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Furnishing the Frontier

How passion and commitment led Brown Davis Interiors to Washington D.C.’s most prestigious commissions—and then to remake South Florida.

Todd Davis (left) and Robert Brown share their Miami Beach design atelier with Brooke, a Thai ridgeback

A home used in the TV show Miami Vice and located on Sunset Island II

One of the team’s most famous projects is Miami Beach’s Villa Nirvana, just one example of a house that the pair bought, rehabilitated and resold

For the project they call Palm Beach Getaway, the two enlisted a lighter palette.

Brown Davis designed the landscaping and gardens of Villa Nirvana as well as the interiors

When Robert Brown and Todd Davis set up shop in Florida in 2003, everything was Mediterranean—as Davis says, “either a good interpretation of that, or less than that.” But the business-minded pair, who had been enlisted for interior design projects by no less than the British Embassy and then President Clinton and soon-to-be Sen. Hillary Clinton, had other ideas. For both MBAs—Davis’ is from Johns Hopkins and Brown graduated from George Washington—hard work and drive had more than compensated for lack of formal training. After all, it had taken the pair less than five years to rise to the top of their profession in the nation’s capital.

But working in South Florida presented Brown and Davis with an entirely new set of challenges. Their landing may have been soft (when they got to Miami, they stayed with Gianni Versace at his home on Ocean Drive), but then it was time to roll up their sleeves. The longtime business partners sat down with Interiors South Florida to talk about what put the modern in Miami and their role in the style revolution.

After such famous projects—not only the Clintons’ Washington residence, but also their home in Chappaqua, N.Y.—why didn’t you stay in D.C. and just wait for everyone to come to you?
TD: In D.C., we became successful very quickly, but we were pegged as traditional and transitional, and we’re always about learning.
RB: As creative people, we tend to push the envelope instead of repeating what we’ve successfully completed before. Coming to Florida was a natural progression in our creative path.

What can you share about designing for the Clintons?
TD: Their style was American- traditional, infused with transitional. Their Chappaqua house is more relaxed than the D.C. home. Secretary Clinton likes decorating and has a tendency toward yellows and reds, bright and cheery. There’s a Dale Chihuly piece in the D.C. house. They want their homes to be comfy and cozy, yet perfect for entertaining, and they don’t like grand spaces. They like what’s functional. With them, as with our other clients, it all boils down to: What do you do that makes sense?

And I hear you still have some presidential encounters, but now in South Florida?
TD: Yes, we had a bit of a crazy week. Obama was visiting a client’s home for a fundraiser, and, as you might imagine, we were running around getting ready. During his speech, he pointed to a painting that we had lent the owner. It was pretty exciting.

When you came to Florida, what made design sense?
TD: Modern architecture and midcentury design was just starting to appear on the radar.
RB: There was a significant community of tradition-based people here in Miami. But we’d already lived through that in D.C. and New York, where there was Georgian, federal, Mediterranean, Italianate. So when we came here, we were looking for fresh, and Miami was ripe for clean, edited, contemporary. At the time, white leather, chrome and glass was the established contemporary look, all beautiful elements but hard elements, not necessarily inviting or relaxing, or even sexy. We were looking to establish a new contemporary.

And how did you take advantage of both the market and the need for a new contemporary?
TD: The market was very competitive, and Rob said it was like a bunch of chickens scratching around a pen looking for a kernel of corn. Most people wanted to buy homes just to tear them down, but we rescued and renovated an art deco house on San Marino Island. We actually learned about art deco firsthand from restoring an L. Murray Dixon house. Learning new styles put more into our arsenal. We rescued a modern house on Sunset Island II that had been used in the TV show Miami Vice. No one was doing that. Someone said that the best houses are the designers’ own homes because there’s no compromising. So our home in Rivo Alto became our laboratory.
RB: Miami itself became our laboratory.

How did you achieve all this without formal training?
TD: I think it’s less about the training than about inherent passion and talent. When we started, we took our incomes and put them into our passion, buying and selling. Within the first five years, in ’94, we were in Architectural Digest’s Top 100, and we were doing the Clintons’ house.
RB: It was a miracle, and there were angels in our lives, but I will tell you that Todd and I were working seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Much like other people who pursue their passions, we were thinking about it all the time.

And what do you think about now to stay ahead of the design curve?
TD: Going forward, it seems to be an issue of tweaking all styles so that they remain relevant and incorporate elements of current design and technology. One of the hallmarks of our designs has always been to incorporate elements from a range of design styles and periods. We have combined elements such as a beautiful 18th century Waterford chandelier with an ultramodern white lacquer coffee table. We love to mix unexpected elements to create whimsy and surprise.
RB: I’ve learned to appreciate design that I had not previously noticed. For example, the magnificence and logic of nature’s color combinations were always evident to me, but I tended to put colors together from paint-store wands and fabric samples. Now my emotional reaction to nature’s color combinations has encouraged me to find inspiration all around me.