By Sian Ballen & Lesley HaugePhotographs by Jeff Hirsch
Maria Brito made the transition from Harvard-trained corporate lawyer to becoming a "luxury lifestyle consultant" after realizing that she just couldn't take one more billable hour at the white shoe law firm where she worked. We did quiz her somewhat on her choice of title and she explained that she sees herself as a kind of hybrid interior designer and art advisor. She has some big name clients like Gwyneth Paltrow and Sean Combs but despite the "luxury lifestyle" bit, she also takes on clients with more modest budgets. Her new book, Out There: Design, Art, Travel, Shopping (Pointed Leaf Press) is a bright, visual essay on how to pick and put together an affordable art collection and place works into rooms full of life. Her own home is a cheerful mix of vibrant color with few high end pieces—although her sang-froid was tested (she passed) when Jeff almost knocked a picture off the wall (he saved it).
Click cover to order Out There: Design, Art, Travel, Shopping.
I was wondering after that piece in the Times whether you regretted a little bit that “luxury lifestyle consultant” label … given the current tough times.
You know what, I don’t know if I’m bothered by it or not. It sounds like a little of what I do, but I mean, the article came out so nicely anyway. Having just that [piece] in the greater scheme of things—she [Bee-Shuyang Chang, the Style section journalist] was very sweet … she was very generous. The Style section is the hardest section to get into. You think she could have been more snarky?
Well, you know how people are. I have years ahead of me where maybe that same label will be forgotten … I don’t know. I have to say I’m not into the GOOP [Gwyneth Paltrow’s online newsletter] to which you have contributed – people are very snarky about that all the time and often with good reason … you can be in dodgy territory with these things. You don’t want to come off as too Marie Antoinette—ish … like Gwyneth P. does.
[Hoots with laughter] You have to know her. She’s amazing. She’s a very, very sweet and grounded down-to-earth woman with a great heart, very generous. She’s a huge supporter of women. [Sian] How do you know her?
Her [business] partner, Tracey and I have been friends and I am a member of their gym … and you know, inevitably you end up in the same circles sometimes. It’s not like I go and hang out with her every day. If you notice, most of the things she posts are about women and women’s businesses. She’s trying to really make a difference in people’s lives and to be honest—she can. Because she has a lot of reach, a lot of power.
A group of small artworks hang in the front entryway. They include, clockwise from top, a silkscreen by Os Gemeos, a print by the Assume Vivid Astro Focus, a print-collage by Mickalene Thomas, a black-and-white photograph by Pamela Hanson, a metal print by Corinne Dalle-Ore and a collage by Joe Grillo.
A wooden wall sculpture by Mexican artist Remy Amezcua was installed by the artist himself using Velcro.
Family photos in silver frames from Peru and Mexico fill the top of a console in the foyer.
Peeking into the guest bath with walls covered in a Fornasetti wallpaper. The photograph on the right wall is by the Brazilian-French collective, Assume Vivid Astro Focus.
Wallpaper by Piero Fornasetti from Lee Jofa covers a wall of the guest bath.
Two wood panels by French artist Nicolas Pichon fit perfectly in the front hallway.
A photograph by Vic Muniz from the Rebus series hangs next to a print by Tracey Emin.
[Lesley] Well, that’s not what I get … but we’re not here to talk about her. [Sian] She’s a Spence girl. That’s how she was raised.[Lesley] Well, let’s get back to Maria. I noticed in your book and in your home, you actually do quite a few modest spaces and you like flea market finds as much as expensive art.
I feel that sometimes you work better with somebody with a low budget than somebody who is very entitled and they have a budget of five million bucks … you know the whole micro-managing thing. It’s better they do it themselves—you know what I’m saying? If you’re a little ambivalent about the “luxury lifestyle consultant” label, what do you call yourself when potential clients approach you?
I think I’m kind of like this hybrid between a designer and art advisor—but I don’t like the term ‘art advisor’ because it’s very stuffy. It sounds like I’m a financial advisor. The nature of what I do is helping people live with art in a way that is compelling, that is exciting, that reflects people’s personalities.
In the master bedroom a vintage suzani from an Istanbul flea market and colorful accent pillows by Scottish designer Morag Mcpherson perk up the tailored white and slate blue bedcover and pillows.
In the master bedroom the retro patterned wallpaper "Dandelion Clocks" from Sanderson was inspired by 1970s designs.
Maria searched high and low for the perfect piece of art to hang above her beige suede headboard. She selected this sexy screen print, 'Can't We Just Sit Down and Talk It Over?' by the Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas.
