Renowned interior designer, author, and traveler Michelle Nussbaumer finds herself inspired by old-world charm, such as that in the classical art mecca of Rome where she lived for many years, developing her design talents and acquiring a deeper love for antiques and fine art (especially Caravaggio). Like Caravaggio, Nussbaumer’s understanding of color, light and space was also mostly self-taught.
Although Nussbaumer’s love of craftsmanship, heritage, and hidden artisans is evident, it doesn’t overwhelm her design work. A home is not meant to be a museum, and the art of her craft is in the subtle way she is able to sprinkle elements of old-world charm throughout a home while still keeping it livable. “The first thing that’s important is to make the house user and contemporary friendly for this family. I wouldn’t put an antique Moroccan sofa in a house with children. You can have elements of this whole look; you can’t have a jumble of every different culture in one room. What you need is a contemporary situation with some elements, ideas, or references. That there’s a special piece in the room that sings to your soul.”
“Pretty much everyone that I use is some guy on a dusty road in Morocco; it’s not like these people have some kind of website.”
Using her own eye for design, Nussbaumer works with local artisans to “bring their craftsmanship to the modern age, doing something perhaps they hadn’t thought of, which is still honoring their time-held traditions.” Recently, Nussbaumer was looking for someone in Mexico to make custom tiles. She heard rumblings about an artisan who was making traditional tiles somewhere around the town where she owns a home. After two days she got lucky and ran into a man who pointed her down a dirt road. At the end of the road, she stumbled on the artisan making his art in a small workshop in the back of his home. They conversed in Spanish as she explained the difficulty she went through to find his studio. The man looked up at her and said, “Well, I’m on Facebook!” The artisan ended up making the beautiful custom work Nussbaumer needed for the project, and the journey was well worth it.
Some may think the lengths that Nussbaumer goes to find artisans around the world and expose their work is beyond expectations, but for her, finding the best craftsman in the world is part of her mission as an artist. Exposing these hidden works to her clients enhances her ability to design the unique and beautiful spaces she’s known for.
In addition, the mass-market copies of these crafts fail to embody the essence of the genuine and handmade. Even in practical terms, it’s not the same at all. Nussbaumer uses one group of artisans as an example. “You have to understand — when they make a red, there’s this beetle that they crush up, and that’s what the red is. You can get that, you can copy that. It doesn’t fade the same way; it’ll never be the same as getting a red alkaline dye.”
The inherent need to keep these traditions alive is not totally lost. For instance, in India, there’s a marketplace called Dillihaat where Nussbaumer says “a lot of these little individual people have a marketplace to show their things.” Nussbaumer is working to bring a similar celebration of craft to Mexico in the next few years in an effort to showcase the local artisans and expose them to the design world.
She just published her first book, Wanderlust: Interiors That Bring the World Home, a collection of travel stories and inspired design from a lifestyle on international decorating. The book embodies the importance of celebrating culture and craftsmanship in design. It also sums up much of Nussbaumer’s design philosophy. “We are always reinventing ourselves, no matter who we are. There’s also something about distant lands that feels exciting and motivating.”