Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


There is a sailing ship in Muriel Brandolini's living room, an eye catching chandelier made of glass, jade, crystal and pearl. It was commissioned by Brandolini when she and her family first moved into their New York town house, a reminder of when the interior designer left her Vietnamese homeland by boat as a 12 year old girl. The Brandolini's family home, suffused with playfulness, colour and drama , is filled with such personal echoes of Muriel Brandolini's life story, subtle references to an extraordinary past.

"What is still very Vietnamese in me is a positive attitude to life and a real sense of daring," says Brandolini. As a designer, her unmistakable interiors – like her own homes – are formulated with an adventurous mix of Asian and European elements, period and contemporary furniture, vibrant tones and rich textures, all tempered by an eye for restraint and careful editing.

She shares her five storey Manhattan house with her husband, Count Nuno Brandolini d'Adda, an Italian born banker, their son Brando, 13, and daughter Filippa, 11. To step through the door from the street outside is to enter another world, a stage for a unique kind of life. The building itself is tall, solid and rather thin, with a small garden to the rear planted with a miniature jungle of towering bamboo – another modest echo of Asia.

"We bought the house eleven years ago," says Brandolini. "I was pregnant with Filippa and we were looking to rent at first and then to buy. We went around looking at 110 apartments that were all so boring and I thought I just can't live like that with my family. I was a little nervous of taking on a house but finally my broker asked me to come and see this one and I walked in and said, "yes, this is it". It felt good to us right from the start."

There was some major renovation work to be done, including some structural changes to open up the main living room on the raised ground floor and to create a larger master bedroom upstairs. The initial scheme for the house was very colourful, with crimson walls for the master suite, blues for the children and an opulent fuschia pink fabric for the dining room walls. But having reinvented the house last year, the effect is now more subtle and mature.

"I am the opposite of beige," Brandolini says, "and I love colour. But I'm over what I was doing ten years ago, because so many people are using those colours now. My house is positive and happy, like all my houses, but they don't need to be bright pink to be happy. It's unpretentious but also luxurious and I would say magical, because your eyes can wander for hours. And there is always something playful. The pink chair in my bedroom was bought in Paris but then covered in an old Chinese fabric which appealed to my Vietnamese side."

There is now much more in the way of fabric and texture, although never wallpaper which Brandolin detests for its coldness. The walls of the master bedroom – one of Brandolini's favourite retreats in the house, layered with beautiful linens – are now coated in raffia. Within the largely open plan raised ground floor, a greater distinction has been made between the celadon painted sitting room to the rear, overlooking the garden below, and the study to the front of the house which is now coated with a deep indigo corduroy – another favourite spot where Brandolini can catch up on emails and calls to her office, as well as source reading from her library.

The dining room downstairs, which opens out into the garden, has walls in a bespoke silk designed by Brandolini, hand embroidered in Vietnam. With children to care for and work schedules to contend with, the Brandolinis may entertain less than they once did, yet the room still makes a perfect space for friends with a large bespoke dining table complemented by an indulgent 19th century day bed across the other side of the room.

"In a house like this, it's always the kitchen where the family really comes together," says Brandolini. "But I do love my bedroom and Nuno's favourite place is his movie room upstairs. Nuno really collects movies and art. I designed the movie room for him, imagining where he would be happy – he can watch three films a night in that room. But he was not the client here. If I don't have a free palette in my own home I might as well give up. He would love the house just to stay the same, but that's impossible with the wife he chose. And my daughter Filippa got very involved with her room, her rug, her colours, her chair. She's very opinionated. My son just chose his rug and let me do the rest."

Brandolini first came to New York – the city she now considers her truest home – in 1979 after a peripatetic childhood and adolescence in Vietnam, Martinique and Paris. She knocked on the door of a linen store and asked is they would hire her. She went on to open three franchises for them before Franca Sozzani, the editor of Lei, Per Lui and then Italian Vogue, discovered her. Sozzani became a mentor, as Brandolini worked for her as an editor and stylist in Milan and New York.

"I never really chose my direction, it just happened. I spent about eight years working as a stylist and then I met Nuno," she says. "I met him here in New York. He was engaged to an American woman and I met him at an office where a friend was working and he told my girl friend that he would like to date me. I said, "no way, he's getting married in three months". Then he got married and seven months later I was in LA doing a photo shoot and he called me up and left a message saying, "it's Nuno, I'd like to see you, I'm getting divorced". I controlled myself. I flew back to New York before I rang, making him wait a bit. But that was it, nearly 20 years ago. We've been married for 17 years."