A vintage1970's etched and glazed aqua-colored lamp fits with Maria's choice to use turquoise and yellows as the overall color palette for the master bedroom. "The colors feel optimistic without being overwhelming," says Maria. In the corner a throw from Missoni Home and pillows purchased from trips around the world are layered on top of an armchair from Maria's upholsterer.
Maria's home office is filled with books to 'kick start my creativity.' The vintage chair has been re-upholstered with a bolero-inspired Middle Eastern suzani fabric.
Postcards and invitations to art gallery openings fill a shelf in Maria's home office. That's Maria with Sean Combs at Art Basel in the photo, left.
I like what you said about helping people not be “afraid’ of collecting or appreciating art. Do you find that lots of people feel a bit intimidated by the whole scene?
Well, in the past five years the whole market has changed tremendously. It is so open now—there is this whole other channel now of buying on the Internet and people can look at Artspace—it’s absolutely extraordinary. The prices are enticing and they have done a really good job of curating a very, very nice collection. The way Artspace works is that they partner with the galleries and give them an extra layer, an extra reach so like a guy in India whose on the Internet in the middle of the night can say, “I want this, can you ship it to me?” [Sian] You know I talked to my brother [Roger Ballen] about this—he is a photographer who shows with Gagosian. It’s very tricky because he wants to maintain the higher prices but there’s this whole huge market of younger people who like his work. It’s all about editions but it’s very tricky.
But if the artist is already established and they know that they’re partnering with a serious website— it can work out. And you never know who is watching [if you’re not already established].
An acrylic-mounted self-portrait by Argentinean artist Flavia Da Rin hangs in a hallway off the foyer.
Contemporary pendant lights from ET2 hang over the open kitchen island. Two merry bunny cookie jars by Japanese artist Momoyo Turimitsu brighten the kitchen countertop.
A chandelier by Patrick Townsend hangs above a dining table and chairs by Timothy Oulton The still life painting, a gift from Maria's father, was bought from the Syrian artist, Antonio Haydar Mardelli.
Looking across the dining area. A springstone sculpture that Maria purchased while visiting the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa watches over the main seating area. The vintage cabinet is from a thrift store on the Upper East Side.
Are you happy talking about money?
It’s not like I’m running down the street screaming prices but I think that it is very important to have awareness of the market. Lately I am turning down more people because I really, honestly can’t work on everything. If I have five things I want to do them right and be able to put my heart into it … and yes, of course if somebody comes and they’re fabulous and friendly and divine and they have a million bucks and somebody else is the same and they have twenty thousand bucks, then I’ll most likely go with the million bucks. Yes, I guess so. Who is up and coming now that you like? Who is catching your eye?
There’s a woman called Andrea Mary Marshall who I love. She’s a young New Yorker. She does a lot of self-portraits, like a young Cindy Sherman kind of thing. But the interesting thing is that she does all this stuff where sometimes she’s naked or sometimes she has a dildo in her hand and when you meet her, she’s very, very shy. Then you know that she’s truly an artist who is performing to attain those pictures.
French artist Corinne Dalle-Ore, like Maria, draws inspiration from Frida Kahlo's life and career. The mixed-media canvas on the far wall depicts a back-and-white photograph of the iconic artist with a bright tangerine background, flowers, and raw phrases in Spanish.
A pair of "Mademoiselle" chairs by Phillipe Starck covered in a Missoni fabric stand below Corinne Dalle-Ore's mixed media canvas of Frida Kahlo.
Splendid roses in bright colors are arranged atop the kitchen counter top.
The still life painting, a gift from Maria's father, was bought from the Syrian artist, Antonio Haydar Mardelli.
And who do you think is overrated?
Damien Hirst is overrated but I like him very much because he did something that nobody else was doing. It was all about the titles … and it was like, “So you think you’re doing pretty things with art and I’m going to put this cow with flies in a box.” He defines a crucial moment in contemporary art history. But it’s overpriced to pay a million bucks for a dot painting. You have to think about these people like him and Jeff Koons started a trend of businesses where they have a studio and hundred people working for them. They are businesses; they are businessmen. And they did something very smart and they are loaded. There was a time when artists were not making money no matter what and now they do. And so what is your attitude towards money?
You know … in a city like this you really have to have money. You want to go to all the restaurants and you want to do all things because otherwise I can move to Oklahoma where everyone looks at me like I’m a freak because of my accent and I could drive a tractor … and I plant seeds and that’s it. You know, money helps you accomplish dreams.
This six-by-eight foot painting of horses by upstate New York artist Joseph Piccillo was too large to make it into Maria's elevator or stairways so she had it taken off it's frame and reassembled inside her apartment.
