Nancy Braithwaite, an iconic Atlanta-based designer who established her interiors firm more than 30 years ago, has built a portfolio renowned for its élan and elegance. So it’s no surprise that her first book, Simplicity (Rizzoli, $50), reads more like a textbook constructed from her decades of professional wisdom and experience.
But Braithwaite’s aesthetic has always been about more than just beautiful rooms. “I once had a friend say to me, ‘Can’t you just make it pretty?’ I’ll never forget that remark. I always knew there was something beyond making it pretty,” she says. The solution, she deduced, was to develop a unique set of design rules that give Braithwaite’s interiors their distinctive, identifying mark. “I knew I needed to find out what worked for me, then learn to apply those principles in a meaningful way,” she says.
That approach is revealed as early as the fourth page, which features a heart-shaped mantel overbreast in her own James Means-designed home. The inscription—”to, for, because of Jim”—is a tribute to her husband, Jim Braithwaite. “He’s the one who encouraged me. He’s always backed me and supported me,” she says. After moving with him to Atlanta in the 1960s—and connecting with contemporaries such as Norman Askins—Braithwaite began making indelible mark on the Atlanta designscape.
In a Braithwaite-designed room, the eye is never orphaned; it always has a restful place to land. Sometimes the rooms appear sparse and unadorned, but this is one of the tricks of the designer’s trade. “Simplicity is very complex,” she says. “It has many rules and principles, and if you apply those, it’s much easier.” Simplicity, she explains, delivers an impression of power immediately upon entering a room. “I love when there’s something that kind of knocks me out just a bit and garners my attention,” she continues. “I say, ‘Oh, what is at play here? There’s something that really holds my eye.’”
The process of “looking vs. seeing” is the real crux of the book. Looking, she explains, is based upon emotion and first impressions, while seeing is informed by intellect and cumulative design knowledge. “When I was first learning about American antiques, I had a great teacher, Deanne Levison. I’d say, ‘I really like that.’ And she’d say, ‘Why do you like that? Look at it.’ As I was looking, she’d say, ‘This is why it’s not any good.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I see.’” Braithwaite’s penchant for American antiques remains prominent, but so does her love of contemporary pieces. There’s a definite diversity in Braithwaite spaces, but also a quietness that connects them.
While Braithwaite has mastered the neutral palette, she’s also a virtuoso with colors you can’t quite put your finger on—from the brilliant forest-green of a Zuber wallpaper to dark coral curtains she likens to “a dash of red pepper.” Also brilliant is her take on unconventional art, like a round niche over the fireplace in the house of a collector—deliberately left empty while she searched for the perfect sculpture. “When done properly, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick,” Braithwaite says.
She has become renowned for recognizing the integrity in artists well before their rise to acclaim. Most famously, she’s collected American folk artist Bill Traylor, and more recently, the cloisonné and repoussé works of Taiwanese artist Robert Kuo. Braithwaite’s Kiawah Island beach house alone contains 103 of his pieces. “I love animals; they’re very capricious,” Braithwaite says. “The first time I saw one of his sheep in a showroom, I stopped in my tracks.” Kuo’s life-size sculptures offer just one example of how Braithwaite rooms begin with an awe-striking object or collection.
Simplicity illustrates all of this. But the book shows more than Braithwaite’s countless accomplishments; it delivers a message that’s moving and personal, too. In step with this sentiment, she will lead a series of lectures/book signings this fall. The first will take place during Design ADAC at the Jerry Pair showroom on October 9, two weeks prior to the book’s official release. The tour also coincides with a thrilling new phase in Braithwaite’s longstanding practice: establishing more conspicuous headquarters in Buckhead. The office space showcases Braithwaite’s signature simple aesthetic with sleek stainless-steel surfaces and high-tech amenities. And considering the large number of new fans she’s sure to garner following Simplicity’s publication, it’s a novel idea, indeed.