August 28, 2013

Designer Nina Briggs and her work — Hollywood Hills Residence. Image © Nina Briggs, nba design studio

Nina Briggs is that rare designer: she wants your home to feel like you, to be about you, to reflect exactly who you are, not some place inspired by a glossy magazine. Once you have finished working with her, your space will be both all about you—and drop-dead gorgeous.

Nina has a Bachelor of Architecture and well over a decade of experience designing all kinds of residential and commercial projects. She has also taught interior architecture at almost every major school in Southern California and that has led her to distill her ideas about the capacity of a space to affect us on every level. As she teaches her students, “spaces parlay power… the power to affect us physically, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally. 

So how does style fit into authentic design? In a previous post I discuss Coastal Style. I personally call myself a modernist, although I have a passion for folding in influences from far-flung cultures. is all about blending styles. Nina Briggs somehow transcends style or labels. She keeps it very, very personal for her clients.

Nina recently took some time out to answer several questions on what makes an authentic home.

Q: What makes a home?

  • Evolutionary legacies and personal requirements.
  • A desire to create a private refuge of meaning and beauty.
  • A sense of being.
  • Self expression and personal distinction.

Q: Why do you think we make mistakes designing our own home spaces?

Most of our information about designing a home comes from profit-driven manufacturers, the glossy lifestyle images in the media, and consumer-psychology-driven sales. We elevate these sources to ‘experts’ who we allow to shape our perspective of what a home should look like, in lieu of what it must feel like. The only experts on making a home are the inhabitants and the design professionals who care about them.

Images © NBA Design Studio

What makes the above images of Nina’s work interesting for me are the ways in which the spaces in these two homes use objects. Bottles, books or art, these objects tell a story which immediately makes apparent the personal history and taste of the owner.

Q: What are some of your favorite strategies for helping your clients to get in touch with their authentic selves?

Not all clients truly want their homes to reflect their authentic selves. It takes genuine introspection to uncover who one is, and what one wants. Many clients just want the design professional to fix the annoying deficiencies, and make it look like a magazine clipping. Authentic home building or improvement requires deep thought and physical work. If one wants to live in a space that actually supports the way they live, they have to examine how they live, and be honest about the big and little things that make them feel at peace, safe and comfortable. They need to sort through their psychological and physical ‘stuff’, keeping what’s meaningful and letting go of that which is no longer relevant.  This process is an on-going, conscious effort to remain connected to who we are, apart from the usual unconscious acceptance of consumerism.

Q: Please share with us some of your favorite tips and suggestions for creating a home that is authentic to yourself?

  • . Don’t be alarmed by contrasting tastes and existing mistakes: a sensitive design professional can synthesize it all to a cohesive solution.
  • . How we move: Note the daily circulation and task patterns of each member of the family. An overlay diagram of these patterns by the design professional (noting times-of-day) on the house floor plan will illustrate the natural behavioral flow and reveal the obstacles to that flow. This begins the process of planning for behavior, creating space for the family’s daily dance.
  • . Distinguish between public and private, formal and informal activities and courageously create/adjust the spaces that support those activities. American houses are traditionally planned with formal spaces, leftovers from pre and post war lifestyles inapplicable to present living. In most cases, the formal living/dining configuration no longer applies. The current trend of ‘open kitchen-family room’ speaks to a more informal lifestyle. Conversely, if the client is a cook who needs privacy, and prefers to present the finished meal to the guests, perhaps the ‘open’ approach doesn’t work.

Image © NBA Design Studio

Open plan kitchen designed by NBA Design Studio creates a seamless integration of indoors and out, of living and eating spaces in this Hollywood Hills home. 

  • . Arrival and departure: Unfortunately, most homes either provide a cold, useless grand foyer, topped with a sparkling chandelier, or dump the visitors directly into an unfurnishable living room. We all arrive and leave the home with our arms full of stuff. The areas next to our entries are cluttered with what we need to enter the outside world, and what we bring back from it. Yet there’s a spatial shame we carry for the many aesthetically displeasing elements each family member leaves at the door; we hide it all when company comes. Why not create an organized, beautiful space for that stuff near the door that supports and harmonizes our daily routine? Everyone needs a transition vestibule that allows us to shed the world, and enter the womb or armor ourselves to face the day.
  • . Good design and authentic expression doesn’t cost more than bad design and inauthentic expression.

Q: What are some of the specific ways that we can use the narrative of our lives to decorate our homes?

Connecting to memory, attachment, favorite places and heirlooms helps. We all have pleasant and unpleasant memories of childhood home and family, but as we become adults with the decision-making power and money to make a home, we unconsciously classify, repeat, or discard those memories in superficial ways, throwing out the baby with the bath water. It would be more productive instead to examine our memory for elements of positive feeling; feelings that comfort, inspire, and promote us to be the best part of ourselves. It helps to objectively read our special objects, heirlooms, or familial artifacts to obtain clues to home essences, to gain insight and meaning. Become conscious of the objects’ emotional effect on you. If they inspire, delight and invoke a feeling of warmth and beauty, then design around them; reiterate their color and texture. Those correctly seen memories and artifacts can be translated into spatial terms that actually align with and create a harmonious environment.

For example, I grew up in multiple houses and apartments that my artistic and design professional parents adorned and filled with their evolving preferences at the time. We lived in a great variety of spaces and places, but the aesthetic priorities were about natural light, visual connection to garden, well-designed furniture, and favorite colors. The practical priorities were about every member of the family having a ‘me’ space (no matter how small), plus family gathering space, organization for daily routines, and what about the dog? (There was always a dog). And whatever my parents could not afford to purchase, they made. My father moved walls and made the furniture, while my mother created all the art, and made everything textile.

As a design professional, privy to design history, trends and options, I remain consciously connected to what comforts me in home, rather than what’s hot, haute, or designery.

Q: Do you have any tips for avoiding over-doing it? For example, if you love the color purple or orange wouldn't those be difficult colors to use in an interior design context?

  • Copycat: Try not to copy some decorating trend or recreate a showcase;. Go for family individuality.
  • . Pretty AND functional: It sounds counter-intuitive, but focus less on the aesthetics, and more on better logistical choices. The beauty will follow.
  • . Too much stuff: Coco Chanel saidBefore you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”Although I think Coco could have removed one more strand of pearls, her advice holds true for the home.

Coco Chanel and the living room of her Paris apartment. Image © All rights reserved.

Q: Any last thoughts?

Everyone wants the same things in a house – light, coziness, spaces for the family to gather, and other areas that let each person hide out, have a cry, read a book. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.” – Robert A. M. Stern, Architect

I know that I am inspired by Nina to make a sweep of my own home, to remove everything that is no longer an expression of who I am today, and to highlight some of the objects that reflect both my history and my present interests. In fact, the happy clutter of books will always be a key aspect of any place that I live.

What do you have in your home that most reflects you? Please share your own stories of creating an entire home that is authentic to you, or even a small area, if you believe it captures something deeply personal.

Written by Catherine Holliss

Interior Design Blog Writer,, LLC

Director of Interior Design, Sander Architects LLC.  


Photographs © Catherine Holliss unless otherwise noted. 

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