MARIA BRITO was dubious the day she boarded the subway from Manhattan to Long Island City. Sum- moned to interview for a job decorating a house there, she took the train, as instructed, just one stop from Grand Central and entered a world apart—a low-rise residential-industrial zone almost entirely devoid of signs of gentrification. Though the Muse- um of Modern Art’s exhibition space for experimen- tal work, PSI, was just a couple of blocks away, the neighborhood did not seem promising, but she did not turn back.
The house, originally an industrial warehouse and garage, had a chilly but generous entry hall. Then came the living room—a two-story space substan- tially wider and deeper than it is high—twenty-two feet—with a back wall made almost entirely of floor- to-ceiling windows overlooking a backyard and patio that, by New York standards, could only be described as vast. Here was spaciousness unattainable in Man- hattan or Brooklyn at any price, with walls that cried out for the sort of bold artworks Brito steers her cli- ents toward. “When I saw this light and this ceiling, I thought, ‘I have to do this.’”
Variously described in the media as a celebrity art advisor, interior designer, and decorator, Maria Gabriela Brito herself answers to “luxury lifestyle consultant” and has dubbed the business she conducts from home Lifestyling by Maria Brito. (Her work and life were the subject of her 2013 book Out There: Design, Art, Travel, Shopping from Pointed Leaf Press.) At thirty-seven, she looks, dresses, and has the professionally toned body of a movie star, which has not kept her from being taken seriously by artists, gallery owners, and collectors. Clearly she has applied the same intelligence and appetite for learning that got her into and through Harvard Law School to acquiring a grasp on a far more slippery subject— art from 1947 to the present. In addition to helping clients choose furniture and fabrics, Brito has proven herself to be an astute consultant to collectors—both neophytes such as the rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and old hands such as the actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
For all the glitter of the company she keeps, Brito’s interiors are surprisingly relaxed—less precise and controlled than typical shelter magazine fare. To create a foundation of heft and warmth in the house’s living/dining space, Brito steered her clients, a Brazilian couple with two young daughters,toward a large-scale walnut-topped dining table by Los Angeles-based Artless, a mix of dining chairs by Domitalia and Warren Platner for Knoll, and an Eames lounge chair and ottoman from Herman Miller. Overhead, a giant red metal industrial ceiling fan hovers. While the heft of the fan does nothing to diminish the room’s airiness, it lends a comforting illusion of cover—similar to the effect of a clown’s umbrella that’s been stripped to its frame. “It had to be installed with special scaffolding,” Brito recalls, adding that the effort was not in vain. “It’s sculptural so it keeps the eye engaged, yet it serves a purpose.”
But the real energy here, as in nearly every space Brito designs, is in the art. Pride of place has been given to a diptych by Erik Parker, a Stuttgart-born, American-educated artist who has works in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Parker’s intensely patterned painting on the wall behind the dining table has an anthill-like energy that enlivens the serene volume surrounding it. Brito balances the dynamism with boldly patterned toss cushions on the custom sofa opposite.
Lacking the living/dining room’s bravura scale, the remaining rooms of this 3,200-square-foot house—an entry, two bedrooms, and a den—originally betrayed the building’s industrial past all too readily. Brito’s one-step character builder: wallpaper. “Short of extraordinary, large-scale art, nothing can transform a room, a space, a hallway the way wallpaper does,” she says. “It engages the eye and sets a tone. And since it’s made its comeback in the past few years, it’s being printed with the coolest designs.” The result here: in one fell swoop, characterless industrial spaces are rendered witty, colorful, and audacious. In the smallest room, for instance, which is great for watching movies since it doesn’t have any windows, she played with the idea of a study, lining the walls with Library—Colourful Knowledge by the Swedish firm Mr. Perswall.
Wit, color, and audacity come naturally to Brito, who was born in Caracas and first visited New York with her parents as a seven-year-old. From that day forward, she was hell-bent on making the city her home one day. Law school was her ticket out of Venezuela, a job at a New York firm got her to Manhattan. Soon she met and married Marcio Souza, a Brazilian who works in finance. Then the couple had the first of their two boys. Upon returning to work after her maternity leave, Brito had an epiphany: she and the law were not and never would be at one.
By then she had become a popular figure in the New York art scene and also had been rewarded for her knack for interior design. When she and her husband listed their first apartment, it sold in a nanosecond, despite a sluggish market at the time. Their broker assured them it was Maria’s deft touch with decor that had closed the deal. Their current three-bedroom apartment in the Chelsea neigh- borhood of Manhattan became a calling card for her new chosen field—it has been published around the globe in no fewer than a dozen style magazines. Her art and design advice blog has been picked up by the Huffington Post, and she has been an occasional contributor to Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s popular lifestyle blog. Out There: Design, Art, Travel, Shopping is an off-and-on best seller in its category on Amazon, among other lists.
Brito encourages both readers and clients to spend as much time as possible in galleries or, better yet, at vetted art fairs, such as Art Basel Miami. “You want to look for something that en- gages the brain as well as the eye,” she says, indicating the compelling Erik Parker diptych that now dominates the room that had so wowed her on her first visit to this house. “In a massive space like this, you’ve got to have a big piece with punch and impact.” Daunting as an aggressive work of art can be to the non-initiate, she counsels against timidity, what she calls “going for subtlety. You also can kill a room with art.”
Then she adds, in what could well be her mantra, “You have got to make a splash.”
— By Marilyn Bethany, Photography by Fran Parente
Marilyn Bethany is a design writer and editor.