like mother, like daughter
Robin and Billie Brenner, Boston’s first ladies of faucets
and sinks, on design — then and now
When you opened Bath and Closet Boutique
on Newbury Street in the 1960s, it was the first
of its kind in Boston, maybe even the country.
How did you know New England was ready?
billie brenner: I was lucky, because the de-
sign community was good to me. Like Ben Cook — he was
a very famous designer in the 1950s and 1960s here in town.
He came into the shop one day and said to me, “We are going
to do a show house.” I told him I didn’t know how … I didn’t
know anything. He said not to worry, and picked this, this, and
this [from the shop] and told me he’d help. Ben was brilliant
and loving and fun. He taught me a lot about design.
You moved Billie Brenner Ltd. into the Boston Design Center
when it opened in 1986, closing up your Newbury Street location in 1990. Why was the move important? robin brenner:
According to Mom, and she was dead right, we’re about fashion — and when you’re fashion, you want to be with the soft
goods and furniture instead of being isolated. It turned out to
be very smart intuition on her part.
bb: It was. It was one thing I did absolutely right.
Today, you carry some of the most exclusive lines in the world,
such as Czech & Speake and Dornbracht. How did you persuade these manufacturers to come to Boston? rb: Unfortunately, Mother was often not taken seriously in the industry
because she was a woman. This is still plumbing, after all!
bb: It’s a joke [at the showroom]. When someone calls and
asks, “Is Bill there?” I know that he doesn’t know anything
When did that change? bb: It was partly the times and partly
our reputation. But truthfully, I just didn’t pay any attention to
it. If one line didn’t want to sell to me, I just got another one.
How do you think kitchen and bath design differs from the rest
of the house? rb: In our living rooms, we tend to look to the
past, but in our kitchens and our bathrooms, we are looking
to the future.
bb: It’s because a living room is where you have antiques. But
you go into a bathroom, and you want your body to feel comfort. When you go in the kitchen, you want things that work
well. It’s like driving a good car.
What’s a trend that you’d like to see disappear? rb: Double
sinks in the master bath when there isn’t room for them, and
everyone copying everyone else. We keep seeing the same faucet over and over. If there’s a good product, a year later, 14
companies are introducing the same look.
bb: People think they can copy a good design. They cannot.
rb: What’s so exciting about doing kitchens and bathrooms
is that, when done right, they’re like architecture. Everything
absolutely has to function flawlessly and also has to be artistic
and well designed.
bb: You take a line like Dornbracht, and every piece is done
by either an architect or an interior designer. I think that’s
wonderful. It comes out clean and nice, and not because the
person’s name is going to be on it. Of course, the name is
important, too. But when I go into a Target and I see the caliber of design, even in a toothbrush, I am thrilled. I believe
everybody should be surrounded by good design — not just
somebody who can afford a $2,000 something or other.
in their showroom
at the Boston Design
Center, Robin Brenner,
left, and her mother,
Billie, stand near a wall
of gleaming faucets.
for more details,
Interview by Molly Jane Quinn