BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“Take the classics and give them a twist.” Alessandra Branca has lived by this mantra for the past twenty-five years, and it is that tenet – and her eye for detail and color – that has made her one of the top tastemakers in the field of interior design today.
Vibrant, positive, intelligent, humorous, and amazingly creative, Alessandra defines style in interiors. And is now conquering social media, with more than 40,000 Instagram followers. It is no wonder her work is oft described as a “quiet revolution.”
Her account, like her body of work, is inviting and full of life: in it she shares favorite surroundings, filled with food, flowers, and art, while also welcoming fans into her day to day, with moments with friends and family.
Arriving in Chicago at the age of eighteen from her native Rome as a freshman to Lake Forest College as an art history major, Alessandra found the transition from Italy to the United States dramatic and exciting.
“I had only known Rome and Paris, and they are old cities. Chicago was so beautiful, modern, and gutsy. It at first seemed so foreign and distant. I soon came to see the amazing Midwestern work ethic, which became a great example for me.”
After completing an I. Magnin executive course in San Francisco, she returned to Chicago, opening Branca, a jewel box of a space. A delight of that first shop from its inception and for many years after, was a visit with Alessandra’s mother, Anna Chiara, who created the beautifully framed botanical prints for sale at the shop. She continues her work as an artist today. Alessandra’s grandfather, Remo Branca, was an art critic for the Vatican and an artist as well. Alessandra is their artistic legacy.
Alessandra’s talents have garnered attention well beyond familial lines or even the Windy City – the work she has done on her own houses in Chicago, Rome, Harbor Island, and New York – as well as those for clients around the world – have caught the eye of industry bibles such as House Beautiful and Elle Décor. She is one of a rarefied few that has earned the title of “master class” designer from the former and has been featured yearly since 2011 on the latter’s prestigious “A-List.” In a further showing of admiration for the designer, House Beautiful has tapped Alessandra (who frequently lectures at standing room only events), along with a short list of other design icons, including Charlotte Moss and Bunny Williams, to answer style questions for the magazine.
We sat down with the design legend to talk about her work, past and present, and her raison d’être.
What are you working on now that most excites you?
We are working on projects in Hobe Sound and Jupiter, Florida; Windsor, Connecticut; a New York apartment; and a house on Lake Michigan in Chicago. We have a wonderful collection of furniture, lighting, bathroom, and other design products, and many custom things. We are now working with iconic companies, including two in London, executing carpeting and rugs. When working with a brand, we like to give them a new twist, and bring them forward a bit.
Are there threads, themes, or concepts that run through your work?
All design is an evolution, but it relies on certain principles. With technology and such important changes going on in the world today, I like to see where my clients are and then move them forward from there. It is essentially strategic planning. I ask them what their aspirations are. Do they want to entertain? Then they might want a formal dining room, perhaps. No matter how pretty you might make something, it must suit their lifestyle.
What in your own life have you chosen that brings you joy and vitality to keep you focused on the beauty of life?
Our three children are grown up now, so my husband, Steve Uihlein, and I have edited our own environment for this new stage of life. Outdoor living, whether in my Chicago garden or on my terrace in Rome, is all-important. In Chicago, we have breakfast, lunch, and dinner in our garden and also on Harbor Island as well. We have an apartment on the Upper East Side in New York, which doesn’t have an outdoor space, but we always try to eat outdoors in New York if we can. Listening to the birds, looking at living things in a garden…I must have nature all around me.
You published New Classic Interiors in 2009 and are working on a new book, to be published in 2017. Tell us about it.
A book is very hard to do. With all our other work it is like an extracurricular activity. Included in its focus the constant evolution happening in our lives. For example, when we bought our house in Harbour Island, it freed us of many of the conventions of city life.
More people have second homes and they offer more relaxed living. We asked ourselves, why aren’t we living like this all the time? It doesn’t mean there are no boundaries, you still have to be sensitive to the unwritten rules. I also am an advocate of using what you have. We recently inherited my mother-in-law’s silver and it is a joy to use it right now.
Since you mention second homes, what are your recommendations for them?
You have to look at where you are – you can never be separated from your location. There are certain tonalities of red that would never suit the Caribbean, ever. There are colors for the city that would never work for the beach or country. Color should be used to define, but you have to look at what is most appropriate for a Mediterranean house, for example.
Would you share a tip or two of how we might make our own environment more pleasant?
Take a long look at what you have accumulated, and get rid of anything that doesn’t mean something to you. These are pieces that take away energy. Take every object off every large table and end table. Only put back the things that resonate with you and remove of all the rest. If you don’t like a rug, just get rid of it and put in a brightly-colored sisal. This task isn’t easy – it takes discipline – but it is like taking stock of your life. I do this with my clients and tell them that they definitely shouldn’t feel guilty.
Speaking of discipline, what is the pace of your life?
Steve and I try to spend as much time with our three children as possible. We always have Thanksgiving in Rome, and have done so for the past 18 years. It is very important to have that tradition. Rome is still my hometown and whenever I am in Europe I like to have three or four days there. I love walking along those city streets – it gets me back to the person I was when I lived there.
What was your very first design project?
My mother said that when I was three or four I reorganized my room almost daily, pushing around furniture until I was satisfied.
What are your thoughts on where you are right now?
I imagine people think that one changes when they become well-known. I think I am still that same new Chicagoan who cares about and loves what I do, and aims always to do my best work – that Midwestern work ethic!