A painting by Brazilian twin brothers, Os Gemeos, "When The Cuckoo Learns How To Fly" hangs behind two Art Deco chairs covered in a Senegalese orange fabric with ochre stripes. The pillows are made of Burmese saris.
Part of Maria's vast collection of contemporary art books is arranged atop the living room coffee table.
A sculpture from AVAF was made from one of the original voting booths from the 2000 Presidential election in Dade County, Florida. The booth is covered with a special paper that changes color and shape when the accompanying masks are worn.
More views of the dining area and open kitchen. A chandelier by Patrick Townsend hangs above the dining table and chairs by Timothy Oulson.
So you went to Harvard Law School.
Yes. Isn’t that crazy? I want to hear more about your background.
So I was born and raised in Venezuela. Back then in the seventies it was a very, very wealthy place. My parents were not wealthy but we had a comfortable middle class life. We traveled a lot. We came to New York a lot. My parents were always into the arts in a hobby kind of way because they’re both scientists. They do toxicology and biology to do with drugs.
When you grow up in a country like I did, you’re very conditioned to just, like, follow certain patterns. And creativity is not very rewarded. I should have pursued a creative career early on but my parents were not very excited about that. They projected on to me … “oh you should be a lawyer …” like their frustrations or whatever. They thought being in the corporate kind of world was going to be a lot more secure and safe. I think I would have gone into design or fashion or something.
In the study a white leather sofa is filled with pillows made out of fabric by Scandinavian designer Josef Frank. Hanging above the sofa is a large C-print by German artist Rafael Neff.
Looking into a corner of the study a custom chair is covered in Union Jack patterned fabric. The ottoman, made out of rainbow colored jersey fabric by Scottish designer Donna Wilson, was purchased at The Future Perfect. The Lucite lamp is from Restoration Hardware and the navy and white rug is by Madeline Weinrib.
A collection of Andy Warhol skateboards shares the windowsill with more books and objects.
Are you an only child?
Yes I am. And how long did you practice law?
Almost ten years. It was … horrendous.
[Lesley] I’ve never met a happy lawyer.[Sian] My father was a very happy lawyer. But I agree, it’s unusual.
It was not my calling. What makes you unhappy is that you end up just doing drudgery in the office, on the phone with bankers … drafting documents … all very dry. You don’t own your life. They make you feel very guilty because what they say is that they’re paying you so well that you should be available 24/7. I was making like $120,000 when I was 24 – more than my dad made after a lifetime’s career. It was absolutely insane and I was just miserable. I knew that there had to be something else. The soul-searching was very deep.
Family photos taken by Sue Barr are arranged together on a wall off the master bedroom.
In the boys bedroom the Blue Rope Meltdown chair by British designer Tom Price from Industry Gallery is made out of melted polypropylene rope. Hanging behind the chair is a photograph by Italian artist Luigi Visconti.
A bunk bed that Maria says "keeps my kids entertained for hours" was built by Maine-based company, CedarWorks.
Two side-by-side storage units from Oeuf keep toys, books and projects organized.
Pooh Bear, Mr. M&M and a group of pillows that recall American artist Robert Indiana's Numbers series line each of the boys' beds.
How did you transition to what you do now?
Well my off-duty thing had always been to go to galleries and museums and to establish connections with people in the arts. I started buying some small pieces because it was a lot more fun than just putting it in the bank or buying shoes that a year later you donate to the Salvation Army, right? I always pride myself on having, like, the cutest home … even if it’s all from a thrift shop. In my mind, launching a business was very, very hard. Well, how did you do it?
I just did it. I just … you know … I don’t think there was a specific thing that happened. I launched the business with only the pictures of this apartment. I created a website. I met with people. I asked for advice. People made fun of me … but I was like, whatever. Clients started to come maybe six months into it. You need some press … little by little it grew. One day I got this call from a friend in Los Angeles and she said, “You know Sean Diddy Combs is looking to buy art. Do you want to work with him?” Ah … that was a big deal.
That was a big deal. I think I know how to say things in a way that is serious and at the same time I’m conveying some substance. And one thing is that I said to myself, if I’m going to get into this business without having the [arts] background, I really, really needed to know everything. I was going to every gallery several times over; I was reading Art and Auction; I was reading Artforum.
Gosh, you must be the only person on the planet who can read Artforum.
Oh, I think it’s bullshit but somehow it gave me an idea of what people are looking for.
Are you a bit weary of people saying that you look like Sophia Vergara?
[Laughs] I don’t watch the show but it’s a very exaggerated image of a Latin girl with the thickest accent and the boobs and the whole thing … but it’s a comedy show. It has to be exaggerated. I was thrilled to see her in Vogue last month.
What do you miss about Venezuela?
The weather. That’s it. I don’t miss it.