By Donna Cornelius
Andrew Brown’s Forest Park house is filled with finds from far-flung places.
“This is an accumulation of things from all over the world, from trips to Paris flea markets, the Ivory Coast, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Buenos Aires,” Andrew said.
He’s one of the homeowners participating in the 63rd annual Independent Presbyterian Church Holiday House Tour, set this year for Dec. 8 and 9. The owner of Andrew Brown Adorno, Inc., he’s looking forward to opening his home and inviting tour-goers in to – well, see the world from his point of view.
Andrew’s background set the stage for his career as a designer.
“From an early age, I was exposed to different countries, and that developed my design eye and furthered my design aesthetic,” Andrew said.
At age 9, he moved with his parents to France.
“They were missionaries and went to university there to learn French,” Andrew said. “We lived in the Loire Valley. During the summers, we saw Europe and were exposed to great architecture and art.”
After two years in France, the family moved to a remote village in West Africa.
“It was very primitive by Western standards, especially after the grandeur of Europe,” Andrew said. “But we saw how happy and creative the people were there. They were able to do without things and had a love for the more simple aspects of creativity.”
Andrew’s talent for using art and other pieces from all over the world in his 1920s Colonial Revival house means that nothing, from a design viewpoint, is lost in translation. Set against a sophisticated black and white palette, items of varying ages and provenances look right at home together.
In the kitchen, for example, antique Foo dog heads flank a new six-burner Wolfe range. The art wall in Andrew’s study includes an oil painting from Rome, engravings from London, street art from New York City – and a flat screen TV.
“Looking back, I see why I’m drawn to these dualities in design,” Andrew said. “Because of the way I grew up, I saw the tribal and the aristocratic, the shiny and the dull, the old and the new.”
Andrew’s family spent seven years in Africa before returning to Alabama.
“I was always interested in design. I just didn’t know I could make a living at it,” Andrew said. “I had the opportunity to work for an interior designer friend a little over a decade ago and basically learned everything with on-the-job training and hands-on experience.
“After two years working for him, I opened my own company in 2003, and next year marks my 10th year.”
His firm’s name, appropriately enough, came from an international incident – a happy one.
“I decided on Adorno, the Spanish word for ‘adornment,’ at a dinner party in Buenos Aires,” Andrew said. “I was sitting next to a beautiful lady who was a jewelry designer, and she asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I was an interior designer, and she then said something in Spanish to a friend sitting next to her, and I heard the word ‘adorno.’
“She turned to me and said, ‘I adorn people’s bodies with my jewelry, and you adorn their houses.’”
“I was intrigued by the word and by her interpretation of what I did and subsequently decided to use the Spanish word for ‘adornment’ in my company name.”
In 2008, Andrew was living at the Claridge at Hanover in Birmingham when he began the search for a house.
“I had friends in Forest Park and had driven around the neighborhood a lot,” he said. “I liked the unique mix of architectural styles and the diverse group of people here.
“I was working with a real estate friend, and I told him I wanted a project. I didn’t want to pay for renovations that someone else had done since I wanted to do them myself.”
When his friend took him to the white clapboard house at 4201 Cliff Road, however, Andrew felt that his wishes had been taken a little too seriously.
“We pulled up to this house, and the yard was a nightmare,” Andrew said. “I told my friend, OK, I wanted a project – but maybe not this one.”
Once he went inside the house, Andrew said, he changed his mind. The two-story structure, which once belonged to former Birmingham Mayor David Vann, won him over.
“It had been vacant for about two years and needed some TLC,” Andrew said. “As a designer, I have to be able to see something for what it could be.”
An element of the house that many might not have appreciated is that it was one room deep. But for Andrew, that was a good thing.
“What struck me the most was the light from both sides,” he said. “Morning or afternoon, the light never feels harsh or glaring. It’s almost like living in a tree house.”
Renovations took about a year, Andrew said.
“I had the help of Shepard and Davis Architecture,” he said. “The architects, Darla Davis and Ben Shepard, are friends of mine, and we frequently collaborate. We’d worked on IPC tour homes together.”
About 80 percent of the house’s plaster walls were replaced with sheetrock, and new heating, air conditioning, plumbing and audio-video systems were installed. Existing hardwood floors were stained and sealed with wax with a white tint.
The back wall of the kitchen was extended to enlarge the room, and casement windows were added there.
“We re-worked the upstairs to create a master suite,” Andrew said. In the master bathroom, the tub was placed to take advantage of the backyard view through a porthole window. Storage space includes not only cupboards but a handy wine and water refrigerator.
Andrew’s latest project is his backyard. Brick walls will create terracing on the steep cliff side, and he’ll have outdoor entertaining options with a newly-built fireplace and cooking area.
IPC tour-goers will want to take their time in Andrew’s house so they can take in the treasures he’s collected.
The plaster console in the dining room was designed in the 1940s by Dorothy Draper for the famous Cloister at Sea Island, Ga. On a nearby wall is a striking black and white photo – a hand reaching down to feed a swan in New York City’s Central Park – that belonged to iconic designer Albert Hadley. The photo, dated 1988, was made by Argentinean photographer Fernando Bengoechea, who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Upstairs in the sleek media room is a two-tiered French bar cart from the 1920s or 1930s, Andrew said. Edged in rope, it was made by the French design duo Audoux-Minet.
The living room fireplace has a 1920s brass and steel fire screen and 1930s Art Deco sconces. Andrew added the fireplace molding, painted to look like marble by artist Jan Roberts. Jan gave the bed in the master bedroom the same treatment.
Above the fireplace is a drawing by an artist from Buenos Aires, one of Andrew’s favorite places for buying trips — as well as inspirational dinner parties.
“Wealthy Europeans fled there during and after World War II,” he said. “Many furniture makers picked up shop and moved there.
“The city has a dichotomy. It has a grand European opulence, but then there are areas that are Third World-ish. It’s a creative city, full of energy.”
For Christmas, Andrew plans to deck his halls with carefully-chosen holiday touches.
“In keeping with my style, I’ll have a minimal tree with white ceramic pinecones,” he said. “The fiddle-leaf fern in the living room died just in time for me to put the tree in its place.”
He’ll also use lots of fresh greenery and hang wreaths on the outside front windows, in the kitchen and on the outdoor fireplace. Fresh-cut flowers – calla lilies, tulips and hydrangeas — will be white.
Andrew said participating in this year’s IPC tour is “really an honor.”
“I’ve worked on clients’ homes that have been on the tour, but it’s different when it’s your own home,” he said. “But I’m enjoying it and am happy to be part of the tour.”