Sloane Brown is no stranger to interior design.
When her mother, Clare Bingham Cochran, moved to a lakeside home outside of Boulder, CO, in 1971, Brown and her three younger siblings were given carte blanche (okay, within a budget) to design their own bedrooms. Brown, whose room featured a hanging wicker chair and a piece of Jefferson Airplane artwork, was in decorating heaven. “It was great,” recalls Brown, society columnist and fashion writer for The Baltimore Sun. “The only problem is that I was going through a purple phase. I did a shag carpet that was a mixture of three different purples, and I shot the whole ‘expense budget’ on that carpet. But hey, it was the ’70s.”
Despite that early gaudy faux pas, Brown credits her mother, an interior designer, with helping her develop a sense of style. “My mom liked Mid-Century Modern,” says Brown, who was named after the Sloanes, her maternal great-great-great-grandparents, who owned the venerable New York City furniture store, W. & J. Sloane. “That’s what I grew up with.” Brown also admired her mother’s sense of whimsy and inventiveness when it came to décor.
“At one point, my parents turned the garage of our split-level Boulder home into a living room—my mom was just creative that way. This hippie guy who was a stonemason and his wife came in and did this fabulous fireplace. He put found objects in between the rocks. It was considered very edgy at the time—no one out there was doing that.”
Though her passion for the color purple has long since waned, Brown still has a strong interest in design. Her current place to call home—a 4,000-square-foot, two-bedroom Canton condominium with minimalist pieces, black-and-white graphic art, and panoramic views of the Patapsco—spells simplicity, sophistication, and glamour. (The apartment is so photogenic, in fact, it was used as drug kingpin Stringer Bell’s apartment in an episode of The Wire). Even her three Norwegian Forest cats, Phoebe, Waldo, and Diesel (stylishly striped in black, gray, and white) add panache to the place.
Before moving downtown in 2000, Brown and her husband, psychiatrist Steven Sobelman, contemplated a serious overhaul of their Baltimore County residence. “We thought about redoing that house, but then we thought, ‘Why?’” recounts Brown. “We were like, ‘Let’s move downtown.’” Seeing their current condo sealed the deal. “I saw this view and all the natural light, and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” says Brown. “We weren’t looking for anything as extravagant as this, but once we saw it, that was it.”
Aside from the soaring spaces and floor-to-ceiling windows, the real selling point was—what else?—location, location, location. “I loved seeing all the big ships passing by and all the industrial buildings across the river,” says Brown. “I didn’t want it all picture-perfect-looking like the Inner Harbor. I loved the industrial feel. There’s something very real about it, and I loved the terrace and the access to the outside.”
Even empty, Brown found the space to be breathtakingly beautiful. “I remember the day we moved here,” she says. “I had the cats in the cat carrier, and Steve was following behind. I came in with the cats, and there was nothing in here. I thought, ‘How wonderful.’”
Then it was all about furnishing it: “When Steve decided we were going to buy this, I told him, ‘It doesn’t end there. If w e are spending the money to live here, we can’t move in with the furniture we have,’” says Brown, who quickly took control of that process. “I’d tell him, ‘You’re the expert when it comes to people. I’m the expert when it comes to style.’” And, so, slowly but surely, special pieces were chosen to fill specific spaces. Working with Andrew Wallitzer Interiors at the Washington Design Center, Brown’s choices included a pair of ultra-modern black ball-shaped ottomans, a stainless-steel coffee table inspired by city street grates, and a streamlined
Brueton sofa with built-in lighting. With classic modern furniture as a backdrop, the couple’s art “pops”—from a signed set of Jean Dubuffet playing cards and a red and orange Dale Chihuly glass “seaform” sculpture to a trompe l’oeil infinity mirror by Maryland Institute College of Art’s Chul Hyun Ahn. One challenge, says Brown, was to maintain a modern look while also adding warmth.
