Chris Coleman is deservedly well-liked in the design community. He’s good-looking, fun and would definitely make a lively dinner party guest, one with some gossip but none of the malice. He’s not one of the more ‘academic’ designers but he can make chic spaces, mixing geometric shapes and clean lines. Although he can create glamour, his materials don’t necessarily cost a fortune and he’s quite comfortable hunting around thrift shops for pieces with makeover potential.
You’re originally from Baltimore – when and why did you move to New York?
It’s funny, I moved to New York on kind of a whim. After school I was interning in Washington, DC, with an architectural partnership and of course I made no money so I was waiting tables at night and the guy that I worked with had a friend who had a big apartment here. He said ‘you should come’ and that I was welcome to stay. I came here and I hit the streets with my portfolio. I knew nothing, I didn’t even know there was an east or a west side. This was 1983.
Did you meet with a lot of rejection?
I went through magazines [looking] at people’s work I liked and one of them was an old timer, Lloyd Bell, who has since passed away. I didn’t even know in New York that you just couldn’t pop up to somebody’s building. I remember [Lloyd Bell’s office] was 225 East 57th Street. I went in there and said I’m here to see Lloyd Bell. Anyway the first place I went to I landed a job. I remember it was $13 000 a year. I was a draughtsman.
Right: Some favorite design books.
Below: Chris sits amongst photos of friends mixed with prints.
Photos of Chris and his partner, the fashion designer, Angel Sanchez, perched atop stacks of design books along the windowsill.
Would you have the guts to do something like that now?
Would I? Yeah, I’m pretty spontaneous and risky. I admire people like Todd Oldham, who lives in this building, who can do interiors and fashion. Angel [Sanchez, Chris’ partner, a fashion designer] is trained as an architect and I’m embarrassed because I don’t draw as well as him. He could sketch this whole room in 20 minutes whereas it would take me a half-day.
What was waiting tables like?
You know what? I loved it. When I look back it was one of my best experiences. I love people. One of the things I wanted to be was a chef and my father thought that was really odd.
L. to r.: Artwork is propped on the stacks of books that line the studio walls. The painted plastic bookcase was created for E-bay’s first designers’ charity auction; A 1950s chair placed in front of corner bookcases designed by Chris for a line of children’s furniture.
Right: A wall-mounted light fixture from Moss hangs above an aluminum dining table purchased from Nuovo Melodrum.
Below: Industrial chain links serve to divide the bed from the living area.
Do you need to have a strong personality to make it as an interior designer?
You know I was with a client yesterday, I think my youngest client ever, a 24 year-old kid and he misses appointments, he’s a little spacey and he came to this meeting and I said [clicks his fingers] ‘You gotta do it or go on’. It was 5:30 and I was tired, so I said ‘Listen,’ and his eyes went like this [widens his own eyes] ‘I’m not meeting with you again until all this has been sorted out.’
A lot of the designers we have spoken to have very young clients who are frequently Russian. I guess it is a new development.
Well this guy is American, from New Jersey. But there was a Russian client who was very interesting. I went to a very strange office for a quote-unquote realty company in the outskirts of SoHo\Chinatown. I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m going to end up in the East River’ and we sat in this gigantic conference room with nobody there and I thought maybe it’s a celebrity or something. So then finally this woman comes in and this young girl, and they’re dripping in jewels and furs. [names the clients] So I did [an apartment] in the Chatham building for them and they really liked it. But you know I never heard from them again. They’re not very friendly.
The mother of that family lives in Brooklyn.
Yeah, I went out there. It was like a movie because they’re in kaftans and they serve these three-tiered things with the nuts and the fruit and you just sip tea and they had a Liberace piano all in acrylic. It took a while … I wouldn’t say she warmed up to me … to get her to crack a smile. The apartment was for the daughter but it was all about what the mother wanted.
What is it like brokering design to different family members?
