When Bryan Batt and Tom Cianfichi laid eyes on a pale peach, two-story Uptown cottage two years ago, they knew they had found an extraordinary space where their design sensibilities could take flight. After renting a St. Charles Avenue carriage house for seven years, the couple had decided to put down permanent roots. Batt likens their 10-month search for a home to the Goldilocks story: "Everything we looked at needed so much renovation, or was too big, or too small," he says. "This house was just right."
The former grocery store was not only the perfect size for the couple and their Boston terrier Peggy, it made effective use of every inch of space. Originally only one story, the house was raised by its former owner to include a new kitchen and dining room on the ground floor. It also had an abundance of structural details: high ceilings, a kitchen inlaid with gleaming subway tiles, and brass hardware on the doors.
"(The former owner) was doing things that people are doing now to houses, only 30 years ago," Batt says. "The use of the space is brilliant." One of Batt's favorite features is a massive oak French armoire with a built-in bar that came with the house and sits in the living room. Closed, it's an innocuous storage piece; open, it's an invitation for revelry. A glittering collection of vintage barware pays subtle tribute to Sal Romano, the hard-drinking ad executive on AMC's hit series Mad Men, the portrayal of whom brought Batt critical attention and acclaim.
Both Batt and Cianfichi spent years navigating New York show business while cramped in tiny, one-bedroom Manhattan apartments. They were exhilarated when confronted with the space and possibility their new home afforded them. Aside from tweaking a few paint colors, they found no need for changes. Instead, they concentrated on selecting furniture and decorative pieces that complemented the building's unique structure and exhibited their aesthetic.
"The house itself spoke to us to use more subdued, grown up and monochromatic colors — with a little bit of glamour," Cianfichi says. Batt points to the living room as a good example of this philosophy, where the decor takes its cue from a large metallic painting by local artist Blake Boyd, which depicts Disney's Snow White receiving a resurrecting kiss from Prince Charming. Batt and Cianfichi discovered a low, retro couch at a Salvation Army store and reupholstered it in textured white fabric. Iron console tables designed by Cianfichi flank the windows and are topped by an elaborate Sumatran headdress on a display stand.
"We decided to let the outside be the accent," Batt says, gesturing toward leafy treetops visible through the bare windows. "It's glorious to sit in here any time of day and look out at the view." The natural surroundings shine through due to the room's neutral, muted palette and the lack of window treatments. "It's real fun for the neighbors," Batt jokes.
Never interested in formal design education, Batt cultivated his strong style persona by taking cues from his hometown. "I'm very inspired by New Orleans," he says. "I grew up loving the interiors and the furnishings here." His home is full of inherited pieces, as well as objects picked up on trips to places like France and Thailand. The couple also pulls from their personal experiences and interests. The upstairs hallway has a "Wall of Shame" displaying family photographs, both poignant (their mothers' wedding portraits, side by side) and playful (Cianfichi and Batt at a Vegas costume party, dressed as Liberace and Liza Minnelli). A travertine and iron table, also designed by Cianfichi, holds court in the dining room, and works of art by Batt are scattered throughout the house. No particular era has claimed their devotion, Batt says: "There are beautiful design elements of every place and period, but I want to live in the here and the now."
The couple's offbeat humor and lack of pretense are palpable in every corner of the house — and not by accident. "Your home should reflect your personality," Batt says. "And I like to think we're fun." Although their care and precision is evidenced by the stunning visual effect of each room, the home feels lived-in and unassuming, perhaps because things never stay the same for long. Batt has plans to reupholster a pair of chairs in the downstairs den with a funky, mohair-like fabric, and to repurpose his grandmother's old furs into new throw pillows. It's an evolving process of trial and error in search of perfection.
"I firmly believe you have to inhabit a space for a while before you can develop a lifestyle in it," Batt says. "I do want to get it done. But when you're done ... it's over."
Fortunately, there's Hazelnut, Batt and Cianfichi's Magazine Street home furnishings store, to provide further outlet for their aesthetic inclinations. "Someone told us once that when you own a store, you carry a certain percentage of things you like, but also a certain necessary percentage of things you don't like," Cianfichi says. "We don't buy into that. We're attracted to everything we put in our store." Available merchandise ranges from coffee tables and Italian china to signature New Orleans and Pontchartrain Beach toile fabrics, all handpicked at market by the store's owners. Like his latest book, Big Easy Style (see sidebar), it's another way for Batt to convey his and Cianfichi's design philosophy to other visionaries.
"Every morning, I wake up, and my mantra is 'I love my house,'" Batt says, smiling. "It's a good feeling to be happy where you are."
In his 2010 memoir, She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother: A Memoir, Bryan Batt paid homage to his beloved mom, Gayle. Now, in his second book, Big, Easy Style: Creating Rooms You Love To Live In, available Oct. 4, Batt salutes the elegant yet effortless style found in some of New Orleans' most beautiful homes.
"New Orleans is the city that care forgot," Batt says. "We don't worry about what everyone else thinks. We're not all fussy and we're not all buttoned up. There's a great sense of style, but it's never contrived. There's an authenticity to the rooms we put in this book."
Written by Batt with Katy Danos and photographed by Kerri McCaffety, Big, Easy Style is instructive, entertaining and visually satisfying. Batt, Tom Cianfichi and Danos spent a year styling a stunning array of photographs, while Batt and Danos put together a compendium of information celebrating the diversity and individuality unique to New Orleans. Lighthearted text and chapter headings ("Don't Be Afraid Of Color, What Did It Ever Do To You?") capture Batt's humor as well as his fearless approach to design.
"New Orleans style is eclectic in the best sense of the word," he says. "That's reflected in the book. Every time you turn the page, there's something new and different."
There will be a book signing at Hazelnut (5515 Magazine St., 891-2424; www.hazelnutneworleans.com) from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 8. For more information, visit www.bigeasystyle.com. — Lee Cutrone