These six local husband-and-wife design duos prove that passion paves the way for profound success.
Jill Sharp Brinson & Rob Brinson
Jill Sharp Style + Rob Brinson Photography
Esteemed stylist and Ballard Designs creative director Jill Sharp Brinson began her life with undeniable vivacity, and basically never slowed down. A native of New Canaan, Connecticut, she lived in Tokyo before kicking off her career in California, but it wasn’t until she moved to Atlanta that she met her husband of 14 years, High Point, North Carolina, native and acclaimed photographer Rob Brinson.
The pair first met during a professional meeting, when Jill interviewed Rob to gauge the ins and outs of the Atlanta photo scene. “Years later, we married in the very loft where I first met him. It was wild,” she says. “We started working together but also maintained many separate accounts: him shooting, me styling and creative directing and working on private residential design work.”
Clad in thousands of window panes, the 6,500-square-foot industrial space at King Plow Arts Center has become symbolic of Rob’s work in the fashion, lifestyle and interior realms. More recently, it’s housed Jill’s vast trove of worldly treasures, and served as the site of her elegant new series of pop-up shops, STABLE, which will be followed by an autumn Shibori workshop set to segue into a denim show and sale. Rob, meanwhile, is pooling local talent to assemble an extraordinary Atlanta film school concentrating on the production and directorial aspects of the industry. “I wanted to do it in a way it wasn’t being done anywhere else in the country,” he says, citing his commitment to buck the status quo. “Innovate or vacate,” he proclaims.
Both powerful personalities with uncommonly confident instincts, the Brinsons do not often overlap work, but they do use each other as sound boards quite frequently. With neither prone to vacillating, inflexibility can sneak its way in, but by relying on honesty, the duo always seems to circle back to the same page. That much is evident in the currently-under-wraps house (called “Peace Mill”) they recently built together at Serenbe, an enrapturing residence Jill calls “a serious mix of who we are.” For now, we’re standing by for the big reveal.
Vivian Bencich & John Bencich
Square Feet Studio
LEED-accredited architect John Bencich and architect-turned-interior designer Vivian Bencich met as graduate students at Georgia Tech in 1989. But it was more than a decade before they converged to form Square Feet Studio, a firm the couple created to resolve the disconnect they noticed between the interior design and architecture worlds.
Embracing a philosophy of simplicity and sustainability, the Square Feet Studio team of eight works in harmony at their BeltLine-adjacent, LEED Gold-certified office, which is furnished with Herman Miller chairs, salvaged steel desks and a Skylar Morgan table tailor-made for their “meetings of the mind,” Vivian says. The couple has also carved out communal pinup areas, project stations and a “room within a room,” so the principals can power through ideas while sipping on coffee.
Square Feet Studio projects are renowned for weaving storylines visitors can connect with, whether the firm is enhancing a building’s historical blueprint or crafting fresh character for first-generation spaces—this much is evident in their award-winning projects (accolades from AIA, IIDA and ADAC keep stacking up) as well as their showroom designs for industry veterans like Ryan Hughes and Jared Paul. All told, these two “divide-and-conquer” types live by one sage piece of advice: Always have a sense of humor. Success, they recognize, is more than just spending time together; it’s also paying attention. “Working together is not unlike the mechanics of marriage,” says John. “You need to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, make collective decisions, have each other’s back, but tell your partner if you think they’re wrong, too. And, always trust your gut.”
Nancy Duffey & Ryan Duffey
J. Ryan Duffey Architect, Inc. + Scout for the Home Interiors
Atlanta native Nancy Duffey may come from an enviable design lineage (her grandmother is acclaimed designer Carolyn Malone), but she’s never been one to rest on her laurels. After earning an art history degree from Ole Miss, the designer cut her teeth with Dan Carithers, Susan Bozeman and Summerour & Associates, where she landed in 2006. It was there that she met her future husband, Ryan Duffey, a bright West Texas native with an architecture degree from Notre Dame. “Our first project together was in Savannah,” Ryan recounts. “After a great dinner out, I let it slip that I had feelings for her. Initially, I don’t think it changed anything, but I had planted a seed!” That seed blossomed, and the couple wed in 2009.
Shortly thereafter, the pair teamed up to open Nancy’s East Andrews retail boutique, Scout for the Home, while Ryan opened his practice, J. Ryan Duffey Architect, in 2011. At first, collaborations were sporadic, but as Nancy’s focus shifted to interiors in 2014, they traded the store for a joint office space—where their two dogs and daughter can also play—allowing them more team-up time than ever. To wit, the duo has completed
renovations in Brookhaven and Druid Hills.
“When we are collaborating on a project, our best ideas come when our minds are at ease: on the porch, a neighborhood walk with the dogs or cooking dinner,” Ryan says. And their talents shine separately, too; Nancy is pairing up on projects with a few other local architects, though she remains her husband’s biggest fan. Ryan’s sound reputation reflects his dedication both in the studio and in the field. With second homes in the works at Serenbe, Seagrove Beach and Lake Burton, his designs are also bringing dreams to fruition for a lucky few—including the Duffey’s growing family.
