Designer Jenny Brown's Creative Discernment
By GINNY VAN ALYEA
Jenny Brown once had the most glamorous internship you could have, back in the late 1990s: a stint at Sotheby’s in Chicago. Every day, she remembers took the train downtown from Lake Forest, looked forward to her sushi lunch break, and she didn’t get paid.
For some today the lack of pay might cause a millennial mutiny, but at the time, something more scandalous, and worthy of a top secret all-company meeting – including interns – was the corporate announcement that Sotheby’s would soon launch a website.
Brown remembers, “Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God! That’s so tacky! Sotheby’s needs a website? Really?’”
With an art history major and a minor in classics, she relished the chance to be in the city every day. Working in the different auction departments, writing catalogue descriptions, and just being around an endless array of beautiful things was a creatively fulfilling proximity Brown has managed to string out and develop for 20 years. Today she has her own interior design firm, Jenny Brown Designs, based in Chicago.
Though her time in the auction world was brief, it was the first of several steps that helped Brown hone a multifaceted professional role in a creative world.
The summer after interning at Sotheby’s, Brown worked for art dealer Robert Henry Adams in his eponymous River North gallery on Franklin Street. She recalls “That was a different experience, since they weren’t dealing with contemporary art and they were focused on Chicago artists and mostly art from the early 19 century. He was just such a lovely person, and working for him gave me exposure to the art world and being in that neighborhood. I would run all over as the errand girl, and I lived for it.”
Two decades later, Brown regularly exposes her own two young boys to art in Chicago and during family travels. The effort continues, to an extent, where her design projects are concerned. “I encourage clients to look at art that’s original and that they like, and I love to do it together. Since I know it’s personal, sometimes the art comes after a project is finished, when the client is on their own. There’s an old saying that you don’t want to match your art to your curtains.” Ultimately art in a home can work best when it’s not part of a check list for a design project.
Brown says she’s always been interested in precious objects as well as art, and each of those summer jobs opened up the world a little more for her, carrying her from hobbies to a profession. “I have always loved bring creative – I would spend all my money as a kid on crafts, for instance. Then I would go around to garage sales and street fairs when I was a little older. And even now I still stash all sorts of things, until I know where they will go, though I hesitate to amass inventory.”
From lingering in random stores to driving around and pulling over for used furniture, developing an eye by looking for surprises has always been fulfilling, Brown admits. Behind-the-scenes access to livable spaces, as well as a desire to fine tune personal surroundings, inspire Brown’s treasure hunts.
Thinking about her earliest jobs, Brown says, “Growing up I loved babysitting, because I liked kids, making money and going around to see houses. I loved seeing how people live and visiting new places. You never know what is going to stay with you.”
While she was studying art history in college, as well as living abroad, in each place she was rearranging her bedroom. “I would put the desk here, and the sofa here, and I’d go out and get a tapestry from Urban Outfitters.” She enjoyed figuring out a space. “I had all these sketches back to when I would set up my dorm room, so I started to realize this is what I could do.”
Brown’s professional ah-ha moment came when her mother rented an apartment in Chicago. Able to spend more time in the city, she recalls, “I’d go on gallery walks, or I’d pop into these little home stores – there were so many then – and I remember buying these marble coasters and thinking how good they looked with a certain table.”
Her former co-workers had sneered at decorators. “It was like they were the devil. People would say they didn’t appreciate the art, or that they just wanted it to match something,” she explains. Brown was not discouraged, as she began to realize that because she loved bringing objects and spaces together, it could be her profession.
In high school Brown read that Bill Gates started subscribing to Forbes when he was 15, so she sent away for Architectural Digest. When she wanted to move to San Francisco after college, she flipped through the pages of an issue of AD, sent her resume to the California firms listed in the back and landed a job.
Her first day of work was September 10, 2001. Two years later a round of layoffs left Brown with an opportunity to return home, where she would encounter her next major break: the chance to work for designer Alessandra Branca’s firm in Chicago. Coming from the West Coast, where many major companies were run by men, entering Branca’s 100% women-run, black and white toile covered office excited Brown. The initial disappointment of leaving San Francisco gave way to the joy of a new life in Chicago.
After more than six years working for Branca, where Brown gained invaluable exposure working for such a highly respected name in design, she was ready for another step after her first son was born in 2010. “It was too much to go back to work right away, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking this would be a good job to do on my own. If you have the experience and are a self starter, there are so many benefits. It’s been very rewarding.”
As for what’s next Brown says, “I like keeping my business small. Right now my boys are still little, so let’s see where it goes. 10 years from now, who knows?”
Follow Brown on Instagram @JennyBrownDesigns