My interview with Jamie Drake was conducted in a unique location, an elegant display room for De Sousa Hughes on the first floor of the Showplace Square building in the San Francisco Design Center. Having High Tea behind display windows was a first for both my guest and myself. As busy designers were walking by we sipped on Organic Darjeeling Estate by Mighty Leaf Tea, nibbled on various tea sandwiches from Lovejoy’s Tearoom and chatted about the evolution of a creative child to an established designer, about show houses, color, and inspiration.
Claudia Juestel: You came to San Francisco to give a lecture at the San Francisco Design Center. What were the main topics of your presentation?
Jamie Drake: My focus was on how to define your style. Now as a designer it is important that we all design our designer’s style; but I also talked about how you define style for your clients and how you make their homes reflect them. Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones who go in and out the door every night, we aren’t.
CJ: Exactly. It was enlightening. You have participated in a number of show houses on the East Coast. We have San Francisco Decorator Showcase here every year. Have you ever considered participating in a show house on the West Coast?
JD: In fact I have done a show house in Los Angeles a few years back. I did an Esquire show house in Cold Water Canyon, which was great fun, a giant semi traditional, but very LA party house. And the opening night highlight of that was Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party there. And then I did also a few years back a show house in Chicago sponsored by House Beautiful. I would be open to San Francisco. It actually took me a long time to get into Kips Bay.
JD: I think I applied five times for it.
CJ: I understand that it is by invitation.
JD: You can apply, even in the old days I think you could apply. You submit work you have completed, not boards on what you would do for Kips Bay, but completed work and PR showing where you have been published.
CJ: Well Kips Bay made a very good decision to finally invite you to participate. What are some of the most memorable places you have designed homes in?
JD: Well certainly one is my home town New York City, but in addition, I have worked on fabulous projects in Bermuda, Paris, London, Saudi Arabia, Washington DC, and Los Angeles, so a lot of different exciting places.
CJ: When you design in other places do you think more site-specific? How does it influence your design when for example working in a place like Bermuda?
JD: I think it is interesting that when you work in environments that are not your day-to-day environment that one expects to have more local color in your work. But in fact we live in such interesting times where we have information that warps when being presented to us. I think it is more international than ever.
CJ: I agree.
JD: Even when I worked in Bermuda, the client specifically didn’t want the typical Bermuda house with white walls and wicker furniture and prints. The client said that he wanted a darker house, a more solid house, because if it is gorgeous weather and bright and sunny, he was going to be outside and if it is not he wanted to be someplace that’s warmer and more cozy.
CJ: That makes sense.
JD: I think the most site-specific place I worked was Saudi Arabia, where culturally there is so much to include about usage etc., with the separation of men and women and places where people come and pay honor to the sheiks. So that was a little more site-specific. But when I worked for a Saudi in Paris, it was Parisian International, and when I worked for an American in London, it was international as well with American art.
CJ: And it all worked wonderfully, judging from the photos. You grew up in Connecticut. Your mother was a painter, your father was a printer, and two of his cousins were prominent interior designers. Did your family have an aesthetic influence on you, and can you recall an early design moment?
JD: Certainly it is inevitable that my family did have a huge impact on me aesthetically, and being around my mother’s palettes with the fresh squeezed paints on them, and the printing shop that my father owned with the pots of printer’s ink, which are thick and viscous and shiny, all had an enormous influence on me. Living in homes that were professionally designed by interior designers was, I think, probably very seminal in both the notion that we lived in something that was fully designed, but also was a fully involved lifestyle in a way. When you have a fully designed home, you also know how to sit down to a table well and eat a proper meal. It is a lifestyle that is sort of fluid with setting a table and dimming the lights hopefully, lighting the candles.
My earliest designs memories were probably working on my childhood backyard fort with my best friend from around the corner. Our fort was not actually much of a structure; it was actually sort of a pit in the ground, ringed by a circle of rocks, and sort of Stonehenge in Connecticut. I furnished it with antiques, which were actually things that I found in an abandoned barn nearby. So there were old bottles, rusted-out wash pans, farm implements; and I would arrange them in sort of little decorative ways.
CJ: How old were you then?
JD: Probably 6, 7.
CJ: That’s pretty amazing.
