“What I do is not for the museum,” says decorator Alessandra Branca. “It’s for life.” The items featured in her Chicago home-design store, set to open this month, stay true to this mandate and to Branca’s reputation for informed irreverence (this is, after all, a woman who has created lamps for clients out of 19th-century boot forms, Malaysian daggers, and antique camera stands). Visitors to the shop on Pearson Street, just a block away from the Chicago-style emporium Ikram, Branca notes, will find classic garden seats and 18th-century Chinese armoires. Except instead of the traditional porcelain, the seats ($750 each) are constructed from recycled foreign newspapers and the armoire (from $8,000) is gutted, lined, and used as a dry bar.
Whether it is high-low or old-new, for a client’s private island retreat in the Bahamas or for a 19th-century country house in Connecticut, contrast is Branca’s thing. “In opposition,” she says, “each piece is somehow exalted.” Growing up in Rome—her grandfather was art historian to the Vatican museums—Branca had much of her clothing made for her. Today, she says, she likes Prada jackets and J.Crew khakis. At the store this philosophy of contrast is translated into utilitarian luggage racks covered in red velvet ($375) or a feathered African tribal hat ($750) hung over a prim canopy bed.
There is no tabletop section or linen department in the three-level turn-of-the-century brownstone—“people don’t divide and decorate their homes by category.” Instead, a striped organic-cotton blanket ($250) might be draped over an 18th-century banquette ($15,000), at the foot of which sits a stack of new and rare books (from $50) and two handblown Belgian glass vases ($500). On the other side an end table covered in black suede and nail heads (from $750) may hold a red carafe ($315), a walnut column lamp from the 1800s with an antique paisley shade ($6,000 for a pair), and a red painted sea fan mounted on an antique fish-and-ebony candlestick ($2,800). The feeling of being a guest in the home of a friend with exquisite taste and a well-stamped passport is played up throughout: A 12-foot-long ebonized bar and six barstools, for example, are set up just off the entrance. In the “library” a selection of current newspapers and periodicals—foreign and domestic—is offered next to a comfortable wing chair. Reading is encouraged.
The organizing principle is Branca’s eye. A student of art history rather than interior design, Branca relies on what she terms an obsessive streak but others define as unerring instinct. “She bought a Maison Jansen black lacquered commode from me in 1995,” says Manhattan antiques dealer Louis Bofferding. “That was well before everyone was buying Jansen.” Recently she bought an 18th-century walnut sofa. The Rococo purchase, says Bofferding, provides further proof that Branca is always on the verge. “Now that midcentury modern prices have gone through the roof,” says Bofferding, “smart collectors are looking at really old things again.” And what should shoppers at the new boutique expect to find? “Alessandra Branca combines European panache with good old Chicago know-how.” An irresistible combination, if ever there was one.
Branca is located on 17 E. Pearson St., Chicago. For more information, contact 312-787-1017 or go to branca.com.