“We didn’t want it to come across as sterile,” says Brown, who instilled a sense of history with carefully chosen family keepsakes, including an antique steamer trunk, a ceremonial Samoan Kava bowl, and a sterling silver teapot. Additionally, some family heirlooms are reminders of Brown’s fascinating family tree. Other items are from her family’s travels. “My dad was in med school in the ’50s and the Army needed doctors,” says Brown. “If you signed up for three years, you could go to any part of the world you wanted. My parents thought it would be a great way to see Europe, so we went to Germany. Those chairs were purchased on a trip to Denmark.” Some of her curios invokes stories of Brown’s pedigreed past—her maternal great grandfather, Hiram Bingham III, was a Yale professor who re-discovered Machu Picchu. Bingham, in turn, married the granddaughter of Charles Tiffany I, and a vase on a dining-room shelf was a present from her uncle, Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Brown, who designed the funky, futuristic, master-bedroom furniture herself and sells her own line of jewelry, is an artist in her own right. “I never thought of myself as being creative,” says Brown, who studied jewelry-making at MICA. “It wasn’t something I set out to do consciously, it just morphed into that.”
Similarly, in her professional life, Brown “morphed” into a journalist through a series of serendipitous circumstances. “For me, it never worked to absolutely decide there was something I wanted and focus on that,” she says. “It was much more about feeling my way along.”
Brown majored in theater at the University of Colorado, but after two years, she had a change of heart. “I realized I just didn’t like being someone who wasn’t me,” she says, laughing, “which just doesn’t exactly work well if you want to act—but I realized I wanted the attention; I wanted the spotlight.” In college, she admits, she was a good-time girl. “I had a great time partying,” says Brown. “I’d sign up for a bunch of classes and any of the classes that had term papers, I’d drop.” She was put on academic probation. Then, at her mother’s behest, Brown transferred from the University of Colorado to the School of Hard Knocks. “After two years, my mother said, ‘We are going to try a different form of education—supporting yourself,’” says Brown.
With no plan in place by the fall of 1973, Brown headed for Caramel, CA, where she rented an uninsulated room in a freestanding garage. “I had a plug-in frying pan, an electric fondue pot, and a toaster oven,” she recounts, “and I stored milk and mayonnaise in the toilet tank because there was no refrigeration. I was 19 at the time.” After a series of dead-end jobs, Brown worked in a shoe store where well-known local DJ Howard Portnoy shopped with his wife. Portnoy took note of the beautiful blonde with a Brenda Vaccaro-quality to her voice and told her he thought she’d be well suited to a career in broadcast. “He said, ‘You have a perfect voice for radio,’” says Brown. “This was a time when Alison Steele [a pioneering rock-radio disc jockey in Manhattan in the ’70s] was the first major DJ,” says Brown. “Until this time, it was thought that women’s voices were irritating on the radio, but Alison was pulling big numbers and every station in the country was looking for female DJ’s.” In the fall of 1974, Brown went to New York City to attend Announcer Training Studios in Times Square, and then hit the streets looking for a job.
Brown’s first break came at KIDD-AM in Monterey, CA, though she worked a second job to make ends meet. Other broadcast gigs followed, including stints on television. In 1977, Brown worked at the Salinas station KSBW–TV, where she moved up the ranks from weather girl to reporter and anchor. “I’d run around in my little yellow VW with a police scanner they had installed in it,” she recalls. She had another stop as a weekend anchor and general-assignment reporter at KUTV in Salt Lake City before joining WMAR-TV in Baltimore in 1983, where she was an anchor and arts-and-entertainment reporter. From WMAR, she became the news director at Lite 102 before hanging up her broadcast mic for good when things came full circle and she became a writer/resident “party girl” for The Sun.
Though her real-estate portfolio has improved since those days of dwelling in a garage, Brown looks back on her humble beginnings quite fondly. “That place was my first ‘very own’ home,” says Brown. “And I reveled in it back then. That’s been important to me with most of my successive homes. There needs to be something I connect with—it doesn’t have so much to do with being fancy as it has to do with being an extension of me.”