Brett Leemkuil

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We already knew that decorator, Brett Leemkuil, was known for his Tony-Duquette influenced Hollywood flair but we weren’t quite prepared, when we stepped in off a street in Sunnyside, Queens, for the wonderful theatricality of his studio apartment. Full of sumptuous color, low lighting and glamorous swags of tasseled silk, in our era of glass, metal and carefully empty surfaces, it almost seemed to be a defiant statement. He does say that he can do beige: “Beige is a lot harder than you think.” That may be so but this is much more fun. 

When we Googled you, we kept finding that it said you were a decorator in Green Bay, Wisconsin … is that right?

Don’t ask. My husband is a professor and in the world of academia you go where the job is offered. He is the director of a theater department at St. Norbert College.

So you did live in Wisconsin? Tell us how you coped.

I didn’t. I thought I could do weddings and stuff. It’s 1982 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. What’s really weird about it, there’s a town about twenty minutes away called Appleton, so you leave Green Bay and you go to Appleton and there’s a Williams-Sonoma in Appleton … there’s a Macy’s.

The front entryway walls of Brett’s Sunnyside, Queens studio apartment are painted with a faux malachite design and edged in auto-stripe detailing.
Tassels from a Garment District trimmings store hang from the crystal chandelier.
Mounted Japanese textiles, a large mirror and an upholstered console table made by Brett, give the small entryway the feel of a much larger space.
Using over-scaled pieces in a small space are one of Brett’s signature touches.
The entryway console table is topped with candles, amethyst crystals and faux-coral arrangements. Nineteenth-century Chinese pith paintings embellish the walls flanking the mirror.
A swanky home bar was created out of a converted coat closet. Jute rope was used as an accent trim.

Wasn’t it kind of nice being in 1982 for a while?

I’ve lived it once. I can’t do it again. They want everything to be pleasant and nice. [puts on a Wisconsin accent] “Oh you know if you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say anything at all.”

You sound like an extra out of Fargo. I think I want you to continue the entire interview in your Fargo accent.

Yeah … they lie to your face and smile.

A Victorian shell-encrusted obelisk glows against the backdrop of the coral tones of the living room.
A grouping of hand-blown mercury glass mushrooms is arranged beneath a collection of Chinese Hardstone trees made out of semi-precious gems.

Strands of coral and malachite beads, as well as a diamond and sapphire starfish brooch, fill a bronze shell-form vessel.

So you prefer the New York direct way.

I do. I think in business you need to be. Otherwise you’re wasting time and time is money.

Where did you live before you came to New York?

Well, my family is originally from the mid-West and my father was in the Coast Guard. First he was in the Navy … we travelled a lot. I was born in Hawaii. And we settled a while in North Carolina on the coast. I consider myself very Southern.

Yes, you’ve got that in your [real] voice—well as far as my British ear can tell.

I’ve tried my best to get rid of it.

An Art Deco clock and garniture purchased in Amsterdam is centered beneath an oversized mirror. The mirror is one of Brett’s designs.
Favorite objects and treasured books on the designer Tony Duquette by friend Hutton Wilkinson are arranged on a vintage 70s glass-and-chrome coffee table.
Brett purchased the living room sofa and Tabriz carpet from a Doyle auction.
A vintage magazine stand is positioned near one of a pair of 19th century
A standing brass lamp, one of a pair, by Koch & Lowy, provides extra illumination next to the living room sofa.
A small bronze skull made by a friend, and a miniature carnelian Hardstone tree are arranged atop an Italian Florentine side table.


But there’s that stereotypical thought … if you heard my stepfather, you’d think, boy, what wagon did he just fall off? Yet he’s extremely intelligent and so on.

