By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
If you live in Manhattan, a field trip to the part of Brooklyn where designers John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon live, is a must not only for the odd feeling of being in a leafy London suburb but also for the excellent restaurants along Cortelyou Road. John and Jason’s house is full of the obvious enjoyment of color and pattern that you might find in a house in Fulham or Highgate. Anglophiles, they were drawn to the area long before Brooklyn became the hip center of the universe, and although a big apartment tower is due to be built just behind Madcap Cottage, their little English villa, the area of Lefferts Gardens just beyond is going to remain low-rise due to a covenant that states only single-family homes may be built, which we hope means there will always be a corner of a foreign field that is forever England.
How did you come to find this place? The street reminds me so much of England … but it’s Brooklyn.
Jason: I know … it’s like stepping off Flatbush [Avenue] and stepping into the Cotswolds. It’s like here we are in Stowe-on-the-Wold. We’re such anglophiles.
John: We had outgrown our apartment [in the city] but we weren’t looking to move, but our real estate agent realized we needed to. She kind of talked us into starting to look.
And she came up with the idea of moving here?
Jason: Yes. And this was very affordable. We started coming over and looking. We came at night and we came during the day … not to sound not humble, but I think we’re pretty good at picking neighborhoods and places that are going to be popular.
Madcap Cottage sits in the heart of the historic Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. Peter Collins designed this group of Tudor-style brownstones in the early 20th century, and an identical group on the other side of this street, for the Brighton Building Company, of which Collins was president. They were all built at a time in the US when the country was trending to comfortable images of the past, especially neo-Colonial and Tudor/Medieval designs. This coincides with a rise of the suburbs where these styles are especially popular.
Perhaps because of the covenant that mandated one family homes in Lefferts Manor, this neighborhood seems to have become a laboratory for interesting suburban style houses configured in an urban environment. Chester Court is a cul-de-sac, ending at the end of this block with a wall, behind which runs the subway, so this tiny block is isolated, a refuge from the commercial chaos of Flatbush Avenue, making this storybook block even more special, although it is not in the landmarked district.
Do you find yourselves not going out as much now that you live here?
Jason: Yes. We entertain a lot more. People often come for dinner and just stay over. So it’s kind of fun. We’ll do movie night, like an Almodóvar movie night or Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. It’s a luxury to have a guest room that we never really go into or use.
Why is it all so English around here with streets named after British dukes and so on?
John: We were told that the person who developed it was British.
Jason: Lefferts Gardens [on the other side of Flatbush Avenue] is named after the Lefferts family who had a farm here. When they sold the land, they put in a covenant saying that there had to be only single family houses, so it’s more like an English suburb and not like Park Slope with brownstones or row houses.
The Madcaps embellished the Matthew Williamson wallpaper with rhinestones that they picked up at a wedding shop in India. They unearthed the vintage images of maharajahs and such in India. The coral sconce is from Baker Furniture. They modeled the entry after the color-packed palace of the Maharajah of Udaipur with its stained-glass windows looking onto sparkling Lake Pichola and the far-off Monsoon Palace.
Another view of the Madcap Cottage foyer with its vintage Chinoiserie figurines and an antique mirror purchased on eBay. Jason and John picked up the gilt wall brackets in Guatemala when Jason's brother was in the Peace Corps.
An overview of the living room looking onto the dining room with numerous vintage pieces that hail from Christie's House Sales, eBay, and their various road trips around the country. The mirrored sconces are from Currey & Company, and the antique pagoda-shaped chandelier comes from the Mulford Farm antiques market in East Hampton. The aqua-hued rattan chairs are from the Lykes estate, one of the oldest families in Tampa, Florida, Oliver's hometown. The lattice wallpaper on the ceiling is from Thibaut. They striped the floors with Farrow & Ball floor paint when their contractor forgot to cover a hole in the roof and there was extensive water damage to the original parquet floors.
Another view of the living room with a vintage hall tree that Jason and John picked up in Iowa. The Indian head comes from St. Barths, and a client gave them the antique oil painting of an English noble lady who looks slightly mannish. The Chinoiserie stools are Baker Furniture, and the dove sculpture in the foreground comes from the Bermondsey flea market in London.
