When Manhattan decorator Nannette Brown accepted a commission to refresh a northern New Jersey mansion, she assumed it would be a sizable job, but hardly life-changing. The owners were a married couple moving back to the U.S. with their three children—to the very area where the wife had grown up—after years in London. They were experienced in such moves and had the resources and natural bonhomie to ensure a smooth renovation of the 14,000- square-foot home. "They're very calm and full of joy, with a great sense of humor," Brown says.
Golden retrievers Charlie and Cru in the mudroom; the pendants are by Ironware International, and zinc trays are inset into a floor covered in American Olean tiles.
As it turned out, the couple and their intrepid designer would need every ounce of that calm, joyful humor: Just a few months before the project was to begin in earnest, the house was wiped out by a devastating fire. The owners and their children were, thankfully, in London at the time, and the house manager was at the movies, but the family's two beloved golden retrievers, one just a puppy, were lost in the blaze. "It was truly horrible and sad," Brown recalls.
The billiard room's vintage club chairs and 19th-century pine table are English, a 1940s lamp is on a vintage French zinc-topped console, and the billiard table is custom made; the paneling is stained oak, the curtains are of a fabric by Pollack, and the carpet is by Couristan.
The couple had no choice but to rethink everything—fast, despite their shock and grief—and Brown suddenly found herself at the helm of a massive from-the-ground-up project that had to be completed in 18 months. Not only would they be building from scratch, but virtually none of the items that had already been purchased for the house survived the conflagration.
The master bath is sheathed in Bardiglio marble; the tub by Kohler has fittings by Dornbracht.
"I had no idea it would wind up being the most ambitious and amazing thing I have ever done," says Brown, who is perhaps best known for her stewardship of the high-society stationer Mrs. John L. Strong, which she and her husband, financier Jeffrey Lubin, once owned.
The master bedroom's bed and side tables are custom designs, the linens are by Frette, the reading light is by Stephen Miller Siegel, and the vintage lamp bases are from Ruby Beets; the walls are upholstered in a Pindler fabric, and the carpet is by Woolshire Carpet Mills.
Luckily, the fire did provide one break: The good samaritan who first spotted the flames and called the fire department was John Paul Di Staulo, a prominent local builder with whom the wife had gone to high school. He wound up heading the construction, creating a team of subcontractors and artisans who worked with a determined harmony that Brown had never before experienced.
Framed 19th-century English pressed plants in a sitting area; the wallcovering is by Phillip Jeffries.
"There was not a negative word said in all those months, despite the enormous pressure we were all under," she says, still incredulous. "The community really embraced this family. There was a constant air of support."
A 1950s lamp from Laurin Copen Antiques sits atop a custom-made desk in the children's study; the cabinetry is painted in Farrow & Ball's Bone, the wallcovering is by Holland & Sherry, and the rug is from the Carpetman.
While lesser (or at least less upbeat) mortals might have freaked out when their house burned down, the clients kept their cool in impressive ways. Brown and the wife flew to London and Paris for "power shopping" trips to antiques shops and flea markets. "In a way, I think it's easier to do a project like this—you don't have the time to dither or let your sadness get to you," says the wife. "You just plunge in and make decisions."
The entrance features a pair of 19th-century Chinese demilune tables and 1970s Murano glass lamps atop a 1950s Italian console; the custom-made stair railing was inspired by one in a Paris apartment, and the floor is bluestone and marble.
At last finished, the stately house, which sits on an acre of land, shows no sign of the turmoil and ashes from which it was born. It has high-gloss coffered ceilings painted in shades of deep grayish-blue and a curved staircase made of oil-rubbed iron inspired by one that Brown saw at a Paris dinner party. The vast living spaces are lush but uncrowded, with 20-foot-high windows and minimalist fireplaces around which the parents and children gather.
Bistro chairs by Maison Gatti surround a 19th-century English rectory table in the kitchen; the vintage pendant lights were found at a Paris flea market, the refrigerator is by Sub-Zero, the range is by Wolf, the floor is ebonized oak, and the subway tiles are by American Olean.
The home is large, but the family uses every inch of it. They are frequent entertainers—the wife is a Cordon Bleu graduate—so the elegantly outfitted laundry room serves double-duty as a second kitchen.
A 19th-century Anglo-Indian desk, 1940s rosewood barrel chairs, and a 1970s Italian chandelier in the husband's study.
The children's rooms are meticulous expressions of their personalities; for the daughter, a glamour-puss on the cusp of her college years, Brown and the wife ferreted out vintage fashion magazines on London's Portobello Road and in the Paris flea markets to collage a wall (a few family photos are hidden amid the Avedons and Scavullos). The husband, who works on Wall Street, has a hideaway where he can indulge his love of the New York Jets and billiards.
The sectional sofa in the wife's study is upholstered in a Schumacher velvet with Samuel & Sons trim, the cocktail table is by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne, and the walls are paneled with custom-made brass grilles.
One thing the wife made sure the new house had was space for the family to repose, in the form of three warm, inviting studies—one for the husband, another for herself, and a third for their kids. Hers showcases an antique floor-to-ceiling card catalog that she and Brown found in London. Because they built the house from scratch, they were able to configure the room to accommodate it perfectly.
In the living room of a Bergen County, New Jersey, home designed by Nannette Brown, the custom-made sofa is upholstered in a Rogers & Goffigon fabric, which is also used for the curtains; the armchairs, which are covered in a Great Plains linen, and ottoman are from the 19th century, the 1960s sconces are German, the rug is by Doris Leslie Blau, and the drawing over the sofa is by Catherine Jansens.
Friends expressed shock that she would do an all–off white living room—so hard to keep clean when you have a bustling family—but she just laughs: "When you've been through a fire like that, a tragedy, you don't care about whether the sofas are perfect. You just want everyone to be happy and safe." That, of course, includes the newest members of the family: Cru and Charlie—joyfully sloppy, relentlessly exuberant young golden retrievers.
This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Siweb.