Anyway, on to your style. It’s more and more rare that we come across someone who dares to use the word “theatrical” about the way that they decorate or design and you don’t seem to be ashamed about it all …

No. And you know this is a conversation with Hutton (Hutton Wilkinson was Tony Duquette’s business partner and collaborator) and I have constantly. People think you’re a one-trick pony and it’s really disturbing, you know that this all you do. I do beige—I can easily do beige. I can do tonal.

A chest of draws and crystal chandelier are tucked into an alcove off the living room.
Mid-century Chinese panels are combined with porcelain wall pocket vases.
A view across Brett’s colorful, layered living room.
Looking towards the front windows of the living room a pair of chairs by Thomas Pheasant for Baker are topped with vintage Fortuny pillows.

A white ceramic lamp from Italy was purchased in the neighborhood.

Perhaps anyone can easily do beige.

Beige is a lot harder than you think. I don’t want people to think I’m a one-trick pony. Very rarely do you get a client that wants … this [indicates his own interior]

But nevertheless do you lie awake at night decorating fantasy palaces?

Absolutely. I love Deco. You know what I hate? When everything is new. I want to see some timeworn Deco pieces and some Lucite and fabric will just make me go crazy. When I was down on 38th, 39th street, I saw this fabric that was literally just covered in feathers, like little white feathers and I thought wouldn’t that be dynamite to use as window treatments? You know Art Deco, like a bathroom maybe, all done in black-and-white marble …

Looking across the living room towards a center hallway leading to the kitchen and bedroom alcove.
A faux manzanita branch embellished with coral beads makes a charming wall sconce.
A shell encrusted mirror hangs above an Italian console in the sleeping niche. The wall is upholstered in a period Art Deco textile.
Vintage Italian sheaf-of-wheat sconces, an Italian ceramic Chinaman and an Art Deco bedside table fill the space between the kitchen and sleeping alcove.
Assorted diamond jewelry worn to a party the night before set down next to a pagoda form incense burner.
The ceiling of the center hallway is covered in Dorothy Draper’s Brazilliance pattern. The chandelier is embellished with coral beads. Sari edging, from a trimmings store in the Garment District frames the space. Faux jade elephants rest above the doorways.
Brett’s sleeping alcove is layered with a combination of leopard print velvet and malachite-patterned sheets designed by Hutton Wilkinson for HSN. The leopard velvet bed hangings are backed with a coral-colored shantung silk.
Swing-arm lamps provide adequate reading light.

The central mirror, flanked by four additional side mirrors, helps to create a feeling of space in the bedroom alcove. Brett painted the mirror frames green with a gold glaze and painted the branches in a rich coral. The branches were then adorned with glittering starbursts.
The ceiling is upholstered in Japanese green-and-gold brocade.

Tell us about living in San Francisco in the 90s. It sounds like such a long time ago.

Yeah, I met a very dynamic woman and we were together for ten years before we got married and then it went horribly wrong. I was doing retail, floral stuff … I owned a floral store. It’s a lot of work for very little money. It’s still there. It was called Fresh.

And how did you decide to move to Sunnyside, Queens?

The first time I lived in New York I lived on the Upper West Side, literally right behind the Natural History Museum, loved the neighborhood. I’m also of an age now where I wanted more space. I love to cook. I started looking around Sunnyside and I was delightfully surprised at what you could get for the money. I like the greengrocers. I like the fact that I have six fishmongers—like real fishmongers. And there’s two butcher shops—real butchers. I don’t go out that often. I don’t go to gay bars. I’d rather cook. I’m at a different part of my life.

A lively coral branch-patterned fabric covers the kitchen window.
Past and present life.
Copper aspic molds, pans and measuring spoons hang above the kitchen counter top. A 1970s mushroom Murano glass lamp adds ambient lighting.
Only plastic lobsters are eager to be boiled.
A planting of Staghorn ferns and Tillandsias flourish on the bathroom windowsill.

So how does it work with your husband? Does he go back and forth? How long have you been married?

We go back and forth. This will actually be my second wedding anniversary. We got married on Christmas Eve. You can never forget it.

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