There are those who travel, and those who travel well. Michelle Nussbaumer is most definitely in the latter category, as one can easily observe when paging through the glossy images in her new book — a first for the Dallas interior designer.
Wanderlust: Interiors That Bring the World Home, out this week from Rizzoli, captures her luxuriously bohemian aesthetic, one where color is embraced, patterns are effortlessly played with, and treasures from around the world are just simply part of a not-so-everyday family’s daily environment.
Even before she knew what she would do for a living, Nussbaumer’s upbringing set the stage for a life of globe-trotting and collecting.
“My aunt was an antique dealer, my mom was an artist, and my dad was a poet, so it went from that,” says the designer. “We went to Europe and Mexico as kids, and also my grandmother used to have a house in New Mexico, so we would go to the Indian reservations. It’s a multicultural thing.”
Originally intending to be an actress when studying at Southern Methodist University, Nussbaumer’s training included a class in set design, which sparked an interest in how people live. She soon discovered she had a dramatic sense of scale, proportion, and color.
Shortly after graduation, she met her husband, movie producer Bernard Nussbaumer, and relocated to Rome in the 1980s, where she found herself conveniently sandwiched between the homes of the director Franco Zeffirelli and the fashion designer Valentino. As both homes were done by the legendary architect and set designer Renzo Mongiardino, it was quite an introduction to a way of decorating that was both layered and luxe.
“I saw those properties, and that was super influential,” she recalls. “He’s the most amazing decorator that ever lived, and everywhere you look is beautiful. Living in Europe is where I really started looking at antiques and fabrics. I saw these places that people think are magical, and that was my everyday life!”
She was also exposed to the way Europeans use their possessions, no matter how old or valuable. “People think French people look so chic, but maybe they have on one great thing and wear it every day. I’m a big believer in using what you have instead of everything being too precious,” she says.
Nussbaumer had already begun helping friends find antiques for their homes, but it wasn’t until she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s that her design business really took flight. She opened a small shop with some friends, and in just a few years she was designing homes for the likes of Interscope Records founder Ted Field. By the middle of the decade, four children and a full schedule of ballet and soccer led the Nussbaumers to move back to Dallas, where they still owned a home.
Launching her showroom Ceylon et Cie in the Design District in 1996, Nussbaumer deemed it to only be open between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm so she could be available for car pool. Her LA jobs were for multimillion-dollar budgets, but being a mom was a much more important priority.
“I feel like I was on the fast track, then I moved here and everything slowed down,” she says. “I was always a mom first. In LA, I was interviewing for projects for some A-list Hollywood people, and when I moved here, I put the word out [that she designed] at school. Some girl called me and said she needed a new bed skirt, so I did her bed skirt!”
However, it wasn’t long before her talent got her media attention, mainly for her unique approach during a time that a room of all Ralph Lauren was considered de rigueur. Mixing treasures from the Medina of Fez, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and Marché aux Puces in Paris with modern pieces and family heirlooms, her gorgeous, global style more than deserved its own monograph.
“I wanted to do a book for years, and I realized it was time,” she says. “It had to have a travel element to it, and a personal element too. I only went to Rizzoli, and if that hadn’t worked out, maybe I wouldn’t have done the book! It’s one of the biggest books they’ve done. I had to take out half the projects.”
Included are her own homes in Dallas and Switzerland. (The 11-year restoration of the family’s hacienda in San Miguel de Allende is being saved for a later volume.) Nussbaumer says she continues to seek treasures far and wide — a trip to India is slated for later this fall — but tries to take jobs that align with her immediate family, who reside in such far-flung places as Paris, London, Boston, and the Middle East.
Although her epic interiors may seem like a distant fairy tale for those used to picking out a couch at Restoration Hardware, the designer says a few simple rules can help anyone take a page from her covetable book.
“Buy what you love, and don’t listen to all of your friends,” she advises. “More is more and less is obviously less, unless you’re on a diet. Don’t be afraid of color. And always have one antique that’s the best thing you can get, and one good piece of art somewhere in your house.
“Open your eyes, and enjoy the world.”