James Rixner

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Interior designer James Rixner initially studied architecture and then came to New York with a Masters in Urban Design. He originally worked on a project studying the effects of urban design on mass transit, studying things like the effects of incorporating a subway entrance to a building. So far, so interesting but after three years he realized that urban design was too political, too slow and that he would “never, ever see any of the designs brought to life—never.” And that was that. He’s had his share of New York-type modeling and bar tending jobs but since then his designs have been brought to life in many, many homes, his experience gained by way of jobs at Bloomingdale’s in its heyday, working for Harry Hinson and the Park Avenue architecture firm HLW until he eventually went solo. He lives in Chelsea with Stephen, a clinical psychologist and his partner of 37 years: “We like to say that I’m the psychologist and that Stephen is the interior designer.”

I’ll tell you what I found interesting about your website was that you very efficiently divide up your work and photographs of your work into ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’. Most designers say they can do both but I haven’t seen it made so clear and up front like that before.

It has served me very, very, well over the years. I feel like I’m not really branded in a way that a lot of big name decorators are. You know when you hire, for instance, Victoria Hagan, you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get her look, you’re going to get her white linen, you’re going get her whole kind of beachy-Hamptony thing and that’s great. But over the years, I have found that to be able to straddle both areas has been great. I just finished a very large project in Atlanta that got me through the whole downturn—totally traditional, grand traditional.

Is it heresy to say that most design does fall into those two categories, more or less?

My background is in architecture and so I try to work from the outside in. I get a vision of the house and then I get a vision of the rooms and then I try to make a flow between the architecture and the rooms, and then once you’re in, the flow from room to room. So, that is really what drives me in the beginning, not whether it’s traditional or contemporary.
In the foyer a small corner chair from Artistic Frame sits below a framed vintage Asian screen. The guest bath.
A work by Ivan Jenson hangs in the foyer.
What do you dread about a job when you first embark upon it? What part of it is difficult?

If they don’t allow you to do what they’re hiring you to do—if they’re holding the reins too tightly.

How do you figure out what your clients want?

The more savvy ones will know that it is kind of beyond them … but they have this idea, like everybody loves that house on the beach in that Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie. (Something’s Gotta Give). They’re mad for this house! It’s so relaxed and beautiful and it’s not in your face.

Do people still like that house? What other movie houses do they refer to?

Yep, I still have people refer back to that house. It was a little unique at the time but now it’s the template. People have said to me, believe it or not, because I’m a little Deco-oriented, that they love some of the scenes in the original Auntie Mame where she re-does the house, like five times in the movie.
In the dining area a chandelier by Tommi Parzinger hangs above a Ruhlmann style table in Macassar Ebony from Lorin Marsh. The dining chairs are from Donghia.
Tangerine colored Zinnias perk up the kitchen counter top.
Sheer fabric from Ralph Lauren allows light to filter into the high-ceilinged living room.
How about the house in the Tom Ford film?

Oh, A Single Man … that’s very mid-century. Oh you know another movie people refer back to is the apartment in A Perfect Murder with Gwyneth Paltrow.

And how about Rosemary’s Baby at the Dakota?! And Woody Allen movies … [they keep comingThe Royal Tenenbaums, The Godfather, Interiors.]

In a movie there’s life happening so these interiors stick in a different way to magazine pictures.

How has your own taste changed or developed over the years?

Um … it’s gotten softer. My taste originally—and I think a lot of young people are like this—started out as very much purist. When I got out of graduate school, I couldn’t live until I owned the real Mies van der Rohe dining room chairs at like, $2000 a piece back then. That’s what the schools funnel you into.
Vintage crystal bowls from Baccarat, a bright lacquer box and a bronze sculpture by German sculptor Peter Breuer, ca. 1905 are arranged atop a glass and bronze coffee table by Swaim for Beacon Hill.
Hanging on a wall above a living room sofa is "Leda and The Swan" by Rubin Nakian. The sofa is covered in a wheat-colored mohair from Scalamandre. James found the Greek torso to the left at a Bucks County flea market.
A large commissioned painting by Venezuelan artist Guillermo Rodriguez dominates the south wall of the living room. The 1970's vintage bench is from Knoll International.
I often find architects’ houses a bit cold, and somewhat predictable.

Cold, yes. They don’t like color. They like the same twenty things that you’ll always see, that signature whatever. I grew out of that. As you grow older, you discover things along the road that you weren’t taught in school.

You worked at Bloomingdale’s in its heydey … I do want to talk about that.

