By Lisa Cregan – Tribune Photos by Bill Hogan

Most Chicagoans who visit Bavaria come back with a collection of beer steins and a snapshot of Mad King Ludwig’s castle. Mary Jeanne Reese brought home a 250-year-old porcelain company.

Reese spent most of the 1990s living in Munich, just around the corner from Schloss Nymphenburg, a Bavarian royal palace whose workshops have been making fine porcelain by hand for centuries.

“I’d walk by there every day, go in and wander around,” says Reese, relating how she forged a relationship with the venerable “manufactory” that resulted in her opening its first ever non-German showroom in Chicago. Evidence of her passion for Germanic ceramics is scattered throughout her recently renovated Lincoln Park apartment. Porcelain songbirds flit among thickets of faux/bois candlesticks, and dinner guests sit down to a table laid with pre-Napoleonic place settings.

Beginning renovation last year with architect David Pickert, Reese was lucky to find Nate Berkus, Oprah’s Lord of Décor, who completely understood her affection for imperial Bavaria. Famous for his rugged good looks and magical TV makeovers, Berkus might not have seemed an obvious choice, but, as Reese points out, he has lived in Europe and is deeply knowledgeable about antiques.

Berkus was also quick to focus on what was really important to Reese–her two daughters, Madeline, 12, and Olivia, 9. “He said his goal was to make a comfortable place for me and the girls, a little haven,” says Reese. Berkus not only met that goal but also formed a friendship with Reese that has lived on well past the project’s end. “We have a fantastic connection,” he says. “I enjoy her trust and support.”

The 3,300-square-foot apartment, located in a French-style 1927 high-rise overlooking the park and the lake, neatly dovetailed with Reese’s needs as a working mother, but it presented a number of structural headaches.

“I brought over a developer friend,” recounts Reese. “He said the place is gorgeous, but you have horrible squeaky floors.” Out came the offending floorboards, replaced by dark-stained oak laid in a herringbone pattern. Then the kitchen and bathrooms were updated, old-fashioned appliqué wall moldings were removed and the fireplace mantel was replaced.

“That’s where my expertise kicked in,” says Reese. Something of a serial entrepreneur, Reese also runs a company called Au Coin du Feu, which imports antique European fireplace surrounds. A Louis VIX marblestone mantel now graces the living room. “Its rounded corners make it very special,” notes Reese. She also had the firebox lined with reclaimed roof tiles in what Reese calls a “library pattern,” the tiles lining up like books on a shelf.

Once the plaster dust had cleared, Berkus consulted an annotated photo album that Reese had compiled of all the furniture and art she’d collected in her travels.

“We have an honest dialogue,” Berkus says of working with Reese and her album. “I could say that something was a great piece, but didn’t necessarily work with the language of the place.” As a consequence, the German folk art objects never made it out of storage, while an array of 18th Century Venetian glass and a host of Biedermeir furniture (three tables and a secretary) got the spotlight.

As for new acquisitions, Berkus says that he wanted to shift the focus away from the 18th Century so Reese could have “a new experience.” The vintage shagreen cocktail table by Karl Springer, the late American designer who was inspired by art deco and African design, is a striking Berkus addition.

“Nate would say, ‘This is your splurge. This is worth it,’” says Reese. “He knew this table would be a great focal point.” The same goes for a pair of glamorous 1940s French chairs that Berkus snapped up for Reese and her apartment. “She knows what it means to fall in love with an object,” says Berkus.

Though Reese shopped the Web for the 1980 Dan Christensen painting that fills a dining room wall, she happily credits Berkus with most design decisions, especially the apartment’s colors and fabrics.

Says Berkus: “I’m not huge on pattern. I think multiple patterns in a room are distracting.” Instead, he used a palette of mink browns and cool grays accented by splashes of lavender and turquoise to create a kind of playful informality. The resulting rooms are sophisticated for entertaining but never seem overly formal. Reese calls the finished apartment “just elegant enough.”

Today 16th Century maps of Munich line the living room walls, and the library is hung with antique coats-of-arms, but there’s no hint of museum mustiness, no sense of a missing velvet rope.

“Mary Jeanne breathes fresh air into things that have history,” says Berkus. “This apartment is just a backdrop for the strength of her personality.”