James Coviello is a fashion designer with what he calls a “passionate pursuit”. His Brooklyn Heights apartment as well as his country house upstate have been, over the years, meticulously filled with fascinating and beautiful old objects that he has spent a lifetime collecting. Apart from electronics and linens, he owns nothing new—and doesn’t dust either (dusting can be the ruin of many old objects). For him the way light reflects through old glass or the dull gleam of brass candlesticks is infinitely preferable to anything shiny and modern. His is not, he is at pains to point out, a random gathering of objects that merely caught his eye. He has spent years studying the art and architecture of the 19th century and he is very selective about what makes the cut. Although he now has a very healthy Instagram following, the overall result may, to some, seem a little disquieting and strange, but he’s fine with that: “It’s just for me … it’s like a cocoon of my essence. It’s like me … in a room.”
Did you think when you were younger this is what you’d be and this is how you would live?
Ah, that’s a good question. Um … I think I had grand designs, yeah. I didn’t really know exactly how it was going to transpire. My father was a graphic designer and my mom is from Switzerland—she’s European—and she has a very refined sensibility so I grew up in a very, kind of an artistic household. I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut. We went to Europe every year and my dad would get in the car to go to whatever country was nearby and we would just go to museums and flea markets and antique stores.
You didn’t mind?
No, I loved it. It was my favorite thing ever. My mom actually gives me a lot of this stuff too. Sometimes I don’t like it but most of the time I do. Her taste is different from mine—mine’s a lot more specific.
So when you say your taste is more specific, can you describe that?
Sure, I can totally describe that. I have a really strong passion for 19th century arts and architecture and I have really studied it and really know about it, whereas my mother and father just liked whatever looked pretty and was, like, old or unusual. I always kind of dug in deep to whatever I was into and I’m 52 now—I started collecting antiques when I was 13. I still have the first thing I ever bought [he shows us an unusual ornate picture frame that is most likely French].
It’s actually in keeping with what you have all these years later.
It has held up good.
But would you say that your taste has changed?
Oh yeah. I used to be like my parents. I would like something because it was appealing. But now I really know. The first style that I really recognized was the Aesthetic Movement. I understood that this was a kind of 19th century style. It wasn’t called Victorian—everything is “Victorian” when you talk about the 19th century but that’s so incredibly general. Each decade of the 19th century is completely and utterly different in style. When I knew that, it opened up a whole world for me. I went from somebody who admired these objects to somebody who understood them and so became a collector: “It’s just for me …
And you educated yourself?
Yes, books, museums, traveling a lot.
What was it about the Aesthetic Movement that first drew you in?
For me it hit all the bells and whistles. It was dark, Gothic-looking, black, ebonized and stylized. It kind of has an Art Nouveau element, which is very beautiful but rigid. It’s almost like an Art Nouveau element juxtaposed with clean lines—it’s interesting … masculine. It screamed a sophisticated aesthete. Then I could see the differences between that and something I really hate which I call Abraham Lincoln style, 1860s American with the big globe lanterns and the crystal chandeliers … that White House look.
It’s important to strongly dislike things, I think. Sometimes it’s as important as liking things. It can be as hard to say why you don’t like something as it is to say why you do.
Oh yeah. And I think that differentiates me from somebody else who might be interested in this kind of thing. For me it’s part of being alive. This place looks like this but really, it’s just for me. Like … I mean who does that?! I’ve made it my life’s mission to seek out these interesting and beautiful objects to put into this apartment. Just the care … the care is telling.
So when you sit in this room, how do you enjoy these objects?
I don’t know … it’s like a cocoon of my essence. It’s like me, in a room.
You’ve put all this effort into being discerning—do you feel a sense of accomplishment?
No, I don’t feel that way at all. I have no audience. I’m not a decorator. But the funny thing is I have a very active Instagram account where I have a healthy following. I never had anybody to talk about this stuff but now I have likeminded friends! I have a house upstate and that’s also [included]. That is a much more public space—I entertain there all the time and I cook. That is where I can see what I’m doing is benefitting others in a certain way. But now I’m like, “Wow, people really like my style. They think it’s so unique and interesting!” And I’m actually getting nibbles—like people want me to help decorate.
And will you take them up on their offers?
