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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?