JD: When I got a little bit older, I guess when I was 11 or so, my mother decided it was time to redecorate the house, and she decided that she and I could do it instead of employing our cousin. We were keeping the same furniture, but we were changing backgrounds. We were going to reupholster some things, and I was absolutely adamant that I wanted a black patent leather bedroom. I think at that point I might have been influenced by the bottle green lacquered living room that Angelo Donghia had in his 74th Street house. But I think that I was older by the time that I saw that, maybe not.
Anyway, my mother was horrified by the idea of black patent leather. She understood sort of the concept of dark shiny walls, but black. How about chocolate brown, how about burgundy maybe, anything but black. But I was a very willful child, and I insisted it be black or nothing. The room did not need to be redesigned, did not need to be repapered and changed anyway.
CJ: You are so known for your color. But at that point it was only black?
JD: For some reason I was just absolutely hell-bent that it had to be black. So I said fine, the walls are fine, don’t redo my room. Everything else in the house was being repainted and repapered. So I got my black room with these white shiny moldings and doors. And I put the bed on a diagonal and covered it with an antique black and white toile tablecloth my mother had bought somewhere, and I had a very chic room that I liked.
CJ: Yes very chic indeed. So speaking a little bit about your mother and your father: one constantly created custom colors in printer’s ink, and then your mother mixed colors on a palette as she painted. As a designer you know a lot about pairing colors and are very brave in your color combinations, obviously due to an early influence. Do you do a lot of custom paint colors, or do you go with what is out there?
JD: Interestingly with paint colors we don’t tend to do a lot of customization. I find that Benjamin Moore is my brand of choice, and between their Classics Collection and their other collections, two major fan books, plus metallics, and this and that, there is practically an endless selection that works with what I want to do. We certainly customize, and usually use Benjamin Moore paints to match to rugs, fabrics and wall coverings all the time. But with paints we tend to find a number and pull it out of the pot.
CJ: I’m very surprised by that, because I think that would have been the first inclination because you’ve seen the mixing of colors so much.
JD: It’s funny, I have been in business 32 years now, and when I started out the painters all mixed their own colors. A really a good painter, a fine painter would paint and always mix the colors. But I don’t know that I have one really that I could trust to do it anymore.
CJ: Oh I wouldn’t trust any painter with mixing colors. Remember the movie “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” with Myrna Loy and Carey Grant?
JD: Butter, I want butter! She went on and on about the yellow she wanted.
CJ: As a designer you’re known for confident color choices, what is actually your approach to choosing color?
JD: I think there are two great parts. One is intuitive: I can walk into a room and sense what tonality it should be, whether it should be pale or intense, grayed out or vibrant. And then the equally important part is just what is right for the client. Very few clients will actually say I want purple and blue with a touch of aqua. But they will tell you a general range of what they like, such as pastels, or fresh colors, or jewel tones. They can usually tell you what they don’t like.
CJ: Which is equally as important.
JD: Right, especially if they can’t tell you what they do like, if you can get out of them what they don’t like you are okay. However even then I find sometimes that I strongly feel if they say no green and I feel that the room should be turquoise.
CJ: It’s blue then.
JD: Right, exactly and it is just about what words you choose and what tones you show them. Some times when a client tells you that they don’t like a specific color, a very specific color that has a memory in their mind, and if you show them something that is a variant in the same family, they are perfectly willing to accept it and embrace it.
CJ: Do you think there are ugly colors, or do you think it is about the combination?
JD: I don’t think there are any ugly colors, and I’m not even sure that I think there is any combination that can’t work somehow; it has to do with balance and proportion.
CJ: Blue and mauve, you could probably pull that off.
JD: I can pull that off; you can give me any combination. I could say no, yeah, oh yeah.
CJ: What about the color of a Band-Aid?
JD: You know, the walls of the living room in my last apartment was maybe almost the color of a Band-Aid, maybe not quite. But that color of a Band-Aid actually again has to do with texture as much as proportion. Really shiny it could be really beautiful, how luscious!
CJ: Yes certain colors look best with a sheen, and so you are absolutely right. Moving on from color for a moment, and going back in time: you worked at a contract design firm during high school and during college interned under the late Angelo Donghia, considered one of the top designers of the 20th century. What effect did that have on you as a designer?