Jason and John found the sculpture of a Boston Terrier in Paris. They picked up the vintage Murano glass peacock sculpture at a market in Venice when they were lucky enough to spend a month in La Serenissima last year.
And where does your own anglophilia come from?
Jason: My mom got her PhD from Lincoln College in Oxford so I lived there for a couple of years, when I was seven, eight, nine. I’m from Tampa, Florida but my parents were always having interesting dinner parties with artists, writers and people who traveled a lot, so I think for us it was very much a world view.
But what is it that you like about Britain?
John: It’s partly a sense of history, especially when it comes to design. It’s sort of this idea that, unlike Americans, you don’t just go out and design this faux house … it’s this thing that happens over time and it happens naturally. Some person adds this, some person adds that. It’s not like we went out and just bought a whole house.
Jason: My mother calls [this house] the “Knick Knack Shack”—because I grew up with very Dakota Jackson-type furniture. This house has only been decorated for six years but you might think it’s been here for twenty years. I guess I like the way in Britain, they sometimes take [style] risks, you know, they’ll take granny’s sofa and do it up instead of buying a new sofa.
A vintage Chinoiserie-styled console table from Palm Springs, California holds a fabulous vintage foo dog table lamp and sculptures of pugs that remind Jason and John of their pugs, Weenie and Amy Petunia. The ombre pillow upon the sofa is from the Madcap Cottage private label line available on from their website. The pillows are all made in America and can be purchased at MadcapCottage.com.
A view of the fireplace in the Madcap Cottage living room. They added the molding above the mantel (as well as the mantel itself) to create a Dorothy Draper "moment." The vintage prints hail from London, Turkey, and China. The Art Deco-style fireplace screen was purchased online. The white plaster table lamps are from Baker Furniture. Pete the Parrot takes in the scene from atop the mantel. His hat changes quarterly. Jason and John collect vintage tole metal plants, and they sit upon the mantel surrounding Pete. The white bust is of short-ruled King Edward VIII who abdicated in favor of Miss Wallis Simpson.
The folding screen in an Indian fabric is a custom Madcap Cottage creation. The Chuck Close lithograph was a gift from Jason Oliver's parents who collect modern art.
A view of the Madcap Cottage living room with a vintage sofa accessorized with pillows from the Madcap Cottage line. These are hand-painted pillows crafted in the United States, and each boasts a signature orange zipper. The coffee table is vintage Baker Furniture.
A Baker Furniture cabinet sits between vintage shell-shaped sconces from Bath, England. The cabinet holds an ever-changing display of objects that they love for a while and then sell to consumers on 1st Dibs.
A view onto the dining room with vintage chairs purchased on eBay. The ottoman in the foreground is from Pearson Furniture.
Lesley: Your look is not necessarily “fashionable” Sian: I think it’s probably very fashionable. I think it’s coming back.
Jason: We look at our house as a design laboratory, and we’re not necessarily imposing this on our clients. It’s a place for us to have fun. It’s like, “Hey let’s wallpaper the ceiling in the dining room but let’s embellish it with Indian marriage rhinestones.” It’s the not-bought-in-the-shop kind of look.
John: I think you’re slowly seeing a swing back to more traditional styles …
Just something to interest the eye … all those empty surfaces.
Jason: People want something more bespoke and handmade quality. Arts and crafts is a reaction—we’re so overwhelmed with technology.
Neither of you are quite as frisky as I thought you were going to be. [On the Madcap Cottage website they claim: “Frankly we are all about the ‘F’ words. Frisky, fabulous, and fun to be around.”]
[They both laugh] Jason: We’re kind of downers … Oh God, I feel like we’re not going to live up to our words … we are frisky! I don’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish but we wake up every day and we’re sort of thankful. We’ve had these crazy other lives, other chapters, but we never, ever got too close to the flame.
Jason and John were inspired by a visit to the bar at the fabled Gritti Palace hotel in Venice and wanted to create some of that Venetian-styled glamour in their dining room. The walls are enveloped in a soothing, pale-green wallpaper from Thibaut, and myriad wallpapers that are embellished with rhinestones from India wrap the ceiling. The vintage dining table, chairs, and china cabinet hail from eBay, and the chandelier comes from a Christie's House Sale. Each dining chair boasts a different fabric and welt. Their contractors damaged the original parquet floors, so they used a jaunty diamond pattern with Farrow & Ball paint to differentiate them from the adjoining living room. Green is the "neutral" in the dining room.
