|It’s always interesting to interview a designer who started out as something else entirely, and this happens surprisingly often. Jeff Lincoln’s shift from being a journalist at The Wall Street Journal to taking over the family design business seemed to us a particularly dramatic change but he says he approaches design in exactly the same way as journalism: getting to know everything he can about it, doing the research, training his eye and then weaving all the information into a pleasing, cogent narrative. Mostly, though we were fascinated by his un-designery personality—he’s the ultimate realist—and he plays golf, another first, we think, for the column.
So I’ve looked and looked on the Internet and I can’t find very much about you at all…
Well, I’m a House Beautiful Top 100 Designer …
I know you grew up on Long Island and that you were once a journalist.
I’m a third generation interior designer. The business was started by my grandmother who was a formidable woman of great taste. My dad was a very accomplished cartoonist and illustrator … my mom was a textile designer. Big companies bought her designs. They both went to Parsons.
|And your dad took over your grandmother’s business?
My dad was very entrepreneurial and he could see that the illustrating and cartooning wasn’t a very lucrative business. He’s 81 and he can shoot below his age on the golf course. My dad is a very accomplished tennis and golfer, so he taught the kids that. We’re all a family of [golfers] … I’m the oldest of three boys.
Are your brothers artistic as well?
My youngest brother was a prodigy on the piano. He has a PR company in LA. My middle brother is zero. He lives in Darien and he’s a businessman.
How will he take to being described as “zero”?
[Laughs] Well zero in the creativity area. But he’s the smartest businessman.
|How about you and business?
I think I’m a pretty good combination of having a design sensibility and running a business. Now, my background was journalism. I went to Columbia for my master’s … I’d like to go up there and get 14 masters in a row, any excuse to go up there.
So what were writing about?
I was working at The Wall Street Journal, writing about politics. I had worked at The Nation magazine and that helped me get into Columbia and from there I got into the Journal.
This is an unusual and big step to move from writing about politics for the WSJ to becoming an interior designer…
You would think so on the face of it but in reality it’s not. I’ll explain why. In design there’s this age of eclecticism and people just think you can throw any old thing together and you really can’t. You have to have some sort of continuity, some sort of narrative, some sort of thread tying things together. And then also furniture design from 17th and 18th centuries is all tied to politics: the Regency Period, George I, George II, Louis XV … let’s see … if I was to write a piece for the WSJ, I would do the research, garner a lot of information and then I would arrange those facts into a cogent, persuasive narrative. Well, I do the same thing in design.
|Was it a sudden change from writing to design? Why did you leave the WSJ?
Well, when I was at the Journal it was the heyday of affirmative action, which I’m a complete supporter of … how else are you going to address the imbalance? So if you were black and a woman at the Journal and it was between me and that person, and all things being equal, they would get the job—which I had no problem with. I felt that was fair. It just happened to be that time in history where I’m going to get the short end of the stick—but somebody has to get the short end of the stick at some point. The Journal was all white males. There were also multiple layers of bureaucracy and I’ve always been more of a free-spirited entrepreneurial person.
Did you leave or were you laid off?
Oh I wasn’t laid off … my dad called me one day and said that they were going to close the office in New York and he thought the only son that had any chance of taking on the business and so he thought, that as his father, I’m going to offer it to him. And I just made a flash decision.
To what extent do you believe in being trained to be an interior designer?
I don’t necessarily believe in it. I believe you have to have a knack.
Lots of people have the knack – it’s not enough.
You know what interior design is? It’s pure … at its essence … salesmanship and sales. You can have brilliant ideas but if you can’t get a client to buy into it then [it goes nowhere].
|So you sound like a realist then.
Yes, I would say I’m a realist. They’re spending a lot of money and they want to have confidence in you. You have to build a rationale for what you want to do and why you want to do it that’s compelling enough for them to pull out the checkbook and write the check.
How would you describe your kind of design?
Well there are two types of designers. They’re the ones who I call “shtick” designers, not for that to be a pejorative …
…um, it does sound a bit pejorative.
I actually think it’s the harder thing to do—if you walk into a Vincent Wolf house, if you have any fluency in design, you know who designed it. Now personally from my background and from the design that I grew up around, and the conservative area of the North Shore, I just think it’s little tacky to walk into somebody’s house and be able to discern who their interior designer was. I feel like a home should much more reflect the client and be a little bit more idiosyncratic.
|So what do you when you’re not working?
Well, I’m a big golfer. My dad is a member of Shinnecock [Hills Golf Club] and I’m a member of Piping Rock in Locust Valley and that’s where I play with my friends.
I think you’re the first interior designer we’ve interviewed who plays golf … what’s your handicap?
Well, I am a seven handicap. I started when I was a kid with my dad.
Wow, so you’re really good! Were you a preppy little boy?
|Are you friends with other decorators? You don’t have a decorator personality at all—you seem like a Wall Street businessman.
Most of my friends are hedge fund guys and Wall Street guys…
So when you hit the nineteenth hole, what do you have to drink?
I have a Southside. That’s a drink that they serve at Piping Rock—it’s a sour mix with vodka, gin or rum … it’s delicious. You pick one and it goes with this lemon mix. It’s a very famous drink out there in the North Shore. The lemon mix is a secret formula—and it’s very hard to replicate, you can’t do it.
|• Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch
Friday, February 18, 2011