Brick & Wonder Profile: Nannette Brown

With transitions from journalist and news anchor, to designer, luxury stationer and media entrepreneur, Nannette Brown’s career resists straightforward labeling. Nevertheless, her connected, intuitive design sensibility resonates throughout her work. We caught up with Nannette to hear her story.

There’s a lot to cover, but perhaps start by telling us a little about who you are today.
I always find it interesting in today’s world that we define ourselves by what we do. Life is an evolution and I’ve had so many experiences personally and professionally that I find it hard to say what I “do”. In a way, I’m an aesthetic scientist. I’m fascinated by everything about the aesthetic parts of life: home, rituals, space, social life – the sensory experience we live in, we work in, how things look, smell and taste, how they make us feel.
And you originally studied journalism?
Yes, I started out as a journalist, following presidents around the campaign trail! After that, I used to anchor the news for NBC affiliates. But I was born with a very intuitive sense of scale and proportion, so I found I was in tune with my environment. I remember looking at my classroom in elementary school and thinking, ‘this could look nicer, this room could look a lot better’. My mother would come home when I was a kid and find all the furniture rearranged. 
Later on, I worked as a journalist but outside work I gravitated towards museums and antique shops. My own interiors started to reflect what I was learning in these places. Friends started asking me to do their homes for them, and my pastime evolved to become my profession.
I don’t consider myself an interior decorator – I find this too limiting. I consult with clients on all sorts of things. I interpret and imagine the life they want to live: what real estate to buy, what jewellery to buy, their art collections. I’ve designed everything from homes to digital interfaces to an aircraft interior. I have a point of view on all these things.
If design felt intuitive, how come you started out elsewhere?
Because it was intuitive and natural, somehow I couldn’t reconcile it as being “worthy” or “intellectual” enough – I wanted to write, to be in business. Intellectually I was in pursuit of other things, but I came back to design because I realized my creative assets could serve my larger business interests. This is when it all started to come together. I had started doing design projects for friends, so I aligned with an architect and built a firm. Together we got a lot of publicity and quite quickly, we had a 15-person firm doing a lot of projects. 

I then bought a luxury stationery company and in the midst of driving these two businesses, my husband at the time was transferred to England. We moved there for 13 years. We tried to keep the design business running with me working from England, but it proved to be too difficult.

I went to bed one night and when I woke up I owned a retail company.

After you left the firm, you focused on running the luxury paper company full time. How did that unfold?

I have always loved paper, and I have a strong entrepreneurial streak. When I finished a design project, I would always give the client a box of bespoke house papers from Mrs John L Strong, a heritage paper company, founded in 1929 and sold at Barney’s. 

As it turns out, a dear friend of mine was consulting for a French luxury group at that time, and they were looking for American brands to buy up into their portfolio. They were considering Mrs John L Strong, and I joked with my friend that if the deal died, I would buy the company. 

Well, sadly 9/11 happened and the deal fell through. So in 2001, we bought this old New York luxury stationery brand. I went to bed one night and when I woke up I owned a retail company.

It was really difficult to juggle both a design firm and a luxury brand—and rightfully so. My design partner was having a tough time with my absence, so I left our design firm, setting up my own, and I transitioned to running MJLS full-time while commuting between New York and London. 

Quite a career change! How did that go?
I immediately went about creating a circle of advisors who could teach me what I needed to know. We were doing a bespoke, hand-crafted product before craft became cool, and we really wanted to keep production in the US instead of offshoring it. I expanded the business, launching lines of leather goods, and I negotiated with Barneys to get MJLS branded boutiques inside their stores in NY, Chicago and Beverly Hills. But, fast forward 11 years and it didn’t end so well. It was a large chunk of humble pie! I was putting so much work and passion into it, not to mention a ton of money. It was a tall order to compete against the biggest luxury brands in the world so I went out to raise capital. Investors came in, but they were the wrong investors at the wrong time. The economy was taking a turn for the worse. The investors failed their tranches and we simply ran out of road. It was devastating. 

Without doubt I made a lot of mistakes. I raised capital on a great valuation, but sadly the economy in 2009 tanked us. I landed the plane as best I could – and we ended up selling the company. 

I wanted to take all the professional assets I had acquired and express all of them at once

And this led to your return to the US and to more design-focused work?
When things were really tumbling I relocated to the US. At this point it was clear to me that the business was going to be sold and reorganized. I needed a creative outlet. I had been really submerged in the quicksand of trying to salvage the business. 

Some friends of mine were relocating from England to the US and they wanted to do a renovation. They asked for my help finding a designer. I said: “Me!” That restarted my interior design practice, but I wanted to do something different this time. 

I took a big personal inventory – I wanted to take all the professional assets I had acquired and express all of them at once, so I started a media company and began filming the projects. At the time, TV shows based around interior design were very “shoot from the hip” and very formulaic. I wanted to make it more cinematic, more of a film experience. 

You’re now working on a development project, incorporating your television experience and media company. Can you tell us more about that? 

A colleague of mine who’s worked in television and real estate development was contacted by a producer in LA, wanting to create a show about the intersection of design and real estate. He connected us and we are in discussion to develop something together which really foots nicely with business interests I have down south.

In the 80s, my father was one of the largest property developers in middle Tennessee. He left me and my sister some land between Nashville and Knoxville, including a mountain! We’re looking at doing a project there, which would also be shot for a show.  turned into a show. There’s a lot of data showing the two cities are growing, so it’s an interesting proposition. I toured a lot of developments around the US to learn what’s driving housing developments today: about the projects: the services, the architecture, the nexus of culture and community, the urban demographics in 1st, 2nd or 3d tier cities.

Tennessee is beautiful – the land is heaven! Lakes and hills and green space, with four distinct seasons, but milder than the northeast. The heritage of Tennessee is rich: agriculture, music, food, Appalachian craft. And I am absolutely obsessed with health sciences and longevity research. Wouldn’t it be cool to use the natural resources of the land with facilities that promote health and wellness and offer this lifestyle in a residential experience? We want to build something sustainable, good for people, good for the earth. 

The documentary aspect would be a show that intersects business with design – both things that people love! We’ve been working hard on the genesis and the narrative, so the viewer can see us go out to raise capital and take each step. We’re playing with all those factors now, determining how to best share these experiences with the viewer. And I’m being humbled by it every day! 

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