I interviewed for a TV show, it’s on right now, Design Therapy. Thank God I didn’t get it because it’s a little tacky [laughs] but the concept was there. One of my first clients was a young woman, and she had only been married a year. I only met with her. We started the project and she wanted lavish drapes to the floor. So things started to come in and the husband calls screaming and yelling ‘I didn’t want drapes’ and then I realized she lied to him. So I learned from there that you have to meet the husband.
L. to r.: Enough said. Chris has a habit of jotting down random sentences and phrases he comes across that are meaningful to him;
Bedside reading material.
A religious folk ornament from Mexico on the bedside table.
A view from behind the chains. The black wall sculpture, purchased in a vintage furniture shop, reminded Chris of work by Louise Nevelson.
Keeping up to date.
Sitting atop the Nuovo Melodrum aluminum dining table.
Has anything lately caught your eye design-wise?
Have you seen those flat screen aquariums? They’re only four inches [deep]. The poor fish have to go like this [jabs the air upwards with his hands]. There’s a hotel in Miami, The Victor, has one.
The animal cruelty people will be after you.
[Laughs] Oh well.
You grew up in large family with five siblings – what was that like?
It was fun. My brothers were like jocks but my mother would take me out to the art museum and out to dinner because we never went out to dinner as a family, well, once in a blue moon. I’m glad I grew up in a big family. We ate dinner together every night at a big table in the kitchen and if we didn’t eat our vegetables my mother took the [handle] end of the knife and … [makes tapping motion] It was ‘get your elbow off the table’. When I go to clients today and the kids come home and start screaming. [There was one] who started kicking the kitchen cabinets, screaming for a cookie … my mother would have had him in the corner.
This three-dimensional cubist wall sculpture pops off the wall.
Even daily necessities are in black and white.
Snapshots of family and friends provide a bit of color in the master bath.
L. to r.: A collection of wall art in the studio’s kitchen; A black teapot shares space with a friendly Dalmatian pitcher.
What sorts of things bore you?
All the sameness that there is today. I’ve only been in New York, what, 20 years, but I used to love all the little unusual shops and now we have a Duane Reade and Equinox on every corner.
How would you describe your attitude to money?
I think I’m a spender rather than a saver but I don’t consider myself extravagant at all. Like last weekend I was in town because the weather was bad and I went and hit all my favorite thrift shops. I came across a pair of chairs that were $75 but [they were] a great shape …I think ‘that can be refinished …recovered … lacquered.’
The main closet. Chris is able to see the reflection of the wall clock in the kitchen when getting ready in the morning.
Right: A home office was carved out of closet space. All built-ins are from Bowery Restaurant Supply Co.
Below: More homework.
L. to r.:A view of the kitchen. The ceiling fixture is an upside down desk lamp;
A pair of Asian scrolls hang in the front hall.
Japanese fiber paper covers the walls of the front hall. The white wall sculpture is from The Affordable Art Fair.
Where are your favorite thrift stores?
17th Street is great because you have The Angel and Housing Works together. Another great one is Third Avenue between 22nd and 23rd, The Vintage Thrift Shop and The Opera right down between Second and Third on 23rd.
Do you like reading?
You know what … I don’t read enough. As you can tell everything is design books. I’m a magazine-a-holic. I read some novels but I never seem to finish. I watch a lot of movies. Angel loves foreign films. We watch a lot of films with subtitles.
A rice paper-and-metal room divider by Miya Shoji creates privacy between the front and back of the studio.
On the road again.
Overlooking the rooftops of Tribeca from the studio window.
A daybed that Chris had made for the French-American show house stands front and center in the main living area of the studio. The coffee tabletop was a find from the 26th street flea market.
How did you meet Angel?
We met at a party in Venezuela. We’ve been together for eight years.
Do you like parties? Are you good at Latin dancing?
The merengue you mean? [makes a very good hip wriggling motion] Yeah, I like parties!
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
Above: A view of the studio. The corner chair is a re-upholstered Salvation Army find