A chest of drawers from Baker Furniture houses a pair of vintage Chinoiserie table lamps with custom-crafted Fortuny lampshades that they had made in Venice by a woman who spoke no English but made "killer lampshades at a great price." The vintage Venetian-style armchairs with gold velvet upholstery are from Baker Furniture. The prints are vintage and hail from the Bermondsey and Portobello Road markets in London.
The vintage Baker Furniture armchairs in the corner hail from an antiques store in St. Petersburg, Florida. The majolica pile of lemons atop the dining table comes from a consignment shop in Palm Springs.
The vintage fish candelabra are from Little Rock, Arkansas, the site of a recent road trip. Jason and John love road tripping around the country. "It's important to see the rest of the country and discover what's what."
A Baker Furniture chair and vintage Deco-style torchiere in the dining room. The drapery tiebacks are from India.
A view of the eBay china cabinet with an assortment of Chinoiserie follies the Jason and John purchased in North Carolina. The prints are all vintage and come from markets in England.
John and Jason are obsessed with gardening and collect antique garden prints such as this print that they picked up in Woodstock, England after touring Blenheim Palace. The shell console comes from eBay.
The view into the living room from the dining room.
A deep red antique Chinoiserie chandelier from a Christie's House Sale sits above the dining room table. The mirror propped against the floor to the left is by legendary designer Billy Haines.
The kitchen has a random assortment of Ann Sacks tiles. The custom cabinetry is by Christopher Peacock, and the stove and refrigerator are from Viking. Jason and John used a flooring material on the ceiling to mimic the look of antique English wood.
A view onto the backyard with a vintage statue from the Yard Sale in East Hampton standing tall above hydrangeas. (The vintage faux bamboo garden chairs are currently for sale on 1st Dibs.)
Jason and John landscaped the backyard themselves—including the installation of some 20-foot birch trees that they had to drag down an alley and over a wall.
So tell us about your crazy other lives then.
Jason: Well I was editor-in-chief of Gotham, Hamptons and Los Angeles Confidential — all these magazines — and that was terrific fun. We built a company and redefined a paradigm of regional, resort and city magazines. It was a challenge … but after nine years, I said, “You know what? I’m bored.” We had a moment — we were at Cipriani having dinner one night and I thought, I’d rather be at home cooking and eating a grilled cheese sandwich. And I was also at the Costume Institute Gala, disco dancing with Linda Evangelista next to me and I was like, “You know what? Arriveé! Time to go.”
And John — did you have a crazy other life? [At this point conversation is all but obliterated by the loud snoring of their newly-adopted pug, the adorable Petunia, who is asleep on John’s lap.]
Well, I was in magazines as well but I was writing. I have a journalism degree and an art degree. Basically I always thought I would live in Chicago but one summer decided to try New York, and I liked it. I ended up on staff at Parents … I ended up doing a lot of [design] projects for people on staff.
The stairwell houses art culled from flea markets as well as contemporary pieces. The Chinoiserie sconces are custom. Jason and John really have fun not only with their artwork arrangements but also all elements of framing—from eclectic frames to high-octane matting (ie. wildly colorful matting). They map out their artwork using paper and a pencil in our notebook, and then they have at it! They use nails that don't leave big holes in the hall so if they make a mistake it's no big deal. They love mixing up big and small, round with square and rectangular. It's all about scale and keeping the eye engaged.
The guestroom is wearing Thibaut's Baron in Cream wallpaper on the walls and Thibaut's Fanfare in Brown on the ceiling. The trim color is Farrow & Ball Dayroom Yellow Gloss.
The guest bed is Malaca from Milling Road and the bedside tables are vintage.
"Every home should have a 'garden in hell' room, don't you think?" says Jason. "Think a space that toes the line between gorgeous and simply god-awful. A place for your mother-in-law to shack up in with wallpaper that just might eat her once the sun goes down." Jason and John's guest bedroom is gorgeous, but it's also a tad Little Shop of Horrors thanks to the big, bold floral wallpaper overhead. The green pillow upon the Jose Frank-upholstered settee is from the Madcap Cottage line.
