Design riches for the taking

 If browsing through photographs of elegant homes makes you wistful, frustrated, or envious rather than inspired, Alessandra Branca’s book “New Classic Interiors” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang) might not be the best thing for your blood pressure. Branca’s fortunate family heritage includes a gifted painter for a mother and a grandfather who served as an art historian at the Vatican. Growing up in Rome, she was surrounded by some of the world’s most exquisite art and architecture, which certainly shaped her later work as an interior designer.
    Now Branca lives in and works from a trifecta of homes in Rome, New York and Chicago, designing for friends and clients with the means to indulge in such rarefied goods as custom-made upholstery fabrics, hand-painted Chinese silk wallpaper, and antiques from Lloyds of London or other equally exclusive venues. This is decidedly not the “design-on-a-dime” approach you might see on HGTV.
    Nonetheless, if you can look past the pedigree and privilege you’ll discover a thoughtful design philosophy and interiors rich in other aspects — textures, colours, lighting and details that make homes sumptuous but still liveable. More than a few of the furnishings are museum-quality, but there’s no forbidding “do-not-touch” ambience in these rooms. Instead, Branca aims for warm and inviting spaces with sensual appeal that make people want to linger and experience them. The book tells this story mostly through images, with brief sections of text to explain the author’s strategies:
    Colour: Use colour to create different qualities in a space — warmth, comfort, energy and so on — but don’t rely on it to fix major architectural or functional issues. Pay attention to regional factors such as the quality of light: A bold yellow that’s perfect for the desert southwest might be too intense for a Midwestern or East Coast locale. Always view potential colours together, because like musical notes, their character and tone can change depending on their relationships with adjacent colours. (Reds and golds dominate Branca’s palette but she also regularly uses splashes of yellow, black, pink, brown and blue.)
    Scale: Note architectural elements such as high ceilings or large windows that affect the scale of the space, and choose furnishings accordingly. In bigger spaces, try to use furniture groupings to create zones for a more intimate atmosphere. Keep some colour themes throughout to keep the overall space coherent.
    Pattern: Branca favours stripes and uses them generously, but also suggests mixing up several patterns to keep the visual texture lively. Organic prints, plaids, paisleys and geometrics can be juxtaposed for a layered effect. And don’t limit pattern to just the fabrics; wall and flooring surfaces are opportunities for creative use of pattern, whether through using tile, intricate wood plank designs or other materials.
    Layout: This section seems more appropriate as planning information that should come earlier. It spells out strategies for evaluating a room’s inherent potential but also the personalized uses you might have for it. Perform a quick mental survey to determine how you might live in the space, how many people might be using it for a given activity, and whether the floor plan you are contemplating for furniture will work toward those ends. Allow for a comfortable traffic flow and flexibility so the space is functional for everyday needs but can accommodate guests and entertainment needs.
    Comfort: Remember, you want a liveable space, not a showcase cordoned off with velvet ropes. Choose furnishings and decor not just according to their aesthetic merits but for how they will allow and encourage your daily rituals, whether that’s breakfast coffee in a kitchen nook or reading to young children in a cosy window seat. Be patient as you choose items for your home: The right furnishings often show up intermittently and serendipitously; going with that flow will let the design evolve naturally, and the process is more of an adventure as you keep an eye out for new elements to add.  
        New Spin: This is Branca’s twist on using traditional styles and materials, which she favours. She cautions not to get locked into strict period interpretations but to introduce some unexpected elements into your home to keep the design fresh and original. Asymmetrical balance is one trick to achieving this new spin, as are bursts of intense colours used as accents, or calling deliberate attention to odd architectural features in a room. She aims also for what the Italians call “sprezzatura,” an appearance of nonchalance and “casual” design that is in fact deliberately cultivated and often requires a lot of work to achieve. It helps keep spaces more inviting, and a home more liveable.