I don’t know. I think if they said you can do whatever you want—within reason—I would do it. There’s this one guy who has an 18th century Dutch house and who tells me he doesn’t have a decorating bone in his body—but what’s fascinating for me is what is it that is in me, in my taste that attracts him? It’s kind of interesting to explore that.
Well perhaps you can articulate, stylistically, what he can’t articulate himself.
I think I’m thinking about what every decorator thinks about—and it’s like the bane of their existence, which is that they have a client that hires them because they like their style but once they start working with that person, they can’t do what they want to do. The person fights them.
So what passes the test in terms of acquiring an object? You keep using this word “interesting” – is that ultimately what it has to be?
I would say the most important thing is the patina of it, the way that it has sat in time. If you look at this room, not one picture [frame] has new glass in it. Every single picture has a piece of old glass in it, either by chance or because I put it there. In my country house, each pane is either original glass from when the house was built in the 1840s or it was replaced with an antique piece of glass.
So you don’t buy anything new?
All of my electronics are new—Apple stuff. I like white sheets and white towels—new. I don’t like old linens. But everything else is old, all my china, all my cutlery, all my glasses. There is something that really moves me to look at an object that has some kind of wear, some kind of history about it. And maybe the quality of it—an old glass is so much more beautiful than a new glass in every way, how the light is reflected through it … all that stuff.
There isn’t much here that’s made by a machine either.
I’m a maker too. I’m good with my hands. That’s maybe part of it. Obviously it was somewhere before it was with me and I don’t think about that too much because I’m not superstitious by any means but I don’t like to think that a piece of furniture has any kind of weird energy from another person. But every time I buy something old, I think, “Is this the thing that’s going to be haunted?” [laughs] It could have been owned by an axe murderer! I really don’t want to know!
Well it’s all perfectly imperfect.
I do have some fancy American antiques upstate. I don’t think I’ve ever dusted a piece of furniture. That’s the number one killer of anything—people clean it and ruin it. What I use to clean anything is a bucket of water and a rag.
Do you still work [as a designer] for Anna Sui?
I have my own place in the Garment District—I have my own label (knitwear) for Anna called James Coviello for Anna Sui. I work on a royalty but I do work with her all the time. I see her all the time. As a matter of fact I put together a deal and now we’re doing a diffusion collection called Sui by Anna Sui and I’m designing it. We’re selling to Anthropologie and Free People and places like that. I’m really, really busy.
What was it that attracted you to fashion design as a career?
Um … I think because it was a three-dimensional object suited my maker’s sensibility. There was a sculptural element about it.
Why does your design sensibility complement Anna Sui’s sensibility so well?
Because we have a very, very similar aesthetic. Vintage-inspired and detail oriented and romantic. And we’re both obsessed with interior design. I met her through [A mutual friend] who said that Anna was looking for someone who could make a top hat out of pipe cleaners. She said, “I thought of you because you can do anything.”
You’ve made a success out of being a fashion designer which is not easy—what would you say to people who want to be fashion designers? What do you have to do or be?
Don’t do it! [laughs] I would say that you need to be adventurous and to be … not … what’s the word … you need to be a risk-taker. You need to be able to work through a situation and know that it’s going to evolve and it’s going to change and not to be set in your ways. That’s the downfall. Not just as a fashion designer, but anybody who is doing their own thing. If you can’t roll with it, then you’re doomed to fail because you have constantly re-invent yourself.
This place is so not American—but do you feel yourself to be not quite American?
Oh God … no, I think I’m very American because this is place where you can just be and set your heart on anything. I’m American because—for lack of a better expression—my joie de vivre! [laughs] I’m excited about all this stuff, and that’s a very American thing.
Yes, it’s very American to be enthusiastic.
We have a reputation for being, like “Hey! My name is Cyndi!” and being perky … but we are like that! I do not live my life like an American person … the way that I entertain … I learned to cook from my mother and she’s European. My attention to detail is very advanced. If someone comes over, I will pick flowers from my garden and put them in their room. I have to do it. [In the city] I buy flowers all the time, and it’s just for me. I even like them when they’re all dying and crumbly …
Do you like decay?
[laughs] I think I like decadent decay.
How do you avoid all of this just looking random and bitty and cluttered?