Another view of the guest bedroom with its china cabinet from eBay and vintage banner from Queen Elizabeth II's coronation perched in the corner. "We love embellishing lampshades with beads that we have collected on our travels." The pillows on the bed are from the Madcap Cottage pillow collection.
The guest bedroom looking down the hall to the den. The Indian portraits on the wall are from a market in Jaipur, India as are the fabric wall hangings above the doorways.
The china cabinet in the guest bedroom holds their collection of turquoise-hued foo dogs collected on their travels. There's also a parrot or two in the mix. Jason and John keep the pieces for a while and then put them up for sale on One Kings Lane for others to enjoy.
A vintage chandelier from the Lincoln Road flea market in Miami. The shades are custom creations in a Sister Parrish fabric. The wallpaper on the ceiling is from Thibaut. "The ceiling is a wall, too, so why should it be overlooked? Whether you wallpaper it, or just paint it in some fabulous non-white hue… What would the Sistine Chapel be today if Michelangelo had decided to pass on the possibility of adorning the ceiling with heavenly visions?" says Jason.
A lithograph by James Rosenquist dominates a wall of their guest bedroom. The spindle chair is from the Madcap Cottage private label line of furniture available on their website. The Wallis Simpson-ish Chinoiseire étagère is vintage.
Inexpensive flea market prints are mixed with contemporary artwork.
A "moment" in the guest bedroom. Boxes that Jason and John picked up in Russia sit beside a vintage owl-shaped table lamp from an antiques shop in Thomasville, North Carolina. The coral sculpture is by the Eduardo Garza. John and Jason are crazy about dogs. The Liberty for Target frame in the middle is a portrait of Jason and their pound rescue Boston Terrier/Boxer mix, Jasper.
Amy Petunia, Jason, Weenie, and John.
Now concerning your style, when you go into somebody’s house and you try to bring this style in … I mean it’s could be a very hard style to bring in …
John: I think what makes our work recognizable is the use of color and pattern, however our style is not necessarily what we would bring in … it’s not the same for everybody. We can streamline it.
But the tchotchke thing … do you like the word “tchotchke”?
Jason: Objets! We don’t like a lot of consonants.
[Petunia’s snoring grows ever louder]
John: You know we’re working with someone at the moment and they’re really going in a more art deco direction …
Jason: Shanghai Deco.
The guest bathroom is a nod to the 1920s with its almost-louche bathtub and brightly colored, handcrafted tiles from Ann Sacks. The bath has vintage seashell fixtures from Chicago's now defunct Marshall Field's and a jungle wallpaper inspired by the Beverly Hills Hotel's coffee shop. The sink and all fittings are from Kohler and Kallista. The mirror is from Restoration Hardware.
The wallpaper is by Hinson & Company, the tub and sink are by Kohler and all tiles are from Ann Sacks. A colorful photograph of a Beijing, China streetscape by Tipper Gore sits above the bathtub.
The stairwell leading from the second floor to the third is lined with a mix of vintage prints and paintings. The portrait of supermodel Linda Evangelista was a gift from Patrick McMullan. The vintage embroidered pug reminds Jason of their two pugs, Weenie (named for Eloise of The Plaza's dog) and Amy Petunia. A portrait of Georgina, the Duchess of Devonshire takes center stage to the left of Ms. Evangelista.
Another eclectic mix of artwork on the third floor, including a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe and a large lithograph by James Rosenquist. The jockey photographs are images from the '21' Club culled from a photo shoot of the restaurant that they did when Jason was the Editor in Chief of Gotham magazine.
A view into the master bedroom from the stairwell. The Mapplethorpe photograph was a gift from Jason Oliver's parents. The hummingbird-bedecked wallpaper is from Conran's in London, and the vintage prints hail from London flea markets. The sconce is custom.
So tell us about winning the James Beard award and your interest in food and cooking.
Jason: I was really passionate about food writing and that was how I won it. I went for a year to the French Culinary Institute and I carried my box of little knives around but I was editor of Gotham at the same time, so it was exhausting. Now, fast forward, I throw good dinner parties but I’m not making football-shaped potatoes. John is a great baker.