JD: Well in high school it was wonderful to just to go off and basically be an adult all day. It was a half-day, every day for a year and a half, and full time in the summer. And as the precocious tad that I was, I certainly didn’t want to be some geeky teenager, I wanted to be an adult.
So as a lifestyle experience it was fabulous and to work in the environment where they were. The library was enormous with hundreds of sample books and wall coverings, and even though it was commercial and contract, it was fascinating to know. So that was a wonderful, wonderful experience to have so early in life. When I worked for Angelo Donghia he was at the height of his career and his fame, and so it was an incredible honor. The office had a hush to it, a reverential hush, which I found surprising and maybe a little odd. It didn’t feel like fun was going on exactly.
CJ: You don’t seem like the quiet type.
JD: I like a little background noise, I do. But I had the opportunity when I was there to work on the house he had bought in Key West at that time, the famous octagonal house. I worked on some of the drawings for that house, and then I worked on the sketches and some of the drawings for Angelo Donghia’s first licensed furniture collection for a long defunct company called Kroehler. A lot of that was inspired by photographs of furniture he had taken in China. So I’m talking about 1976 or 1977 when China was probably just open then, and he went on this trip and found all these fabulous pieces of furniture that he used as inspiration for things that were in his early collections.
CJ: And then you went to study design at Parson’s. Surprising to perhaps some people, you actually opened your own design firm immediately after graduating, which was a pretty gutsy move for a young designer. How did that come about?
JD: It wasn’t gutsy at all because it wasn’t a decision; it was an opportunity that presented itself; and that’s how it happened. I had gone to a poncy, ritzy private school for a nano second when I was in high school, and I met friends there who stayed friends. And literally two days after graduating from college, the girl who had a boyfriend, she met at the same time, called and said, “Aaron and his father have both decided to move. They are taking new apartments in the same building on 5th Avenue, on the same floor, and would you like to do them?” And I said “sure”, she said that she would send the car up the next day to have me come for a barbecue in Greenwich to talk about it.
And that is how I started. It was not a decision, it was presented and I said “great, okay”, and I never really looked back. I had not decided to go out on my own, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I had only graduated literally two days before, and I had gone through my four years of college in three years. So I was not sure that I really didn’t just want to take the Summer off and agonize like most recent graduates do. But opportunity came and I embraced it.
CJ: And perhaps also you had a slightly unusual approach for an American, I would say being European, because we start working and having practical experience at a young age. So I was quite surprised when I moved here and went to college with students who had never worked before.
JD: And you are right, I had that experience in high school. And I always knew what I wanted to do, so I didn’t have that other hand-wringing time, which is “what am I going to do?” I just got a general education, a Bachelor’s in English, which was sort of the fall back kind of career, very focused.
CJ: But you also had to run a business all of a sudden. It is very different working for someone else and doing design, but all of a sudden having to do bookkeeping, billing, and such. There must have been something that was a little bit challenging.
JD: You know, back in those days in the 70s was there really any bookkeeping I did. Not really, I had a check book, and I ran it out of a check book. The checks were written by hand. I am not sure I even had a typewriter. Did I type purchase orders? I might not have, I might have written those by hand in triplicate with carbons; it certainly was triplicates with carbons.
CJ: And it worked. Did you have a fax machine?
JD: Absolutely not! In 1978 there were no fax machines. Fax machines probably did not come in until the 1980s. When you think about the changes that we have been afforded in the last 25 years, from the first cell phones, which were the size of a suitcase, and car phones that were enormous, and a fax machine coming into the office. My office manager at the time (she worked for me for 17 years and she left 2 years ago) about 20 years ago or so thought the devil was going to come into the office. And now of course we have tiny Blackberrys and iPhones, and we don’t ever have to be in an office.
CJ: And we shop and find information on line, and we email. Communication is very different now. Back to design again: you are not only known for unusual color combinations, but you are also when it comes to unique pairings of furniture and choices of materials. Perhaps you can give us a couple of examples.
