“Walking into an entry should be like stepping through a stage set. It’s really the opening act that establishes the mood for what’s to come,” says interior designer Michelle Nussbaumer.
The moment you enter her 1940s Hollywood Regency-meets-Dallas house, you know you’re in for a glamorous adventure that will be vibrant and unexpected, with just the right dash of drama. Peony-pink walls and a profusion of potted flowers worthy of an English country-house conservatory will be your first tells, as will the hostess who greets you dressed in a flowing caftan and looking every bit the part of a glamorous movie star (she did major in theater at college, after all).
Michelle’s stylish flair reflects a life spent cultivating a global perspective. With houses she and husband Bernard own in Texas, Mexico, and Switzerland, and decorating projects at points in between and beyond, the designer seemingly spends as much time in the seat of an airplane as she does in a chair upholstered in a fabric of her own design in her living room.
It’s not surprising she titled her first book Wanderlust: Interiors that Bring the World Home (Rizzoli, 2016), as her personal environs brim with saturated color, plentiful pattern, and a mix of cultures and design periods, all expertly brought into harmony and focus through her maximalist lens.
When Michelle does find her feet firmly rooted in one place, she indulges another of her passions: gathering friends for a party. Although she’s been known to host Thanksgiving for 75 and cocktail soirées for throngs, and has a more-is-better philosophy that extends to a dining room table that seats 32, “That doesn’t feel right for the moment we’re in right now,” she says.
On this summer day, she plans for a much smaller group and, as usual, there will be no hint of pretense on the menu. “I really don’t have a lot of rules about decorating or life in general, but I don’t enjoy giving or attending parties that are too formal—that’s just not interesting to me,” she says. And as for a table (or room) where everything matches? “It drives me to tears,” Michelle says, with a laugh.
That doesn’t mean details won’t be carefully considered. Michelle scripts every element except for the cocktail chatter, and even that is sure to be lively, as she maintains that bringing an eclectic mix of people together is absolutely key to her success as a hostess—bland and boring simply won’t make the cut, whether in a design scheme or on a guest list.
“I’m also a big believer in engaging multiple areas of the house,” she says. “People can mingle freely, perch on the edge of a living room sofa with drink in hand or a plate in their lap, and then move on to the library or outdoor patio to join another conversation.”
Although it would be virtually impossible to upstage the decor, Michelle is always game to gild the lily with a generous layer of flowers and greenery. “Flowers inspire me,” she says. “I look to nature for my design work, whether it’s the crazy color combinations and patterns in coleus leaves, which I love and grow so many varieties of, or the vibrant yellow and orange fields of cempasúchil [Mexican marigolds] near my house in San Miguel de Allende.”
While Michelle enjoys creating arrangements herself, she frequently turns to her dear friend Jimmie Henslee, a floral designer and stylist, to kick things up a notch. “He just gets me and the vibe I want to achieve,” she says.
“I like wild mixed with refined, and that sums up Michelle’s magical style,” says Jimmie.
His interpretation of Michelle’s aesthetic includes vines dripping from chandeliers (“that’s one of her signature moves,” he says) and the contrast of high and low, a philosophy they both embrace. Controlled masses within a singular palette or flower variety appear in casual baskets and pottery, while more humble clippings from Michelle’s garden spill from elegant containers such as Old Paris porcelain.
“When people come to my house for a party, they probably go into a bit of sensory overload,” says Michelle, “but the idea is to have plenty of beautiful things to look at, flowers that smell fabulous, good food to eat, and a place to feel relaxed and happy.” As she turns up her playlist—one that includes African beats, Portuguese morna, and a little Johnny Cash for good measure—it’s evident her wandering spirit thrives even at home, and she relishes taking her guests along for the journey.