Give us a dinner party menu.
Jason: It’s like high-low. I’ll make a roast chicken and do a great salad, and put out a piece of gorgonzola. But then I’ll get biscuits from Popeye’s and we’ll finish off with Haagen-Dazs bars and a really good rosé. People go apeshit for my Popeye’s biscuits … that’s what people want!
I love Popeye’s chicken … do you know what they do with that chicken?
Jason: I don’t know if I want to know.
They marinate it in butter.
[John laughs] That is what people want!
The master bedroom with its bed linens from the Liberty of London line for Target. The Chinoiserie-style lantern above the bed is from eBay. The bedskirt is a custom creation from Madcap Cottage.
The master bedroom. John and Jason are known for employing gobs of color in their interior design projects: Why leave a wall white when it can pop with pink perfection or smolder in cerulean? Layering patterns upon patterns is another signature Madcap Cottage look. A bare wall looks downright naked: "Do it up in a fabulous floral or lattice wallpaper! Then throw in a few more patterns upon the sofa, armchairs, settee, and chaise. But don't stop there: Add some paisleys and geometrics and exploded graphics to your wall treatments, floor, and lampshades. And don't forget to embellish the matting for your artwork, perhaps in plaid… Does all of this sound slightly overwhelming, heady, and perhaps a tad cacophonous? Well, it's not," says Jason. The pillow on the bed is from the Madcap Cottage collection and features Horace, their pachyderm mascot. The chests to the left are vintage pieces from the Espana collection by Dorothy Draper, their hero, that they purchased on eBay.
A vintage table lamp from eBay paired with a shade from Anthropologie. The "Mademoiselle" textile on the wall is by London artist Celia Birtwell. John is obsessed with the Duchess of Devonshire, Debo, and reads all of her books. He wants to be a Mitford sister in his next life. But not Unity.
Jason Oliver's side of the bed boasts a coffee table book gifted by their dear pal Eugenia Mikulina, the Editor in Chief of Architectural Digest Russia. Jason crafted the custom cover for his Kindle with a jaunty print from Schumacher. The Chinoiserie-style bed is vintage and hails from The Yard Sale in East Hampton.
A massive armoire hides the bedroom TV set. The stacked chairs and roll of fabric are obviously temporarily parked in the room, but only add to the charm.
A view of the third-floor hallway from the master bedroom.
The master bathroom. The shower is enveloped in a blue-and-white penny tile pattern from Ann Sacks. Jason and John wanted to create a cooling sanctuary in their master bathroom, and the penny tiles are perfection. They are also terrifically dynamic and keep the eye engaged when you drop the soap. The carpet hails from a charming rug vendor that they met on the outskirts of Jodhpur in Rajasthan on an especially hot and dusty afternoon. They somehow managed to fit the carpet into their suitcase and trundle it back to New York. They are firm believers that bathrooms should have throw rugs and furniture in them. "John and I are constantly changing out the accessories in our master bath: We have the aforementioned throw rug from India, vintage trophies picked up in Iowa, artwork culled from flea markets in London, and a hot pink tole wastebasket from Target," says Jason. The sink is Kallista Glamour Vanity by Barbara Barr and the cabinet is vintage Dorothy Draper found on Ebay. The painted white floor is Farrow and Ball.
The master bathroom. "Why not furnish your bathroom?" says Jason. There's an armchair that they custom created, a cabinet by Dorothy Draper that they picked up on eBay for a song, and a mirrored sink from Kallista. The elephant side table is from Vanguard Furniture. The poster is a vintage London Underground scene hawking, literally, Kew Gardens.
Amy Petunia, Jason and John's pound-rescue pug, needed major surgery after her rescue. Here, she relaxes in her Elizabethan collar post-surgery. She is now sprightly and is truly a happy camper. She and their other pug, Weenie, get along swimmingly. And they both adore their brother, Jasper, their Boston Terrier/Boxer mix.
There is a sort of nostalgia here in your home. Are both of you a bit nostalgic?
John: I would say yes.
Jason: I wouldn’t say we’re melancholy though.
So you’re somewhere between melancholy and frisky?