Text: Karen Carroll
Photos: Images courtesy of Robert Brown Interior Design
Southern Home (SH): What did you want to be when you grew up?
Robert Brown (RB): Well, for a minute there, I wanted to be a professional tennis player. When I realized that probably wasn’t going to work out, I went to the University of Georgia and majored in journalism, thinking I’d become an advertising executive. After graduation, I worked for a men’s clothing store in Athens, which led to becoming a buyer for an apparel company, and then to another company where I eventually became the number two guy. Before I knew it, I had been in fashion for two decades.
SH: How did you make the switch to interior design?
RB: Decorating had long been my hobby. Growing up, my parents had an interior designer, and I can remember every detail of the last house we did, down to the red shag carpet in the family room. My dad, a banker, collected antiques, and a lot of Saturdays, instead of going quail hunting with the other guys in South Georgia, we’d go antiquing or to an auction. Even as a college student, no one could believe a group of frat boys lived in a good-looking apartment with mid-century furniture and art on the walls. After I started working, I bought a few houses and fixed them up. Although fashion was fun and creative, as I rose through the ranks, it got to be all business, and eventually it was time for me to leave. Truthfully, decorating was supposed to be my early semi-retirement career, and lo and behold, I’ve now been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never worked so hard in my life!
SH: How does your fashion background influence your decorating?
RB: There are so many similarities between fashion and interiors— scale, proportion, color, and Lord knows I had already learned everything I thought there was to know about fabrics. I’d say my style is definitely tailored; well-edited. I’ll use a gray flannel in a heartbeat, and I love a detail like a tape on the inside of a drapery or a beautiful extra bit of stitching somewhere. I think that all comes from my fashion days.
SH: Your rooms feel very disciplined and ordered. You seem to be the consummate editor—perhaps that journalism degree is still coming into play, too.
RB: I do think of interiors that way. When a client comes to a project with a lot of stuff, it’s our job to focus in on what’s most important. For instance, if they have framed photos on every surface, we’ll say let’s pick one table, and make that statement there. When doing a final walk-through of a project, I remember Chanel’s philosophy of removing one thing before you leave the house.
SH: What makes a house feel Southern to you?
RB: There’s a grace about the way we do things and interact with people, and it extends to the home. It’s a sensibility and the way a house functions, rather than a particular look. We love to entertain. We want things to be comfortable and for you to have access to whatever you need. If you want to put a cocktail down, there should be a little table beside your chair. When the children come in from playing outside, they need a spot to wipe the mud off their feet. We’re often thinking about where the hunting equipment or golf clubs will go, or where the china will be stored, because we’re going to be using some china in the South. It’s about a lifestyle.
SH: Function and hospitable space planning aside, what else should every good Southern house have?
RB: A dog to sit by your side in the evening who will love you unconditionally. Ours is a chocolate Lab named Mary. She’s two years old and very rambunctious at the moment.
SH: Now we need to know how you keep all those fine fabrics pristine.
RB: The dog lounges on the mohair sofa in our family room, and we’ve learned the art of keeping the cushions covered with a beautiful quilt. It’s just part of the look now. This is the first dog we’ve ever allowed on the furniture and in the bed with us. Mary has taken over—people who know me well will think that’s pretty funny.
SH: While we know there’s no formula, what are some elements you have on repeat?
RB: Although we give every client something different and special, there are a handful of things. We’ll use a Holland & Sherry flannel to death. Antiques, particularly Biedermeier pieces, because the lines are so clean. Texture—a monochromatic room that might look fairly simple in a photograph is a complex and cool experience when you’re in it because of the touch and feel of fabrics like velvet, mohair, or a wool challis. Contemporary art—I’ll fall in love with an artist’s work and encourage clients to buy it because of the way it speaks to our design.
SH: Given your love of order, do you ever leave room for something a little “off” or perhaps out of character with the rest of the room?
RB: Yes, I love to put something into the plan that’s not supposed to work. It might be an artistic chair or an odd sculpture or a kind of bizarre piece of glass. I’m installing a project next week, and rather than a chandelier over the dining table, we’re hanging a mobile I found at auction. And lately, I’ve been playing more with color, too. I’ll put things together that don’t really match in most people’s minds. That can be so invigorating. The rules you learn when you first start designing about what goes together are out the window now, and it’s fun to spin the color wheel in different directions. That’s something else that fashion has taught us.
SH: You bring up color. Generally, your palette seems fairly subtle.
RB: I think moody hues are interesting; ones you can’t really name or describe. But I love a lot more colors than you might assume. Lately, I’m very into chartreuse. Over breakfast this morning I was browsing an auction online and saw a screen—a very traditional peony wallpaper on a chartreuse ground—and I think, I have to have it. It would look great in a gray flannel space with modernist shapes, hung over the sofa.
SH: Whether it’s antiques or one of the new pieces you’ve designed for Holland MacRae, what drives your furniture selections?
RB: Good scale and proportion, and simple lines. When I’m looking for an antique, I get excited when I find something like a commode with very little ornamentation, just the right curve in the leg, where the beauty of the wood really comes through. For my own collection, I took antique forms and stripped them down in my mind, often removing a lot of the ornamentation or scaling them differently. The principles that work for the whole house also apply to a singular piece of furniture.