The odds are pretty good that Nancy Fire Breslau ’83 has been in your home. In fact, she may be in your bedroom, your living room, your bathroom, your wardrobe or your jewelry box right now. Quite possibly, she is the person behind your drapes, and she has left her mark on your tissue box.
That’s because Nancy Fire, as she is known professionally, is the founder and creative director of Design Works Inter- national, a lifestyle design company located in the garment district of New York City.
Among her clients are Kelly Ripa Home, global producer of paper products Kimberly-Clark Corp., Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft and HGTV HOME, for which she serves as design director. She has created designs for such fashion icons as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. Her designs are featured in Target, Macy’s and The Dollar Tree. She has even done resto- ration for the Marie Antoinette exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her design influence on a wide range of products is pervasive.
Much like the character of “Miranda Priestly” (only nicer!) played by Meryl Streep in the Hollywood movie, The Devil Wears Prada, Fire curates designs for hundreds of clients’ collections, whose products range from fashion accessories to plumbing fixtures to furniture to fabrics for bedding, curtains and pillows.
“That scene [in The Devil Wears Prada]with the blue sweater is one of my favorites, from one of my favorite movies,” Fire said. “It was said perfectly because there’s so much that we as designers do before a product ever makes it anywhere.”
Fire spends a few months a year traveling the globe looking for inspiration and identifying trends to report back to her clients and to help them develop a few lifestyle themes and product lines that will capitalize on the emerging trend, fit within their brand, appeal to their consumer base and stay within their price point.
“What is so unique and tremendous about Nancy is that she can take her trends report and apply it to how it would look in fabrics for furniture, paint colors, flooring or plumbing fixtures,” said Robyn Ulrich, senior vice president of home promotions and consumer products at Scripps Networks, the parent company of HGTV, Food Network and DIY Network, among others.
“She works with the people making design decisions with all of our licensees to make sure their products come under the HGTV HOME brand,” Ulrich said. “We have a wide audience that we’re trying to speak to, and Nancy does a great job trying to make sure that we have a little bit for everyone. I’ve never worked with anybody in the course of my 30-year career who has been easier to work with or is more passionate about what they do, and her energy … it’s endless. She is truly amazing.”
Her clients say Fire’s ability to work with a wide range of people—C-level business executives to the more creative types—and her collaborative, open style have led to her remarkable success.
“She works with the people making design decisions with all of our licensees to make sure their products come under the HGTV HOME brand.
We have a wide audience that we’re trying to speak to, and Nancy does a great job trying to make sure that we have a little bit for everyone.”
—Robyn Ulrich, Scripps Networks executive
“I love working with Nancy,” said Dan Bonini ’79, president of PKLifestyles LLC in New York City and a licensee of the Kelly Ripa Home line of products. “I can’t remember how we discovered we both had attended Oswego, but when I found out I said, ‘Now, I know why I like you!’ She has the design talent, trend forecasting and the understanding of merchandising and business aspects. She is just real and can relate to just about anyone she meets.
“That’s our Oswego education,” said Bonini, who earned a bachelor’s in business administration. “It’s not all theory. Oswego gives you a down-to- earth approach combined with business acumen and applying theory to the real world.”
The Oz Way of Life
Fire first came to SUNY Oswego in high school to visit a friend who had enrolled here. She ended up living on the third floor of Seneca Hall across from the friends she had made during her visit. She also found a lifelong friend in art history major, Katharine “Kitty” Berner Connor ’84, who worked at the Tyler Art Gallery with her.
“Oswego really encouraged me to be a free thinker,” said Fire, who earned a BFA in art. “The people at the time in Tyler Hall—including profes- sors like Craigy Huston Hemingway and George O’Connell—were just awesome. We’d go back to Tyler Hall and work all night. And there’d be a group of us who just supported each other, and it was that support that grounded me to know that it’s good to collaborate with people going forward.”
Fire also developed a passion for photography and capturing the moment.
“I was never the best illustrator in class and I was never the best ceramicist,” she said. “But I always had a great eye. I loved all my classes at Oswego, and they allowed me to open up and find my strengths and my style.”
Today, she said she continues to capture the moment through photos and posts on social media outlets like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Connor said she admires Fire for her commit- ment to her career and her passions, and for staying up-to-date on emerging trends—not just creatively but also commercially.
“I respect that she started this business herself,” Connor said. “It takes a lot of guts and a lot of confidence in yourself to know that you’ve got something and can run with it. She’s got a great creative mind and has a wonderful eye. She is very committed. As a 50-something-year-old, social media is not really in our wheelhouse. But she’s made it in her wheelhouse because it’s an expectation of today’s ecommerce and commerce in general. She continues to grow and change her business.”
Our Homes Are Our Museums
While her business continues to evolve, her commitment to her family and friends remains constant. She said she is grateful to her husband and business partner, Neil Breslau, who helped her found the company nearly 30 years ago.
“Our family has been our most amazing project of all time,” she said. “Having a working partner and husband allowed me to be very active when both of our children were young. I went on school field trips, ran street fairs and baked cupcakes because Neil was always there.”
Their children are now forging their own career paths. Jessie is a 2015 Cornell graduate who majored in food policy and recently returned to New York after working in organic farming in Colombia, and William will graduate in May from Cornell and plans to work for Red Bull Media House in its graduate program in New York City.
She said she has enjoyed watching her children create their own living spaces that are comfortable and showcase their own personalities.
“Caring about your surroundings is important,” she said. “Today, there’s so much cocooning, and people want to be home and entertain. It’s a tough time right now. You’ve got a world that’s split. You’ve got a lot of negative news, and people are trying to stay very positive. People like to show you what they collect. Our homes are like our own museums. People today need to feel really comfortable with who they are and be OK with their apartment. Lifestyle design has to come from the heart and be authentic. People say, ‘You are what you eat.’ Well I say, ‘Your home is your heaven.’”
She can vividly recall each of her homes and how they reflected who she was and what was important to her at that time.
For instance, her first home after graduation was a 400-square foot studio apartment in Tudor City, a section of New York near the United Nations headquarters. It was so small that she had a murphy bed that folded up behind a door and even the kitchen opened up from the wall.
“But I did have one window,” she said. “It was big enough that I could see the Chrysler Building, and it was just beautiful.”
She played up that feature by tiling the window sill in painted terra cotta and found a wood block table that fit perfectly under the window.
“That really set the vibe for the apartment,” she said.
She rattled off a list of key features from her homes, including several that have trav- eled with her throughout life—an ikat rug, a table made from wood recovered from an old barn in England and a vintage George Smith sofa that remains in her home today.
“That sofa really spoke to us and really characterizes who we are,” she said. “Our apartment today is an eclectic mix of every- thing we’ve owned through our lifetime, which is amazing. Each piece has a story to tell, and we feel cozy.”
As she looks to the future, Fire said she and Neil have their eyes set on finding and refurbishing an old Airstream trailer and taking a cross-country trip that she will document by returning to her first passion of photography.
In the meantime, her company, Design Works International, has launched several subsidiaries, including Studio NYC, a licensed line of home products; Creative Corporate, a product development and branding service; Design2Print, fabric printing services; and a media production division to help companies tell their stories digitally.
“As a company, we pride ourselves on having diversity in our designers and in our work,” Fire said. “We’re not just about one style. That has really kept us alive and strong and sought after all these years.”