It was also a marriage into an old and extraordinary European family. Nuno's mother, Countess Cristiana Brandolini d'Adda, is the granddaughter of the Agnelli family patriarch, Giovanni Agnelli, who founded Fiat. One of Nuno's brother, Tiberto Ruy, is – among other positions – a director of Fiat. Another, Leonello, is the president of the French publishing group Laffont. Brandino Brandolini now runs the wine making business at the family estate of Vistorta, in western Friuli, while also being a partner in Venetian restaurant Naranzaria. Their wives are also fascinating, with Brandino's partner Marie Angliviel de la Beaunelle a glassware designer while Ruy's wife is Georgina Brandolini, the fashion designer – formerly at Valentino and Pierre Balmain and now mistress of her own label.

"We are all very strong women," says Brandolini. "None of us really talk about design or fashion when we meet. But we do see one another when we can. We are all spending next Christmas together in Brazil."

While Nuno Brandolini's father died last year, Cristiana still moves between Vistorta and homes in Venice, Paris and Geneva – photographs and pictures of Venice and Italy line the stairway in Brandolini's own Manhattan home. Vistorta, famously, features gardens by Russell Page while Cristiana commissioned set designer and decorator Renzo Mongiardino to collaborate on the interiors. All proved inspirational to Muriel Brandolini.

"He was really at his best when he was working with my mother in law," she says. "I only met him once and his work was very grand, but not at all pretentious. But I was also very inspired by David Hicks who I considered a genius. Hicks and Mongiardino I think are just incredible."

Certainly, one can see some of Hicks' passion for colour and Mongiardino's love of the theatrical within Brandolini's own work. After marrying Nuno, Brandolini moved into a rented apartment with wall to wall fake marble on the walls. The landlord wouldn't let her touch it, so she coated them with Indian fabrics and created a new backdrop, like a movie set. Eleven magazines published pictures of the apartment and from there she found her first client as an interior designer.

There's been a wide range of work, from the interiors of modern houses designed by architects like Thomas Phifer to period town houses. There's also a fabric collection, printed in India, and a range of djellabas and robes sold through the big American stores like Barneys and Saks. Determined to spend as much time as she can at home with her children, Brandolini has cut back on her travelling and usually takes on just two house commissions in three years. But she still travels at least once a year to India and as much as she can to Vietnam.

"I like to go back to Vietnam and it does bring back happy memories. We took the children once, for a month, and travelled. We went to the markets, we went to clean my father's grave. We drove to Da Nang and Hue and saw the 19th century temples along the way – they are so playful, as though children had built them. Then we ended up in Hanoi, which is a beautiful city and strange to me, coming from the south. Finally we went to the coast for New Year's Eve and rented an enormous junk. It was an adventure and the children loved it. The thing that amused them the most was seeing me speaking Vietnamese with these people. It all came back...."

Muriel Brandolini was actually born in Montpellier, her father being Vietnamese and her mother half French and half Venezuelan. Within a family story worthy of biography, the family moved to Vietnam when Muriel was just nine months old. But her father died while Brandolini was still a young girl, leaving her mother to care for Muriel and her three sisters in Saigon.

By 1972, the conflict in Vietnam had become so bad that the family fled to Martinique, with her mother thinking she wanted to be closer to her own family in Caracas. But the memories of growing up in Vietnam linger still. "My head is totally Vietnamese," says Brandolini. "And even at a very difficult moment, with the war, it was still our country."

Martinique after Vietnam was a culture shock for the young Muriel and her sisters. Although her mother and one of her sisters still live on the island, Brandolini hated it and the mentality of the people she found there. "They were so pretentious,'" she says, "and coming from Vietnam they made us suffer. My poor mother, arriving with four children, had a really hard time."

Muriel Van Thiet, as she was, shuttled between Martinique and Paris, going through as many as three schools a year before arriving in America. "I have been living in New York half my life now and I do feel at home here," Brandolini says. "Many of our friends are here, others in Europe. I love the positive nature of New York. I love Paris as well and the way people live in Paris is wonderful, but I could never live there...."

The Brandolinis now have a weekend and summer house in the Hamptons, which she is about to rebuild with architects John Keenen and Terence Riley, but the town house – a few blocks from her office – remains the real focus of family life. It is, she says, a patchwork – a collection of disparate ideas and influences but brought together with a clear philosophy creating a calm, sophisticated backdrop to family life.

The new incarnation of the house also suggests her passion for collecting limited edition furniture from contemporary designers like the Campana brothers, Marc Newson, Pierre Charpin, Martin Szekely and the Bouroullec brothers, added into the mix of bespoke fabrics and Asian and period finds. Most of the rugs are by Federica Tondata's company Fedora Design, Tondata being the sister of Allegra Hicks. Brandolini has also been collaborating on new furniture designs with London based jeweller and designer Francesca Amfitheatrof recently, always seeking originality and the unexpected.

"My houses are never pretentious – I hate pretension," Brandolini says. "There is a freedom to them and a sense of kitsch – elegant kitsch rather than hippie kitsch. That sense of kitsch also comes from being Vietnamese and having lived there. It's the colours that I remember most and the buildings, and that is a large influence on my life, even subconsciously." – 001 212 249 4920

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