Brenda Ische sums up her design philosophy this way: “Everything is something else.”
Walk into Amelie’s in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood, and you understand immediately what she means. As one of three partners in the popular French bakery, Ische is in charge of image and branding, as well as the eclectic décor, which she calls a work in progress.
Walk into the southeast Charlotte home she shares with her retired pilot husband, Larry, and their foster daughter, and Ische’s design viewpoint becomes even more apparent.
“Anybody can write a check and buy something new,” Ische says about furnishings and accessories. “But life is serious enough without having fun with your surroundings. I like to stir things up and keep stuff out of landfills. It’s a ‘green’ approach, and it keeps costs down, too.”
A former flight attendant, Ische, 57, is mostly self-taught but was admittedly born with a “good eye.” She had clients on the side for years before leaving the airline industry to concentrate on design.
Her house, which her husband bought before they met, was unimaginatively “vanilla,” she said. Over the ensuing 16 years, Ische has unleashed her creative powers into transforming it into a showcase.
Everyone should discover their own design aesthetic, Ische says, but there are basic moves she has developed that might help other homeowners – or would-be Amelie’s decorators.
“So many of my clients think they have to change everything at once,” says Ische. “Not true. I tell them to start with one object, like a lamp. Paint the base, change the shade. Choose things that make a statement. That will build confidence.” (She has very few clients these days, focusing most of her time on Amelie’s.)
At home, Ische has several bold lamps she made herself by stacking items of contrasting shapes and colors onto one another, totem-style. Instant conversation pieces, as well as functional.
She trolls charity stores, flea markets and antique shops regularly. On her kitchen counter sits a porcelain birdbath that doubles as a catch-all for everything from spare change to a cell phone charger. Her desk is a cast-off that needed only a coat of paint. The sofa in the sunroom got new upholstery. All came from thrift shops.
Among her favorites: Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore at 1113 N. Wendover Road (she designed the coffee shop) and Cline’s Antiques in Mt. Pleasant.
“If an object catches your eye and is made well, ask yourself what it would look like with new upholstery or a faux finish, for instance,” she says.
Floors, walls and ceilings
For maximum impact, show off artwork and furnishings against wood, tile or marble floors, not carpet, Ische recommends. Rip out or paint over dark paneling to lighten up your space. Think of your rooms as art galleries. And scrape “popcorn” off ceilings for a smooth surface, especially if you need additional room to hang treasured items.
On Ische’s own walls are a mix of framed prints and original paintings, including one she scavenged from a dumpster. Perched above door and window frames are ceramic plates collected over the years. One wall in her husband’s study – formerly the dining room – boasts a montage of lily pads made of art glass.
“If you’re in a second-hand store and you see something you love, buy it, even if you don’t know what you might do with it,” Ische advises, especially if you have a place to store it. Ische herself has converted her home’s formal living room into an artist’s studio where she brings her “orphan” purchases. Materials for lamps, clocks, wall hangings, frames and other accessories all come here awaiting inspiration, new fabric, paint or a glue gun.
And Ische’s own handiwork – such as a tiled mosaic wheel holding spice jars – can be found throughout the house.
Embrace the old and odd
Just because something is second-hand doesn’t mean it’s useless. “Americans are into this disposable mentality,” Ische complains. “We buy it, use it and throw it away.” But that’s short-sighted from the standpoint of both design and the environment, she insists. The funky bamboo-framed daybed in her husband’s study is a case in point. “Somebody was going to get rid of it, but it was a perfectly good piece of furniture.” With some new fabric it performs its original function for naps and makes an artistic statement.
Mix and match
“I try to dispel the notion that everything has to match,” says Ische. “Some people come here (to my house) and say they feel like they’re Alice in Wonderland and have just fallen through the rabbit hole. If they’re more comfortable in an all-beige environment, that’s fine, but in my house they’ll find color. I love color. I love mixing up shapes and textures. I love putting different materials and finishes next to one another to create an unexpected effect. I love whimsy.”
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