Michelle Martin & Greg Martin
Kolo Collection + Atlanta Made
Michelle and Greg Martin met on a blind date in 2000, then married a little over a year later, barefoot on a beach in St. Lucia. Just two years after their union, they debuted Kolo Collection, the Westside outdoor furniture store that has commanded countless fans—designers and consumers alike—in the 12 years since. This sweeping success is partly due to their combined pedigree: Greg’s grandparents had owned the only furniture store in his hometown of Ellis, Kansas, so he learned the ropes well before trying his hand at law and music management—and boomeranging back to his true passion. Michelle has spent her entire career in the design trade, beginning her journey at the Atlanta Decorative Arts center in 1988.
While Michelle is a problem solver, Greg is the idea generator, always asking, “What is the next big thing?” He commands the business arm of the company while Michelle masters sales. And thanks to their neighborly approach, they’ve established an atmosphere that’s inviting and upbeat. Customers come to peruse top-of-the-line inventory by Brown Jordan, DEDON, Royal Botania, Fermob, Manutti, Walters Wicker, Loll Designs, Jensen Leisure and Mamagreen. So when Michelle decided to parlay their following into an adjacent new concept, Atlanta MADE, in 2013, Greg was nothing short of supportive. Her dream of corralling the best local talent quickly amassed a huge fan base, garnering numerous media accolades. Currently splitting duties for two stores, the partners overlap less these days, but always remain in sync. “We sell what we love and believe in,” Michelle says. Case in point: Kolo’s latest venture, the Grill Zone, which opened in July, and a new e-commerce site certain to catapult it to even more stratospheric success.
Lauriel Leonard & Craig Smith
Interior designer Lauriel Leonard and former medical account rep Craig Smith first crossed paths 20 years ago, when Craig spotted Lauriel across a furniture showroom. Lauriel’s best friend and the store’s owner, Tim Hobby, played matchmaker, setting up the pair on a blind date that turned out to be “the best I ever had,” she recalls.
After marrying two years later, they launched Dex Industries in 2000—the culmination of a creative spark from Craig, who conjectured that concrete countertops would be a chic addition to their new kitchen. He mixed the first batch in the garage, and after designers like Michael Habachy praised the results, the rest of the design world followed. In the years since, the couple has collaborated with blue-chip brands such as Ann Sacks, Clodagh and the Rockwell Group, while Dex Industries has mushroomed to 20 employees. Everything from seashells to soda bottles show up in their artful, often recycled terrazzo materials.
Beyond countertops, their commissions include furnishings, tiles, sinks, even exterior ductal cladding for a Louis Vuitton boutique. Though they’ve contributed to The Setai Miami Beach and The Regent Palms in Turks and Caicos, they keep busy close to home, too, from their 100-year-old, 65,000-square-foot industrial headquarters made of—what else?—concrete. Their advice to married moguls: “It either works or it doesn’t. The good news is you find out quickly if it doesn’t,” Lauriel says with a laugh.
Courtney Tilinski & Randy Tilinski
Randy and Courtney Tilinski met through mutual friends in 1992, then found their paths continually crossing. “I had a crush on Courtney from the first day I met her, but was extremely shy,” Randy confesses. “We finally got there, though. The first time she went to New York, I gave her a list of places to go.” The devoted couple wed in 1996, and nurtured big dreams of going into business together. Though Courtney began her career in fashion, the pair first teamed up at the now-defunct Virginia-Highland shop Maddix Deluxe, where she served as CEO and buyer, and Randy as chief financial officer.
With the help of the store’s original owner, current Jamestown Properties COO Michael Phillips, they boldly opened Bungalow Classic on the Westside in 2000, around the time Bacchanalia was first making its mark. “We traveled to New York, L.A., San Francisco and Paris … and we saw these glimmers of ideas we wanted to replicate in a more affordable city,” says Randy. “We knew no one could do it as expansively as we could in Atlanta.” To this day, their light-filled, bi-level showroom on Howell Mill Road feels just as collected, worldly and interesting as ever. “I can be a bit more formal and classic, while Randy can lean a bit more primitive or modern,” Courtney explains of the aesthetic they brilliantly layer together. “We’ve learned to give and take in that sense, to create something that can coexist,” adds Randy, who typically handles finances and tackles the “big picture” of the showroom design. “He sets up the foundational sofas and chairs, and I come back in to do the pillows and lamps,” Courtney says. That lighting includes Suzanne Kasler, Aerin Lauder, Mr. Brown, Made Goods and Simon Pearce.
This month, the couple will introduce eight patterns in six colorways of exclusive Clay McLaurin textiles and toss pillows. And while their boutique of Verellen linen furniture remains a point of pride, they just welcomed a half-dozen additions to their own line of upholstery. “Designers love it because it can be customized,” says Randy. “I think everyone enjoys the fact that they can have something special.”