‘I must have been a willful child …’ says Jamie Drake about his insistence on having black bedroom when he was 11 years old. The decisive and dramatic color for which he has later become known has a risk-taking quality to it, a kind of ‘do-it-and-don’t-look-back’ sense of daring. If that is his design philosophy, then his own home in the Flatiron district, provides ample evidence of someone who is going to have his way with color, like it or not.
You are obviously a bold colorist and we were wondering why you were drawn to decorating rather than say, painting?
Well, I did study painting as a child, but I always wanted to be a designer. My mother was a painter by training. She went to the Yale arts school when that was the only department at Yale that was co-ed.
Were you this aware of color early in your life?
Absolutely. My color sense must have been so influenced by my father, and his father before him who were both in the printing business. We used to go to the plant and we used to see those tubs of ink! The printer’s ink, I can conjure that scent up and the colors were just so intense and shiny.
So what was it that you wanted to draw upon in choosing decorating rather than being an artist?
Probably a desire to shop! And a desire maybe to satisfy my entrepreneurial spirit, which I’m not sure is as easily guaranteed if one becomes a fine artist or a painter.
But it’s not always guaranteed as a designer either.
No, but there’s a lot of work for designers in New York. [It’s] a specialty market because we don’t have the luxury of exterior space. Everybody here needs to have that kind of cosseting against the concrete canyons and the brutality of our day-to-day lives.
How do you go about figuring out the clients with whom you want to work?
You get an initial ‘click’ feeling and I look for clients who have a reality factor. They have to be realistic about the budget they have. In this day and age you’re hard-pressed to do a living room for $50 000. Plus I’m not a ‘crazy’, I’m not a screamer and I don’t attract crazy clients. They’re reasonable people. We’re not doing brain surgery here. If the curtains don’t come this week, we’re not going to die.
At what point did you decide to take up design training?
You know what? I really decided that this was to be a career at the age of seven or so. My best friend [and I] had a fort, which was this pit on a hill behind his house. Over the hill and down through the woods was an abandoned barn and I’d find rusted-out washbasins and crusty bottles – and I was in charge of decorating and antiques!
When I was about 11, I decided to make pretty indoors. My mother was very supportive although she was rather less supportive when I came up with [the design] for my bedroom, which was a black patent leather bedroom with white trim. She was horrified. I must have been a willful child because I said it was black or nothing. And I got my black room.
It sounds like an S&M den. What did your friends think?
They thought it was pretty nice. I don’t know. Was it S&M or was it that high Hollywood chic? It was probably very influenced by Angelo Donghia’s work at the time. He had a dark bottle-green lacquered living room.
What was one of the most important things you learned at Parsons?
I was taught to explode my mind and not necessarily focus on the first thing that pops into it. It was toward the end of the Bauhaus years and hi-tech was all the rage: industrial gray carpeting, Joe Durso white walls, pull in a pallet from the street to make a coffee table, put a chemical beaker on the table with one lily in it. And I was doing proposals with walls draped in silver-gray silk-satin and polka dot carpets in lavender and cream and metallic gold. I came kind of dressed to match. I had gold Fiorucci cowboy boots on, tight cream jeans and a purple cashmere sweater. At the end of the presentation, they said: ‘We don’t know where to look first, you or your presentation. And we don’t think that’s a good thing.’ I then learned about modulation of space and architectural elements.
What do you find ugly?
Even things that somebody might say were hideous, I’m intrigued by. Even the most horrible ornate furniture from some store on the Bowery, I think, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to actually take that out of its milieu and make it something completely different.’
I couldn’t have an avocado refrigerator. Could you? Or a bath tub!
Okay, colored bath tubs…but you know, maybe there’s a way to make it work.
What kind of work would you like to be offered?
Specifically I would like to do restaurants. I’ve only done one and I think with my sense of theatricality, I could do something really well.
Which television shows do you like?
I have a passion for Law and Order. I also like The Sopranos and Big Love, although last Sunday’s episode was rather dull and I fell asleep before the end of it.
What do you think of stores like Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel?
I love going to [those stores]. In my house in East Hampton I have two Crate and Barrel cocktail tables and everyone always looks at them and says ‘Where did these come from?’ and they cost $259 each.
You have a lovely photograph of your garden in East Hampton on that easel. Do you like gardening?
No… but I like looking at what the gardener has done.
But when you plumped those sofa cushions for our photographer, you did it so well. You put your whole self into it!
That was Parsons. First semester. We all have our strong suits in life.