JD: I do like strange combinations, such as in this dining room where we did that had a 16 foot long buffet to store the clients possessions with doors wrapped orange pony skin. It sits next to an onyx topped table, one of the most wildly patterned onyxes you could ever imagine, on top of a custom rug with polka dots around the border in multi colors that came out of a collection of Danish pottery that the client had sitting on the sideboard, all topped and crowned by the most over-the-top gilded Austrian chandelier.
CJ: Austrian? You warm my heart!
JD: Austrian indeed, and an Italian baroque mirror it is reflected in. So there is a combination of crazy things. In my own living room on 5th Avenue at one end there was the arm of a tailored sofa, rather Jean-Michel Frank in inspiration, next to it is Art Deco tea table, behind it red lacquered acrylic bookcases from the 1960s, and sitting in front of that a 1940s version of a Louis XVI-style wing chair with an African stool next to that. So you have Africa, you have the 1920s in France, you have the 1960s in France, the 1940s, a lot of French I guess, but it is a melange of decades and influences.
CJ: And that’s what makes it so wonderful!
JD: And that is what I think makes it provocative. And again back to the information we have available to us, and the opportunities we have available to us with travel, and even if you don’t get to travel, with TV, it is learning about dispersed cultures over the course of decades and centuries.
CJ: And it reflects our lifestyle today. Nobody wants a straight-forward French Neoclassical room for example. We don’t want to live in a museum. We want to mix it up to reflect our experience. That also makes it more timeless, because you see different periods and different cultures, and it is definitely more fun.
JD: Yes, absolutely.
CJ: Besides interior design you also design products, namely furniture for Lewis Mittman, fabrics for Schumacher, rugs for Safavieh, faucets for THG and bath accessories for Labrazel, an impressive list. Please tell us more about how these collections came about and how they reflect your signature style.
JD: Designing products is something we had always done as one-offs for our clients. And having done years of custom furniture design and rug design, not so much faucets unfortunately because of the tool and die costs, I had a lot of ideas and things that we had made beautifully and successfully over the years. So when the opportunities arose to bring them to a wider market and to maybe reinterpret them a little bit in cases, I embraced those. It is also as a designer a wonderful way to extend your business beyond the core services we provide, so a way to have an income without hands-on-service 24/7.
CJ: And a different kind of creative pleasure when you design for quantity, which gives you access to more materials and options. Where do you find your inspiration?
JD: I find my inspiration really literally everywhere. The main source is probably fashion, and I read Woman’s Wear Daily everyday, and it is a bible. But I also see fashion the minute I walk out my front door often. Travel is a huge inspiration, and having been to India and Morocco, Paris and Greece, London and Cambodia, Australia and Thailand I have had great opportunities to be a lot of places. But again, I can find inspiration walking up Madison Avenue.
CJ: When you travel, do you become a design tourist where you go to all the obvious places that a designer would want to go to, shop at the markets, take pictures of doors and things like that?
JD: I do. I think it’s inevitable to want to capture those little moments and those visions and take them back; sometimes they get used and sometimes they don’t.
CJ: So can you give me maybe an example, a trip to Morocco or Cambodia perhaps and how that would have then translated into a specific project or item or design?
JD: When I went to Cambodia, when I went to the temples of Angkor Wat, I took masses of pictures of the carvings especially, and shortly thereafter was when I signed my license with Schumacher, and one of those pictures got reinterpreted as a printed linen/cotton fabric called “Temple Garden”. And then that became one of the most successful of the patterns, it is a tree of life meets Matisse kind of a pattern, simple and graphic but very lyrical. It also became a rug for Safavieh.
CJ: That’s a very direct and successful example. Now for a little gushing, you have been inducted into the Interior Design Magazine Hall of Fame in 2003 and you’ve been repeatedly named one of the top 100 Designers in Architectural Digest, again just recently, and you been nominated by Traditional Home as one of the 20 design icons. What impact do you feel your work has had on the world of design?
JD: I am by nature not someone who breaks his arm patting himself on the back, but I think that my influence has been greater than I maybe am even comfortable acknowledging. I think that my use of color and eclecticism has been very influential, and the boldness of it. And when I think back to some of my early work that was published, such as a room that I call “Tangerine Twist”, all of a sudden everywhere I started to see those strong orange and citrus tones. I probably wasn’t the only one who was on that train, but I was certainly an early proponent of it. And I think any time you have the good fortune of having things published, you have that opportunity to be an influencer. And so in a way I am influential.
