BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Jenny Kimball Brown loved to ride her bike as a child through her North Shore neighborhood with her sister, Annie, and brother, David, pausing to look at the many David Adler mansions all around her. Now one of Chicago’s most favored interior designers, Jenny translates this love of Adler in the colorful and classic rooms she brings to life.
“I was heavily influenced by the beautiful Adler architecture and the interiors of my grandmother and her friends. These rooms were elegant and understated and slightly whimsical—like a kitchen with flowered wallpaper continuing up the ceiling, located off a formal dining room. I love Chicago and go on house tours and architectural walks, and I visit the museums on the weekends. There are many sources of inspiration in this city and if nothing else, it makes your dreams more interesting.”
Although her work at Jenny Brown LLC is primarily residential design, clients of all kinds with a traditional and fun yet functional feel in mind for their interiors choose Jenny. Whether for a private club steeped in tradition or a family seeking chic rooms welcoming to children, the strikingly beautiful Brown always brings a sense of elegance to her designs.
Glowing memories of growing up with Annie and David, her mother Susan Kimball Friedlander and her late father, the much beloved lawyer Paul Kimball, influence her positive approach and love of rooms welcoming to families.
“I remember spending my childhood playing in ravines with my brother and sister. We loved riding our bikes in the fall with the smell of burning leaves and ending up together at open houses. I always loved running errands with my mother during the week and with my dad on Sunday mornings. I guess I have always loved shopping and exploring.”
Learning first-hand about Jenny’s style recently was a great pleasure:
Have you always loved design?
I remember designing houses for my dolls when I was younger and then doing my dorm rooms at boarding school and college. My school notebooks always began with floor plans and sketches for my rooms.
Tell me about your business. How did you get started?
After about 10 years in the industry, I started my own business a few months after my son was born. Acquaintances living abroad contacted me about doing their house in town. Since then, I have worked on a variety of projects, primarily residential, but also commercial, hospitality, and a few projects for family offices and private clubs.
What do you like about your work and what skills does it take?
I really enjoy planning—it is like solving a puzzle. There is always a best plan and it is just a matter of getting to it. I love sourcing furnishings and lighting, working with showrooms and custom vendors, and seeing a project come to fruition. I also love visiting small shops to find unique pieces. My favorite part of a project is sitting on the floor with clients looking at fabrics and working with tradespeople who help realize the vision. You have to be organized yet flexible, responsive, solution based, and have a good attitude, with everyone working toward the same goal: happy clients and good design.
Would you say that there is a Jenny Brown look?
I certainly have more traditional inclinations. I like things to feel eclectic and collected but not crazy or out of place. I like a design to evolve, to determine the big picture and then find things over time.
What do you usually work on first with a client?
The floor plan, and before that, any construction that needs to be done. I would rather have clients spend their budget on renovations, if they are necessary, and then fill in the furniture later.
What projects are you working on now?
I am focusing on a golf resort in Wisconsin and some residential projects in the city and on the North Shore.
Do you like to work with color?
I love color and I am usually pushing for more of it. I think every room needs a touch of green, even if it’s just a plant in the corner.
What are younger clients looking for today?
Younger clients want timeless and durable design that can grow with their families, and of course, value and quality.
Tell us about your own home.
I want to create a pretty and happy environment for my family that doesn’t feel too precious and that maximizes the space. I try to avoid amassing ‘inventory,’ so I only buy things on a whim that I would use in my own home, or I can tuck into a corner in my office—nobody’s perfect. I buy things I love, and somehow they all work together. I am always bringing new ‘treasures’ home that I find at estate sales or in antique stores. Though once, when my son was four, he was showing off a new acquisition to some people and said, ‘Look at our new treasure—that’s the junk my mom found in the alley!’ I am a sucker for vintage ceramics that were ‘made in Italy’ or for vintage cane pieces crafted in Grand Rapids. You know they were made with care.
What are your tips on how to make little changes in your home that can mean a lot?
Buy a plant. Consolidate collections. Read magazines, visit museums, and design sites. See what appeals to you. Certain things can really bring a room down like an ugly old rug. Replace it with a new (and inexpensive) sisal and your space is immediately upgraded and refreshed.
How would you advise younger people who want to make larger changes without spending a huge amount of money?
Figure out a plan. Don’t buy anything—purge and consolidate your clutter. You don’t need to spend a fortune but avoid buying junk. There is an abundance of cheap furniture out there—and accessories—that will only lose value and clutter your life. Antique and vintage lighting can add a huge impact to a space. Just a single table lamp or hanging fixture can elevate a space and give it a sense of authenticity.
Is a design career a good one for a young mother?
It is a wonderful outlet and you can really scale it however you want. Don’t get me wrong—there is a ton of work involved and the ‘creative’ portion is only a fraction of this business. I would recommend working for someone first before jumping into a solo design career. As with any industry, experience is invaluable.
How do you blend all the parts of your life to produce such a good balance?
I try and make things as simple as possible for myself. I travel for my clients but try and keep other things local. I can walk both of my sons to school and don’t overschedule them with activities. I also try to only take on projects to which I can give myself 100 percent. I want to be available and responsive to my clients. It kills me to say no to projects, but I had to after my second son was born because I was too busy and didn’t want to be overwhelmed. It was painful, but also empowering.
Whether attending a family event with husband, Jack Brown, and her sons, Pierce and Chase, or laughing with her mom, Susan, and her stepfather, Bob Friedlander, Jenny always shows the happiness of a life well lived and well balanced.