For Michelangelo it was marble, for Giacometti bronze. But the medium that elicits Margaret Braun's particular genius is sugar. Braun designs cakes--cakes that are works of art. Her clients may pay thousands of dollars for her fabulous creations, which require days or even weeks to prepare; she did the cakes for Frank Sinatra's 80th-birthday bash and for Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker's wedding. In addition to commissions, Braun also creates whimsical sculptures out of cake and icing. Technically, they're edible, but only a vandal would take a knife to them. The shelves of her studio in Greenwich Village are lined two deep with these eccentric sculptures: tottering minarets in sugar, some gilded, some covered with mosaics of food coloring. (She makes the "tiles" by shattering sheets of pastillage, dried sugar paste.) Propped up on a ledge over her stove are portraits of Escoffier and Julia Child, painted with food coloring on sheets of sugar paste and marzipan.
For someone who devotes her life to sugar, Braun has a remarkably trim figure and a mouthful of pretty teeth, which are nearly always on display in a bright smile. Born and raised on Long Island, she moved to Manhattan and worked in pastry shops to put herself through college and art school. "I discovered cake decorating and realized I was good at it," she said. She had wanted to be an artist all along. "But," she explained, "it took me many, many years before I made the leap and discovered that I could combine the two."
Braun finds inspiration in many strange and wonderful places, but medieval sculpture and architecture are her passions, and she borrows medieval motifs for many of her works. Postcards of bejeweled chalices, arched Gothic altarpieces and Byzantine Madonnas are tacked up everywhere in her studio. On a recent holiday, she headed for Barcelona, a Catalan city of architectural splendors, and there she found a new love: Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926), the exuberant modernist whose fantastical architecture gives the city the atmosphere of a surreal wonderland. His crazy spiral towers and rippling, bulging facades are adorned with colored mosaics in ceramic and stone and with dripping fantasies in wrought iron--an explosion of the imagination that dazzled and beguiled Braun as she explored the city. "The scale and conviction and energy of Gaudí are awe-inspiring," Braun said, as she usually does, with enthusiasm.