CJ: And speaking of publishing, I have your wonderful book here.
JD: It sold out and is out of print. You can still find it on Amazon.com though. It was great putting a book together. But this book is a couple of years old already, and of course books take about a year to do. So the book is actually three years and more old; so it’s time for another book. I am in the early stages of putting a new one together. I am just starting to compile what we have already photographed that might be good for the book. So we are getting it started. So maybe it will be available in 2011.
CJ: I am looking forward to it. On a different subject, you are on the Board of Directors of the Alpha Workshops www.alphaworkshops.org. Please tell us how you got involved and what the organization is about?
JD: I got involved about 9 years ago when I was introduced to them by someone who does public relations and marketing by the name of Mike Stroll. He is a big fan of Alpha Workshops and was doing some pro bono work for them. I went to an event where he was talking about their work and showing their work, and I became enamored of it, I thought it was quite nice, and I became a client. Because the Alpha Workshops is in essence an organization that gives training and employment to people living with HIV and AIDS, to help them re-enter the job market in a supportive environment as decorative artists.
We are a New-York-State-certified school, and we teach in our training the basics of decorative arts, such as faux bois, faux marble, verre eglomise, hand-blocking, wall paper production, casting, gilding, etc. We earn a full 50% of our income by selling things we make, such as wallpaper and lamps, and we do a lot of on-site projects, on-site finishing, unusual projects like a 17′ diameter, upside-down tree, constructed of gnarled grapevine that hangs on the 6th floor of Takashimaya’s, New York 5th Avenue Flag ship store. And so after becoming enamored as a client, I became just more and more interested in it, and got to know the director, some of the board members, and I was invited to join the board. It is a perfect fit for me, for my love of decorative arts and my love for humanity.
CJ: That’s wonderful. I have not heard about the organization before preparing for the interview. The level of craftsmanship is amazing. Perhaps many other designers in the Bay Area are not familiar with the Alpha Workshop either. Do you have any local representation here?
JD: We don’t have any local representation in California. In New York City our lamps are represented at Dennis Miller at the New York Design Center on 200 Lexington Avenue, and at Lorin Marsh in the D&D Building. The wallpapers are at Pollack, as well as a line of licensed fabrics, and we have a line of contract wall coverings with Koroseal. So we have some things that are more broadly distributed, but not out here.
CJ: Maybe you should talk to Eric and Jeffrey at De Sousa Hughes.
JD: I know, exactly.
CJ: Can you think of doing anything else if you wouldn’t have become an interior designer, which you obviously wanted to be at a very young age? What would you have done if that would not have worked out?
JD: As a great fan of Law & Order, I might have been a prosecuting attorney, although I am sure it is a lot more fun on TV than it is in a day to day. I think I would have made a fabulous proper butler.
JD: Working for somebody in a very grand home, as long as they were nice, setting the most perfect table, making sure the flowers were fabulous, making sure the food that came out of the kitchen was picture-perfect and delicious, and that everything was right in its order.
CJ: I think being an interior designer, and a service oriented one, probably is a little bit similar to that.
JD: Yes, we just get compensated maybe a little bit better.
CJ: Probably, and you don’t have to wear the white gloves and the one uniform.
JD: But I’d have a better manicure if I wore the white gloves.
CJ: Last but not least, what may people be surprised to learn about you?
JD: Oh wow! Well as evolved as I may appear on the outside, I am still just an adolescent goofball on the inside, and sometimes I can really do some jerky things. But I have a good time pursuing those.
CJ: Oh I would hope so.
JD: I do.
CJ: Well thank you so much Jamie, I really appreciate your time.
JD: See, and you thought we weren’t going to get through it in the time we had.
CJ: We did.
JD: I trained myself over the years to speak sometimes in these kinds of formats in sound bites. When I talk to the press back and I speak in sound bites, I don’t have to think about it or drag it out. I give them a snappy answer, everybody wants somebody that puts a smile on your face, people love it if you pepper it with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
CJ: Oh, we haven’t covered that subject.
JD: Ah yes I did, that was my last answer.
CJ: It was very subtle; and I am apparently very slow.
JD: Alright, wonderful, wonderful.