rear façade of the townhouse. The doors lead to the dining room.
How do you live here? Do you entertain?

I love to entertain. I used to have the energy to cook but now my husband, who is a much better cook, does it. He’s a genius. He cooks Italian food. But I’m on a different path. Before I was very colorful and I loved to cook and I was wild. Today my imagination is still wild but it’s more restrained to what I can do. I do not give my energy to where it’s not needed.

So how do you choose your friends?

My friends have been in my life for thirty years. I rarely make new friends. I like very intelligent people. And I’m a very faithful friend.

And you have sisters—where are they?

I have three sisters—one in Brazil, one in San Francisco and one in Martinique. I was the baby of the family and I was the wild child, in a way because of my ADHD. My mother thought I was a bit retarded. I was a terrible student.
The family corgi, Kieu, bids us farewell.
It’s pretty apparent now that people with ADHD think outside of the box and structure is so hard for them. When you had it, it wasn’t even recognized.

It was not. You know my husband says, “Muriel, it’s so sad that you can’t read a book.” I can read it, I get to the end and say, “Shit, what did I read?” When I was young I was simply called “nearly retarded.” I only did the testing when I was thirty – I was full-blown ADHD.

Your father died when you very young—how old were you?

I was three.

And did your mother then have to support the family? I think you said that it was a struggle financially for you when you were young.

You know, life is a struggle—unless you make the best out of it. I do believe it was a plus for me—with my determination and my willingness.
Where do you think you’re going to be in twenty years?

Ohh … I don’t think about it. I definitely want to be with my husband. To be more like a sage … being able to read with him … this is my dream—if I could read, it would be so wonderful because I do have good mind and to travel the minds of good writers. And I want to be in love—whatever time I haven’t given Nuno – give it back to him.

Well, the love part can solve a lot of things. Are you a TV person? I don’t see any TVs in here.

Me? Absolutely not. I don’t watch TV, I don’t read books and I don’t look at magazines.

So what do you do?

I dream.

• Sian Ballen • Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch