Fashion stylist Nini Nguyen. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Rare vintage Knoll Barcelona stool with sling seat, and Danny Alessandro fireplace tools, circa 1970, from James McInroe. Lucite table, circa 1970, from White Elephant Antiques (now Benny Jack Antiques). (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
In the dining area, Le Corbusier table from Cassina. Murano 1970s vase from James McInroe. Checks bench from Zuo. Counter stools from Sunpan. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
The entryway to the 1970s-era house includes the original chandelier, teak staircase, brick planter box, and stained-glass window. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Le Corbusier chaise from Cassina. Arco floor lamp, circa 1970, from James McInroe. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
African artifact and Victor Vasarely print from Benny Jack Antiques. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
In the master bedroom, Brutalist 1970s chandelier attributed to Gaetano Sciolari, and ceramic 1970s lamp from James McInroe. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
In the bedroom sitting area, Milo Baughman-style chrome chair upholstered in vintage fox fur. Stark rug. Ceramic 1960s lamp and 1970s mirror from James McInroe. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
In the powder bathroom, Clarke & Clarke wallpaper from Duralee. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Fashion stylist Nini Nguyen. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Interior designer James McInroe. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
In the lounge area, Robert Sonneman Orbiter floor lamp. Eero Saarinen side table from Knoll. Eames lounge chair from Herman Miller. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Personal stylist Nini Nguyen — who counts Rihanna as a client — is understandably confident about her sartorial chops. So is Vanity Fair, which named her as its first Best-Dressed Challenge User’s Choice winner. Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam has featured her work, and worldwide fans of her Instagram page, Nini Style, salivate over her signature vintage-meets-luxury look.
But when she and her husband, photographer Loc Truong, moved into a new house last year just north of LBJ Freeway, Nguyen was in uncharted territory. The 1970s-era contemporary had “great feng shui, great energy,” she recalls. “But it needed a lot of fixing up.” Plus, with two young children, the couple needed new furniture.
“When it comes to fashion, I know exactly what to do, but I’m clueless about interior design,” she says. “I’d buy a chair, but then I was, like, ‘Where do I put that?’ ”
A longtime client stepped in to help, gifting Nguyen with a consultation with interior designer James McInroe, who had previously decorated the client’s own residence. Nguyen and McInroe were a perfect match from the start. “I like drama, but I also like clean and classic,” Nguyen says. McInroe is known for imbuing rooms with the kind of tension that comes from unexpected color combinations and a mix of modern and neoclassical furnishings. “When James came to the house, he looked around and immediately knew what to do,” she says. “He had a vision.”
McInroe’s plan included keeping many of the house’s cool ’70s details, including the entry’s modernist stained-glass window, built-in brick planter, and original glass chandelier. The Brady Bunch-era teak staircase couldn’t have been more perfect. In fact, the house’s retro interior architecture seemed made to order for this creative couple, who love vintage. With vaulted ceilings, multiple levels, and an open floor plan that envelops the kitchen, living, and dining rooms, the interiors feel as fresh as they did 50 years ago. McInroe brought it all into the 21st century with new hardware, doors, and polished-concrete floors. And, with a new skin of concrete, a dated brick fireplace in the living area became a sculptural statement.
“Black helps unify trim that’s not perfectly matched and makes it much more stylish,” McInroe says.
McInroe’s next decision surprised Nguyen: Paint all the ironwork and doors black. “Black helps unify trim that’s not perfectly matched and makes it much more stylish,” McInroe says. It wasn’t a color Nguyen had considered — her wardrobe is full of colorful frocks. She originally envisioned a white-and-gray scheme for her home. “But he totally changed my mind,” she says. “I had no idea black could be so dramatic. That’s when I realized that if I want a beautiful house, I’d better listen to James.”
Nguyen’s initial consultation with McInroe quickly grew into a bigger design project when she hired him to advise on new furnishings and artwork.
“She has great personal style — I have several clients who use her styling services — so it was easy to see what she liked,” McInroe recalls. “Her fashion sense is about fresh combinations with a bright, young feel.”
To stay within budget, Nguyen did a lot of the legwork herself, hunting for furniture online and in vintage stores. Each one had to get McInroe’s stamp of approval before making its way home. “Even if I loved it, if James didn’t think it worked, I didn’t buy it,” Nguyen says.
The striking black-leather sofa in the living room, which she bought online from CB2, was moderately priced and allowed her to splurge on other furnishings. She has the same philosophy with clothes — why buy a $400 T-shirt when a $37 version from Zara works as well.
In many ways, designing a room is like putting together a great outfit: The whole thing comes together at the end with the right accessories.
On the other hand, some pieces are worth the investment, such as a classic Louis Vuitton Epi leather clutch or an iconic cowhide Le Corbusier chaise from Cassina, which looks great in the living room, next to a ’70s Lucite table Nguyen already owned. A pair of ochre velvet chairs with Gio Ponti-inspired lines from Guggenhome were purchased to flank the sofa.
“It just so happens that I saw these chairs and liked how they contrasted with the sofa,” McInroe says. “With a neutral background like she has, almost anything could have been the contrast color.” Nguyen wanted a really big coffee table, so McInroe pulled a great one from his inventory: an unusual cantilevered, steel-and-glass number that holds court in front of the sofa. A pair of 1980s Italian floor lamps with definite Memphis overtones also came from his inventory.
In many ways, designing a room is like putting together a great outfit: The whole thing comes together at the end with the right accessories. Nguyen instinctively knows this, and her personal style really shines in her art choices.
“I was at Dolly Python one day — I love vintage clothes — and I stopped into Benny Jack Antiques next door,” she says. “They had all these drawings for $75 apiece, and I bought them all.” On another trip to Benny Jack, she came away with an elegant taxidermy peacock and large-scale African artifacts. “I had no idea what to do with any of them,” she admits.
McInroe grouped six of the drawings and the peacock high above the seating area in the living room for maximum impact. A Noguchi paper lantern, illuminated by a spotlight, helps balance the composition.
“The room is very minimal, so the pictures going up high give it drama,” McInroe says. “It was the one stroke that completed the room.”
It wouldn’t be a fashion stylist’s home without a few fashion-inspired elements, so McInroe kept that in mind.
“The Milo Baughman-inspired chair in her bedroom is upholstered in a vintage fox-fur coat she owned,” he says. “We were talking through what might look good on the chair, and she showed me this fur. It was quite a puzzle figuring out how to cut it and get it onto the chair, but it looks great. After we finished, the sleeves were left along with the top part of the coat — and now it makes a cute shorty coat that looks good on her.”
Nguyen understands the positive effect that a skillfully styled wardrobe can have on her clients — that’s her job, after all — and now she also understands the magic that a professional interior designer can create at home.
“I can’t imagine what this house would have looked like without James,” she says. “We are so happy with it. It was a blessing to have this house, and another blessing to have James decorate it. It’s a beauty.”