Designer Q&A: Michelle NussbaumerSouthern Home (SH): Who first nurtured your creativity?

Michelle Nussbaumer (MN): Absolutely my mother, who is an amazing artist. She put the first paintbrush in my hand. When I was young, I went with her to Spain for several months while she studied Sorolla’s paintings, and at home in Texas, I’d go paint with her in the studio. There were always models and fellow artists in our house, and everyone in my family was creative—my father was a poet, my aunt was a decorator, and my grandmother, a potter. I still love to paint today, and I frequently reference works by greats like Ingres, Sargent, and Alma-Tadema for the color palettes in my rooms.

SH: You majored in theater at SMU, and we definitely see that flair for the dramatic in your interiors. When did you realize you wanted to switch roles from acting to decorating?

MN: Even while studying acting, we had to learn about lighting, makeup, and sets, and I quickly realized that was what I truly loved. After I married my husband, Bernard, we moved to Rome, and I began shopping to decorate our villa. Our neighbors on either side were Valentino and Franco Zeffirelli. Renzo Mongiardino had done both of their houses, and to experience his genius firsthand was amazing. He’s still a huge inspiration for me today.

SH: How does your background in set design impact your perspective on decorating spaces where people actually live?

MN: In sets, you’re often working with parameters of budget and space; the same is true with houses, and that encourages me to be creative. In my own spaces, I like a high-low mix. Everything doesn’t have to be the most expensive or precious—just the right thing, the fun thing, the thing that works. Sometimes that happens when I use objects or materials in an entirely different way than intended. I’ve taken boxes we spray-painted and dipped in plaster and turned them into fabulous, modern-looking chandeliers. I guess that’s where theater comes in. And by the way, there have been so many people who have done sets and gone on to create amazing interiors—Cecil Beaton, William Haines, Tony Duquette, Mongiardino, to name a few. It really does go hand in hand.

Designer Q&A: Michelle NussbaumerSH: How do you describe your style?

MN: I love creating fantasy. I dislike the idea of repeating the same story, and my job is to translate what clients want and make it the best it can be. That can go in any number of directions, including modern, which is not a look most people associate with my work. But having said that, for myself, I have a definite style that is layered, collected, colorful, patterned, and worldly. My mother used to say I was born under a wandering star.

SH: That wandering star has certainly guided you well.

MN: I’ve been fortunate to live in and travel to so many places around the world, from the grandest Indian palaces to the humblest villages in Africa. I never fail to take something away with me. Obviously that’s often quite literal—treasures I pick up in markets and bazaars, antique textiles, indigenous crafts—but it’s also as much the inspiration I get from seeing how other cultures live and create that informs my perspective.

SH: You have this way of making visual connections, putting patterns, colors, and objects together that might seem disparate at first, yet they work like magic. Does that come through a lot of trial and error or purely by instinct?

MN: It’s instinctual. I’m often asked what my tricks are, but it just works in my mind. If I combine things I genuinely love—it could be something like Japanese textiles and Mexican pottery—they work because I love them for a reason. Even back in my Catholic school days, I’d wear things with my uniform I wasn’t supposed to—the wrong socks, headbands, jewelry—whatever I could get away with that wasn’t prescribed. In retrospect, I think it looked a bit like Moschino, even though at the time I was probably getting in trouble. What seldom works is when people who are not confident in their tastes scroll through Instagram or Pinterest and believe they have to incorporate some latest trend with whatever they own. It doesn’t feel authentic.

Designer Q&A: Michelle NussbaumerSH: Maximalism seems to be having a big moment in the decorating pantheon. Given that you typically don’t follow trends, how does it feel to find yourself a major player in one?

MN: I’ve been decorating since the ’80s, and my personal aesthetic hasn’t really changed—I’ve stayed in my lane. Maybe that’s called maximalism now. All I know is it’s what I’ve always done; it’s who I am, and it’s not a trend for me. My wallpaper installer, who’s worked for me since the early days, says I kept him alive when no one else wanted to do wallpaper. Thankfully, now when he’s busy all the time, he still manages to fit me in.

SH: Besides travel and art, what else influences you?

MN: Country houses, particularly English country houses. What I find true is those places are usually full of things people have loved and left. Perhaps a great-great-uncle traveled around Saudi Arabia and brought back textiles that are still framed somewhere, and then someone down the line installed their Art Nouveau furniture in the ’30s. A new generation moves into the 18th-century house, finds all this furniture that’s been stuck in the attic and reupholsters it, and then hangs a contemporary painting because that’s what they’re drawn to. Everything has been collected over time and collected with passion.

Designer Q&A: Michelle NussbaumerSH: In addition to interesting objects, what makes a room truly sing?

MN: When you walk in and get the sensation you don’t want to leave. You’ve been to a friend’s house time and time again, and you know the food will be really bad, but the atmosphere is so enchanting, you want to be there anyway. It’s the poetry of the space. I don’t care if it’s a public one, a garden, or a mountain God created—you know it when you feel it. Sometimes we look at a room and think, well, this is a good design, but does it create emotion in you? Not always. An emotional space is pretty rare, and it’s never picture-perfect.

SH: Tell us about a particular space that has moved you that way.

MN: A palazzo in Venice where Wagner wrote some of his operas. The old sagging and tattered silk sofa he would lie on was there, and hardly anything else, but the feeling was so spectacular. Even if you didn’t know Wagner lived there or about his music, there was just this crazy, emotional mix of beauty, grandeur, and dilapidation.

SH: Given your deep admiration for culture and design from all parts of the world, what do you appreciate most about Southern homes?

MN: As much as travel fuels me, let me say I’m very proud to be a Southern girl. I believe we have the most beautiful houses. I love that we respect tradition and treasure family heirlooms, whether it’s your grandmother’s china, great-aunt’s silver, or whatever we’ve been able to hold on to across years and generations. We keep it, use it, cherish it, and pass it on. That’s just who we are.

Designer Q&A: Michelle Nussbaumer

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