Susan Branch | At Home with the Queen of Cozy
Artist and writer Susan Branch creates a real-life world of magic in her Martha’s Vineyard wonderland.
Susan Branch is a collector of maxims: inspirational quotes, snippets of poems, song lyrics. She writes them up, artfully hand-lettered and watercolored, in her best-selling books and calendars, and hangs them, framed, around her Martha’s Vineyard home. They are mantras and mission statements, not just for her, but for her legion of fans, mostly women, whom she calls her “girlfriends” and who buy up everything she makes and licenses: the illustrated cookbooks, the stationery, the jewelry and rugs and pillows.
If Martha Stewart is the “Queen of Domesticity,” Susan Branch is its fairy godmother. In her art, she celebrates a world of blooming gardens, cozy quilts, old houses, and tea by the fire. And at Christmas, her real-world home in Vineyard Haven is a study in cozy comforts, every surface sparkling and twinkling and radiating holiday joy. It smells of greenery and the comfort foods that are her signature. At her annual Christmas party, guests sit on mismatched chairs and eat from vintage plates. The cats snooze by the fire.
When Susan first moved from California to Martha’s Vineyard 31 years ago, she was seeking refuge. Stinging from an unwanted divorce, she needed a quiet place to heal, so she left behind everything familiar, her parents and seven younger siblings, and embraced a life with four seasons. She bought what she calls “the tiniest house in the world,” a place called Holly Oak, where she soothed her loneliness with the old books she found there. Slowly, she says, she developed her skills as a painter and gained her footing.
A friend suggested she might be able to make a living combining her art with her cooking talents, and, after a series of fits and starts, she published her first book in 1986: Heart of the Home: Notes from a Vineyard Kitchen, a hand-lettered and illustrated cookbook with recipes for butternut bisque and herb-roasted chicken. The book then became a series. And Susan stayed on the island. “I thought I was going to stay here for only three months,” she says with a laugh, but first the island and then her little house and then a local man named Joe Hall all captured her heart.
Now Susan and Joe live in an 1849 house with a proper studio and a picket fence, and they look forward to the holidays all year. Their traditions are more fanciful than fancy. “You have to have whimsy at Christmas,” Susan says. A pristinely decorated home “looks good, but it’s not real,” she says. “Decorating really has to come from the heart.”
Her own heart expresses itself everywhere: in the piles of soft blankets, in the sparkling Christmas-tree lights, in Dean Martin’s voice crooning in the background—a tableau as inviting as the pages of her books and popular blog. Standing in her living room, she smiles. “This house has the most perfect window for the tree,” she says. And she’s right: The perfectly conical tree commands the space, lit by big old-fashioned bulbs and holding a lifetime’s worth of memories in its ornaments.
At the dining table across the room, Susan has garnished each plate with champagne corks repurposed as placecard holders, the little slips of paper tucked into the notches in the corks. A white bedspread has become this year’s holiday tablecloth, and her very favorite decoration, a beloved tabletop tree, is adorned with colorful cardinal, goldfinch, and chickadee ornaments—the same birds that delight her at the feeder.