Arthur Dunnam is the design director of Jed Johnson Associates, the design firm founded by the late Jed Johnson who famously started his interior design business in the fourth floor bedroom of Andy Warhol’s house. Arthur has taken the company forward and we chatted to him in his Sutton area apartment, which took ten months to renovate. Having always lived downtown, he was a little doubtful about this new neighborhood but says he’s made more friends here than he ever did when he lived on the corner of 14th and 5th, where, he says, the population is so transient.
So can you tell us what you liked about this apartment?
I liked the layout of the space. I liked the light. I liked lots of closet space. I didn’t know if I was going to like the neighborhood but I do like it. It feels like a real neighborhood. There’s like the little butcher, great shopkeepers that you recognize and know. And it’s a great place to have a dog—there’s so many parks … is this running yet? [points to tape recorder]
Yes, we just chat.
We’re told that we’re too nosy … I was very interested in something you said when we came in and were talking about the differences between dogs and cats–you said you prefer “overt affection”. Do you feel that way about people too?
[Laughs] Well, one thing I like about New York is that people are very upfront. If they like you, you know they like you. If they don’t like you you know they don’t like you. Being from the South—everybody’s nice while you’re in the room but after you leave, they start to sort of say what they really think.
So many designers we interview are from the South and they all say that. It’s so bizarre.
It’s really true.
New Yorkers are direct and will call your bluff really quickly.
That’s a good thing about the clients. I like a client who really knows what they like and what they don’t like. Sometimes it’s awful when they think they’re going to hurt your feelings if they say they don’t like it. Just tell me you don’t like it and we’ll re-group and go in another direction.
Tony Barratta told us about some website where they take designers’ published work and they ‘review’ it and criticize it—he was hurt by it because it was mean.
And it’s only the negative?
Seems to be … would you be able to withstand that kind of commentary?
I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to read it! Not everyone is going to like what you do, ever.
Yes, I was wondering if it was a new thing for designers to be ‘reviewed’ in that way, like book reviews or film reviews. I just published a book and had to read the reviews, good ones and bad ones—it wasn’t fun.
Oh, really? My partner, Roy Cohen, just wrote a book also. He wrote The Wall Street Professional Survival Guide.
He’s writing it in the light of what has happened?
Well, in the light of what has happened it’s all the more relevant. So many people have lost their jobs or feel that it’s tenuous at the moment … it tells people how to go about the job search process, how to negotiate treacherous waters in the job they might currently have … and a little bit about personality, how to force yourself to make those cold calls, to be more aggressive in promoting yourself.
It’s interesting to me that use of the word ‘aggressive’ – I’m British and to me it means, well it means aggression. But in America it’s seems to be a good thing. I was once told by a ski instructor to ski more ‘aggressively’ … but I can’t imagine one could, say, design ‘aggressively’!
How about more ‘energetic’ and ‘assertive’ in looking for opportunities? You know I’ve discovered in the last two years we’ve had to be more proactive in promoting ourselves. We’ve started trying to think of creative ways to get our work out, to get our name out.
Why weren’t you doing it before?
We were just so spoiled, I guess. We had a wonderful stream of new projects coming in all the time. It’s not that we don’t have any right now but there are a bit less than there were.
It’s everywhere. Everyone is suffering. But I do notice now that new buildings are not just unfurnished new buildings–they come with a package, the interior design work included, which must be a good thing.
Absolutely. Yes, it’s a symbiotic relationship.
Typically, when people walk into an empty space, people can’t project what something could look like.
They cannot. They can’t envision what the space might be like.
The thing that I’m bad at is seeing past other people’s furniture and eradicating that from the picture. It’s usually not your own taste.
I go with a lot of clients to look at prospective apartments they might buy because the ‘eradication process’ is not something many people can do. You have to look at the underlying bones of the space.
Does that just come automatically to you?
I hope so, after thirty years of doing it! If I couldn’t I’d be in a bad fix!
Are you born with it or does it come from experience?
I think I get better and better at it, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
What would you say is the fashion du jour? Are we moving on from the airline lounge thing?
Airline lounge, thank you! I find that it’s a little bit of everything. There are a lot of different looks going on but in general the trend is towards something more modern, cleaner. People want happy; they want color. They don’t want clutter.
How are you as an employer? Are you generous with praise?
I am very. Very. I’m very good at telling people in my office when they’ve done something well and complimenting them in front of the client.
So I read something that you said about you admired Jed Johnson’s design because it was ‘sexy’? What is a ‘sexy’ interior?
Sumptuous. I think it has a lavish, sumptuous feeling. You used the term ‘airport lounge’ where everything is rectilinear and straight. A sexy room is a room that embraces you. You’ve never called a room sexy?
It seems a funny word to use for a room. I might have thought a room exciting or sensual …
Okay, so we’ve got ‘aggressive’ and we’ve got ‘sexy’ –those are the two bad words for the day!
How about ‘opulent’
People don’t want opulent right now. Opulent is out.
Finally, I have to ask you about the chandeliers downstairs in the lobby … I just couldn’t make up my mind if they were vulgar or fantastic.
You know what? I’d really like to hire a gang to come through with baseball bats …