8 DESIGN LESSONS FROM THE LEGENDARY ALESSANDRA BRANCA

September 4, 2019

There are designers and then there are designers. Alessandra Branca, a born and bred Roman with a top-tier Chicago design pedigree, is one of the latter. Coffee table books, high-profile design collaborations, and countless industry awards have made Branca the kind of bold-print designer who’s name bolsters tables of contents and adds verve to industry events. Which is all to say: she’s the kind of designer worth taking a tip from. In conjunction with Casa Branca’s recent DECASO debut, we asked Branca to give us eight of her best designer tricks. Her answers, which range from brilliant, no-cost hacks to splurge-y remodel ideas, are sure to inspire your next interior shake-up, or better yet, tee it off today!

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Photo by Douglas Friedman

Drape a Tapestry on a Sofa

Part of the appeal of Branca’s interiors is that they feel luxurious and sophisticated while never veering into elitist. Among Branca’s favorite tricks for nailing the balance? Layering a textile on a solid sofa. In the room here, Branca employs a blanket fashioned from a floral “Tree of Life” Braquenie fabric for the job. “Sofa blankets are a great way to change up a room,” says Branca. “They’re both useful and fun, as you can use contrasting fabrics—ticking, velvet, paisleys, florals, or plaids—to create a winter and summer side for changing seasons, or just a quick room refresh.” Luckily for anyone coveting the look, sofa blankets are an evergreen staple of the Casa Branca collection.

Photo by Thomas Loof

Dress the Walls in Lattice

When it comes to walls, the question’s usually: paint or millwork? With latticework on the walls, however, Branca, makes a compelling case for combining the two. At once casual and sophisticated, lattice is among Branca’s favorite ways to add dimension to a room and a sense of history. “This particular room was inspired by the exquisite garden structure at Bagatelle in Paris, originally belonging to the brother of Louis XVI,” says Branca. “The pattern on the walls is called ‘treillage,’ a traditional method of millwork.” Thanks to the intricate nature of the millwork, Branca notes that the dining room can now “convert from a formal room to an informal one,” depending on the homeowners’ entertaining whims.

Photo courtesy of Alessandra Branca

Use a Console Table as a Nightstand

An undeniable element of glamour is surprise. For Branca, that surprise can be something as simple as repurposing a console as a nightstand. “It is practical and sculptural,” says Branca. “It is a new use for something that is traditional, which is a big part of our brand. We’re all about those juxtapositions. You can bring modernity into a room by using something in a non-traditional way,” she adds. As Branca notes, key to making this recast work is a sculptural console rather than a boxy one. A sculptural console will play more with the senses and the question of is it or isn’t it?

Photo by Thibault Jeanson

Pair Tradition with Retro

Although Branca may be considered a more traditional designer, she doesn’t pander to it. Among her many standbys is mixing traditional antiques with retro modern touches. Here, for instance, an Italian 1960s glass and bronze sputnik chandelier lords over an otherwise traditional-leaning room. “We like to play with contrasts, so the light fixture here is used to kick the room up!” says Branca. “We don’t do traditional rooms, per se. We prefer to mix pieces from a range of periods. When you have that mix, you heighten the interest of one item against another.” Case in point: in order not make the chandelier feel like a total anomaly Branca integrated other 1970s era touches, that while retro, play a bit more neutral. “The painting and coffee table are from the 1970s,” says Branca, “with the table by Jansen being in white lacquer and plexi.”

Photo by Douglas Friedman

Clad the Walls in Wood

For the average designer, wood’s always in the running for the floor, but for Branca, it also makes a play for the walls and ceiling. “This Bahamian home is located in Harbour Island and the walls are made of Pecky Cyprus,” she explains. The Pecky Cyprus is known for its knots and holes which adds character to the walls. “We used a stain by Cabot, the oldest stain company in the world, to stain it white,” she says. “We took something cabin-like and adapted it for the beach.” Among the top reasons Branca’s in love with the look? “It forms a forgiving background for a home that is often left open to the air, sun, and elements,” she says.

Photo by Thomas Loof

Put a Fabric on Repeat

Designers are often called in for their ability to mix patterns with aplomb. As Branca shows us, however, sometimes it’s knowing the right pattern to put on repeat that really makes a room. “This bedroom is from a project we did at Windsor in Florida and the fabrics are Casa Branca,” says Branca. “The use of a single pattern tends to create a neutral, monochromatic feel. The room becomes more peaceful and restful,” she adds. As for what kinds of fabrics are most suited for the monochromatic treatment? “You can use any types of fabrics: damasks, plaids, overall, or geometric repeats,” says Branca. Just remember that if you do go all-in with one fabric, the selection of your other elements—furniture, lighting, accessories—becomes all the more important, she says.

Sync Up Art & Fabrics

Taking upholstery cues from your artwork might not be the norm, but as Branca’s room above proves, it can yield optically exhilarating results. Here, Branca pairs up a photography landscape depicting Watch Hill, Rhode Island with a sofa upholstered in an 18th Century Indian “Tree of Life” pattern. Originally used in India and adapted for the European market, the sofa’s fabric mirrors the colors and movement of the art above it, creating a visual symphony of sorts. In front of the sofa, a grasscloth coffee table, similar in color to the photo’s sand, further enriches the optical play. “I love the contrast of the grasscloth, modern tables, and a landscape,” says Branca. “Another great example of playing on differences to emphasize the beauty of individual elements.”

Photo by Thomas Loof

Limit Your Palette

Rooms restricted to just two colors commandeer Branca’s portfolio. While many designers would never dream of such a cap, Branca proves the look can be rich, exciting, and lush. Which prompts us to ask: what two-color combos would Branca recommend for a room? “I love sky-blue and coral,” she says. “Blue and white; salmon, pinks, and taupe; greens and yellows.” Key to making a room with a limited palette feel lush, she says, is introducing a variety of of pattern and texture within these groupings. In the room above, for instance, velvet plays opposite cotton couches and a nubby wool rug. The walls have also received a gossamer treatment, helping to make the room feel rich despite the cap on color.

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