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Alessandra Branca's Apartment in Rome
Favorite things greet Chicago designer Alessandra Branca when she arrives at the family apartment in Italy
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Most of the year, Chicago designer Alessandra Branca—a whirling dervish known for her fresh takes on old-world style—can be found buzzing around the Windy City. There she and her husband and three children live in an elegant house by the 20th-century neoclassicist David Adler, and there she keeps tabs on her home furnishings and accessories boutique, Atelier Branca, where the walls are raspberry red and the offerings frothily chic. But when she has a chance to get away for a week or two, friends, family, and fans know that she’s on her way to O’Hare to board the next flight to Rome.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Chicago,” says Alessandra, who moved to the United States from Italy when she was a college student. “But for me, Rome is home. When I’m here, I savor every moment,” says the designer, who spends about 10 weeks a year in the Italian capital. “I’m inspired by everything around me.” She gets a special buzz knowing that the cobblestones under her feet are the same ones that Michelangelo walked on. “It’s a very reassuring feeling to know that so much of what you see around you has all been there for 2,000 years.”
Photography: Thibault Jeanson
Produced by Jenny Bradley
That sense of history is palpable on the home front as well. The four-bedroom apartment that the designer shares with her husband, Steve Uihlein, their children, Alex, Andrew, and Anna Lucia, and her artist mother and frequent design collaborator, Anna Chiara Branca, is located on the piano nobile, or second floor, of a 16th-century monastery that abuts Palazzo Farnese. Outside its front door runs Via Giulia, a historic thoroughfare that leads to St. Peter’s Basilica; a few steps away is Piazza di Campo dei Fiori, a venerable square whose greenmarket is where Alessandra shops for vegetables.
The 18th-century Spanish table in the entrance hall is often pulled out into the center of the room for dining; the antlers, which Alessandra found at a flea market in Paris, date from the 1920s.
Flanking an 18th century tortoiseshell mirror in the tile-floored entrance hall are sets of antlers dating from the 1920s. Under a table is arranged a collection of marble feet, the remnants of classical statues. Colorful butterflies flutter for eternity beneath glass domes that are tucked atop a Directoire bookcase.
Fragments of long-forgotten statues, the assortment of old marble feet was assembled by the designer’s mother, artist Anna Chiara Branca.
“The building was bombed during World War II, so it lost many of its original details, though some of the beamed ceilings survived,” she says. “The architecture of the bedrooms at the back of the apartment, which was rebuilt after the war, is very modern and simple, while the front rooms have a more historic feeling.” Still, she had no interest in establishing formal suites of rooms with papal-style splendors. The life she and her family lead in Rome doesn’t allow for fancy trappings. She often finds herself walking a dozen miles a day, she says (“The only car we are ever in is from the airport”), picking up flowers, vegetables, and bread from neighborhood vendors, visiting craftsmen, seeing art exhibitions. “This city is about relaxing,” says Alessandra, granddaughter of an art critic for L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican City newspaper. “So I look at the apartment as a space that expands and contracts according to our needs.”
The 19th-century bookcase in the entrance hall conceals a desk that is just one of several places to work or study in the apartment.
There is no formal dining room, for example. “We rarely eat anything but breakfast at home anyway,” she explains. When they do dine in, the Branca-Uihlein clan and their guests eat in whichever room suits the moment and the size of the gathering, as would have been done in the 18th century, back when dining rooms were largely unknown. Sometimes diners head to the entrance hall, where an antique Spanish Baroque table can be pulled to the center of the room.
Walls painted deep plum embrace the breakfast area of Alessandra Branca’s apartment in Rome, Italy, her hometown.
For a large group, the desk in the living room can be extended to seat 16 people and is flanked by folding chairs and, often, a 10-foot ebonized banquette. “Designing the rooms to be used in easily convertible ways is a better way to live,” Alessandra says. “The apartment is a real study in multiuse, in being able to put your feet up and relax. Every room has a desk, so you can study where you like. It’s not about showing off; it’s just about living.”
Living and Dining Area
At Casa Branca, living means living well. The main rooms, which are decorated with shades of red, coral, cream, and brown—earthy colors that absorb and tame the brilliant sunlight that bounces off the neighboring buildings and the shimmering Tiber River—are outfitted with a mixmaster array of objects whose origins range from high to low.
A desk in the living room can expand to seat 16 people; the dramatically striped unlined curtains were assembled from individual strips of paisley fabric set on panels of creamy Milanese linen.
Here and there are artworks by Alessandra’s mother, including the murals of fountains in the master bedroom and dessert plates hand-painted to depict the life cycle of plants, from tender bud to dying leaves.
Anna Chiara Branca designed and painted the dinner plates, which depict various flowering plants— in this case, a passionflower vine—throughout their lifespan, from newly sprouted to last dying gasp.
More than a few of the items in the apartment are the result of Alessandra’s inspired recycling. Utilitarian scales were reborn as table lamps. Indian voile saris were transformed into lamp shades. And in the living room, plain curtains of Milanese linen were jazzed up with vertical strips of paisley fabric.
Deep red sofas plump with down occupy a corner of the living room; the large wall hanging that depicts two putti lounging against an armorial shield was a gift from Alessandra’s husband.
“You have to enjoy the process of collaboration when you are creating a home,” says the designer. Tracking down and working closely with the right craftsperson who can make the perfect lamp shade or who can upholster an eye-catching chair, she insists, is at least half the fun. “That’s how you put your stamp on your surroundings.”
The iron bed in the master bedroom is left bare to show off its sculptural form. Anna Chiara Branca painted the images of marble fountains.
Curtains are gently parted to reveal a glimpse of the piazza. The 18th-century chair’s upholstery has been mitered for couture-quality interest.
Designer At Home: Alessandra Branca
American designers have always absorbed and reinterpreted influences from abroad to create a distinctly Yankee sense of style. So what happens when a designer born and raised in one of the most style-conscious countries in the world comes to live, love, and decorate on the plains of the Midwest? When that designer is the Italian-born Alessandra Branca, it means that the glamorous vocabulary of the old world—Italian luxuriousness, English country comforts, French sensuality—gets a healthy dash of New World energy and practicality. (The life-force blonde is not a mother of three for nothing.) Whatever the mix of styles or jolt of colors, Branca-made spaces always rely on classic underpinnings that include custom upholstery with suave antiques, hand-painted wallpaper, handwoven floor coverings (natural abaca fiber is a big favorite), and fine art that is big on charm but low on pomp. There are always touches of eye-opening wit, too, like the surprise of an old-fashioned chandelier encased in a giant transparent lamp shade or walls painted a sassy shade of Schiaparelli pink. The bottom line? Pretty rooms for modern living, 24-7.