I worked for Bloomingdale’s at a time when it was a very big deal [in the late seventies and early eighties]. I was in the interior design department. Like if you came in and started to buy furniture and a furniture salesman realized that this was more than just someone buying a sofa and a chair, then they would refer you to the interior design department. And then I would come to your home, measure … full service ... full serviceeverything. We would make the curtains for you. Of course they wanted you to buy everything from Bloomingdale’s but if you found a great chair from someplace else, that didn’t matter. You did have the run of the store. If you wanted china, I could bring china from the store and say this is the table setting you should have. It was unbelievable.
Comfortable bar stools from Artistic Frame make for casual dining in the kitchen.
James taking a moment to text a client.
On the far wall a print by Sonia Delaunay adds a burst of color to the neutral tones of the dining area.
The Tommi Parzinger chandelier is reflected in an oversized ebony and gold leaf mirror from William Switzer.
A mirror from Restoration Hardware hangs above a Chinoiserie cabinet. The lamp is French, ca. 1980. Vintage Baccarat crystal and Puiforcat silver objects are carefully arranged atop a bar from Bolier.
A look inside the bar.
Why was that job so important for you?

It was a huge thing on my resumé. It was a very hard thing to get those jobs. To have Bloomingdale’s on your resumé at that time was like going to Harvard. Mitchell Gold came out of Bloomingdale’s. He was a furniture buyer. Mark Hampton had been there, Mario Buatta had been there.

How much did you enjoy it?

Well, I loved it except that they drove you crazy. They paid you nothing and drove you crazy. They thought of us as retail people. I don’t think it was a big money maker but it got people into the store.

[Sian] My first job after college was at Bloomingdale’s. I was the assistant buyer for Ralph Lauren—I hated it. I was like a housekeeper. All I did was fold the shirts and take stock. I think we must have been there around the same time.

What did they pay you?

I remember exactly—they paid me $17 000.
Looking across the living coffee table towards the open kitchen.
Shimmering copper metallic mosaic wall tiles surrounding the kitchen cabinets give the eating area a warm, cozy feel.
Oh you did better than me! I came in there at $13 500. You couldn’t even pay for your clothing.

What was it about department stores that was so popular at that time?

[For Bloomingdale’s] It was Marvin Traub. It was all his concept, his ego. He was brilliant, a brilliant merchandiser.

How would you describe yourself in terms of surviving setbacks?

I think I have very good priorities as to what is important in life – like health. Stephen, my partner, had really serious cancer about 12 years ago, osteo sarcoma. It was awful, godawful cancer but (knock on wood) he is fine. You know we came out of the AIDS crisis. We came out of thinking that all there was to worry about was AIDS. We lived in the West Village and we saw all these people die before our eyes when we were in our thirties. I think that my priorities are straight—there are more important things than a pillow, a sofa, even a career. There’s your life and how you live.
An early 20th-century Chinese stone head stands between a pair of custom chairs with black snakeskin pillows from JAB fabrics.
Looking across the master bedroom. A coverlet by Natori and linens by Pratesi outfit a white leather upholstered bed from Mitchell Gold. The French 1940s bedside chests were originally a sideboard.
Two pastel drawings by Barbara McDonald from the artist's 'Warrior" series hang above the upholstered white leather headboard.
A pair of red Chinese vases flank an Art Deco TV cabinet.
A photograph of a Greek statue hangs in the master bath. A pair of sconces from Circa lighting are positioned above a custom rosewood vanity in the master bath.
How do you live? What types of things do you enjoy?

I love the theater. I love New York. I love architecture. I love art.

What have seen at the theater recently that you liked?

I just saw a little revue last night: Marry Me a Little – really cute, a Sondheim thing [put together from] all these things that were cut out of other Sondheim plays. It was sweet—it wasn’t super professional.
A pair of chairs from A. Rudin covered in a fabric from Kravet provide comfortable seating in partner Steve's study. The wall is covered in a silk fabric from Jack Lenor Larsen.
Steve's ever-practical work area. The desk is from Donghia.
Art by Gordon Haas hangs above a Baker couch covered in fabric from Donghia.
A side table from Donghia is filled with some of Steve's favorite objects from travels abroad.
And what do you do when you come in after a long day?

See that cocktail cabinet there? It starts right there with a martini.

What’s your limit – one … two …?

Oh I can’t do more than two. What’s the Dorothy Parker quote?

I like martinis the most.
One is just fine,
Two, I’m under the table,
Three, I’m under the host.