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Publication Date: 2017-11-01

Design Insights

Thomas Jayne on the Power of Objects in Interiors

Considering his training at museums and auction houses, it’s not surprising designer Thomas Jayne has a flair for working with antiques and decorative arts. Here, he talks about the power of display and merging old and new.

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The rooms you create, including your own New York City SoHo loft, are often full of books, paintings, and decorative objects. But they also reverberate with bold colors or strong sculptural furnishings. How do you balance the two?  

Thomas Jayne: In the Cabinet room of my loft, we created a small room to hold a large array of objects, concentrating them into a smaller space to great effect, rather than spreading them throughout the apartment. There is a dialogue created in close proximity that is not as easily achieved when items are apart.  

Architecture is also important to showcasing objects. The challenge in a big space is how to display small objects that might get lost. Sometimes we make smaller “rooms” within larger rooms with bookcases serving as partitions. We are also well known for painting rectangles of a color on walls to create visual frames for furniture and art. It is a technique we have used regularly over the years, especially in rooms that lack architectural interest.

I have a great interest in sculpture bases and stands, because I think they are a remarkable way to set off an object. One of the people who used bases well was the Hollywood decorator Billy Haines. He had a good eye for proportion. We have a lamp that he made for Nancy and Ronald Reagan’s house in Pacific Palisades. It incorporated a nice Chinese vase that was made all the more handsome by the base he put it on.  

Displaying an object with a foundation or framing device, whether it be architecture, a base, or paint, always helps. Or try combining things together on a table or shelf. In my loft we have a “collector’s table,” a large Renaissance table where shells under a glass dome and a fallout shelter sign sit happily together.  

This kind of decoration is like making a great collage—using an artist’s eye to unite shape, color and form can create interesting juxtapositions.  

You’re known for your sensitive updates of historic properties—making them livable while acknowledging the past. Do you find it easier to work with classic architecture than new construction?  

TJ: I would happily work in both settings. We are always up to the challenge of whatever architecture is presented. But, given a white box, the design becomes more dependent on the decorative arts to make the room interesting. Just as Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman pointed out in The Decoration of Houses, in such scenarios, the ”upholsterer is called in to “decorate” and furnish the rooms” to make them habitable.  

It is always better to have interior architecture to decorate against, and to give focus and organization. Wharton and Codman noted it was impossible to make a great room without a fireplace. That reminds me of the 20th-century custom of using a fireplace in modern rooms to create some kind of focal point –though I find great irony in putting a fireplace that does not work into a room just to give it what it lacks.  

If given the chance to work with a great classical architect on an interior, the results can be remarkable. We are working on a new house with Peter Pennoyer whose traditional architecture is always inventive. Our project will have églomisé panels and a family room that we are calling the bamboo room, inspired by drawings in the Cooper Hewitt library.

You trained at the Winterthur and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, yet your spaces never seem like museum period rooms. What is the best way to inject modernity into rooms that incorporate antiques and vintage artworks?

TJ: I always say you have to have things from your own generation in a room. It could be 21st-century work of art or an interesting contemporary object, but there needs to be something to place it in the present. We often take care to select contemporary lighting, and tend to like modern tables and lamps because they mix well with antiques that have a lot of curves. Pairing contemporary paintings with antiques is a no-brainer.

It is hard to escape your own time and generation. It will always be reflected in some way or form in the decoration, whether you are aware of it or not. At this point, it would be radical to make a period room with all 18th- and 19th-century objects that does not try to address the present in some way. I can’t think of one recently that has been made for private use. Perhaps if you are savvy or stylish, you could do a room that is all 18th century, and make the approach to arrangement and color be your contemporary gesture.  

How important is symmetry in displays—on mantles, cocktail tables, etc.?

TJ: Symmetry and asymmetry have equal value. You can’t have one without the other. It is almost a ying/yang question. Henry Francis Du Pont, the creator of Winterthur, always advised that it is better to buy in pairs so the objects can be easier to place. People’s eyes are naturally attracted to symmetry and there is a certain harmony in that, but there is also good decoration that offsets symmetry with asymmetry. An example is that you have a piece of antique furniture such as a chest flanked by chairs, or dressed with a pair of lamps, then arrange a group of objects asymmetrically in between.  

Do you prefer to work with clients who have already assembled collections, or to work with them on building or expanding their array of art and objects?  

TJ: I like both. We are fortunately skilled in both approaches. We are adept at curating, and sensitive about helping people to build collections that reflect their personality. I always encourage our clients to have as much original art as they can afford, so often that will trigger a collecting interest. It is important when working with young collectors to ensure that it reflects their taste.

Most collectors don’t have decorators, and it takes a special collector to believe that their collection will look better with an artistic background. Collectors tend to focus on single objects without relating them to other items in a room. Or, they hoard them in storage rooms, not thinking about how they can be celebrated in the right setting. We have a client with an important collection of Americana who invested in interior decoration to show the collection, and it is the better for it. 

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