Joan Dineen

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We’re very proud of our record of locating Architects With a Sense of Humor for the HOUSE column and Joan Dineen is definitely one of them. Up until a few years ago, she says she would have done anything to avoid an interview but she is, by her own admission, a late bloomer and we talked a lot about finding confidence later on in life. Her home is beautifully and skillfully designed despite her new, gawky, adorable rescue puppy’s best efforts to chew through most of it. Joan seems philosophical. “When I was young, I was always looking for the meaning in life  … and it’s this … here she is.”  

You’re hidden! There’s nothing on you anywhere—the only thing I could find was that you were married in a Quaker ceremony. Why are you so hidden?

I’m shy!

You can’t be shy! You run your own business!

… well that has made it a challenge! It actually has. I’m a very late bloomer. I’ve only just come out of my deep shy pain in the last five or so years. And I’m now learning to really enjoy meeting people and talking to them—I’m not terrified.

A 1950’s French light fixture is suspended from the ceiling of the front entrance hall.
In a corner of the parlor floor a pendant by lighting designer David Weeks hangs above a cocktail table by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne and chaise lounge designed by Joan.
L. to r.: The carpet is by Paule Leleu.; Joan’s parlor floor office supplies.
‘Gravity’ by Steven Skollar hangs above a Biedermeir sofa from Eileen Lane Antiques. The side tables are by René Prou.
Charlotte captures our attention.
Joan placed magazines atop the parlor floor carpet corners to protect against the ever-busy jaws of Charlotte.
An inset glass floor on the parlor terrace also lets light into the downstairs garden room.

Is that why you initially went into engineering? [something we did actually find out.]

No, I went into engineering because I really needed to take a break from architecture and my mom and dad got very angry when I said I wanted to take a year off. And we had just had a rapprochement—you know I’d been, like, a rebellious adolescent—and I didn’t want to break their hearts again. I just didn’t have the energy.

But engineering doesn’t sound much easier.

I was looking for certainty. I wasn’t quite sure what architecture meant on a deeply moral and philosophical basis in terms of what creativity was and what borrowing was. I was really confused about innovation and creativity and mining the past. You know I was seventeen and there was that heroic modernism where each problem defined the right solution and each problem was unique. I took that so deeply, deeply, deeply as catechism and was terribly afraid to ever do anything I’d ever seen anybody else do before. It was cheating! And that’s absurd but I was seventeen …

Light streams in through the rear windows of the garden floor living room.
A large abstract painting by decorative artist Eva Buchmiller hangs above a custom cherry daybed covered in a fabric from Nobilis. A ceramic Oculus sculpture by Pamela Sunday stands atop the family grand piano.
Looking across the garden floor living room.
An abstract oil triptych by Gene Witten hangs above a couch by Christian Liaigre covered in a fabric from Holly Hunt. The lamps are by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings.

And so after engineering at Cornell, you went on to Columbia to finish architecture …

And then I got a job for two years at I.M. Pei.

Well, that’s very impressive …

Oh, I’m so impressive, thank you.

You’re so intimidating …

Thank you! Thank you very much! I like that! [laughing]

A bronze birds pops through one corner of the glass coffee table top. The legs were originally fire hoses.
A lamp by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, marble eggs and vintage ceramics are arranged atop the sofa table.
The rear garden.
Joan and Charlotte.

What’s to be said for being a late bloomer?

Well … I’m having fun. If we’re lucky we get a little better in some ways as we get older … and if we’re really not lucky, we get more the way we were.

Was it success that changed things?

I don’t know. Yes … no. Yes … no.

Professional confidence and competence then?

I think that’s exactly right. You learn that you can actually do what you’re pretending to do. Oddly enough one of the most fun things that we’ve done was to do Kips Bay this year. It’s not that it’s done anything amazing for our business yet, although one hopes, it was more of a personal thing, just fun.

Joan designed a large family kitchen in the front half of the garden floor. A center island and kitchen counter tops are out of Calacatta marble.
Custom kitchen cabinets are out of macassar ebony.
Kitchen shelving displays blue-and-white Canton china and cookbooks. The Swedish pine benches are from Evergreen Antiques.

L. to r.: Hanging on the far wall is a pastel, ‘Head to Head’ by Leonard Kocianski.; An aquatint, ‘Scout’, by Kingsley Parker hangs above ‘Girl’s Night Out’ a work out of crayon by Jane Webb.
What about me?!

Yes, perhaps an absence of anxiety leads to real creativity. You don’t have to be anxious in order to do something well.

Right. I have found that when designing and decorating, particularly for myself, very hard because there are no excuses … [whispers] except money! But by having confidence I’ve learned to take pleasure in it all.

And then you take more risks, maybe.

You take more risks. I used to go out of my way to avoid situations like this [interview]. I had a partnership and part of why I had the partnership was because my partner was very outgoing and I could hide behind him … but you know that’s a double-edged sword.

Mahogany panels, added to the house in the 1920s, cover the dining room walls. The large dining table is made out of slabs of ebony that Joan found years ago at Tucker Robbin’s showroom in the Meatpacking District. The chairs are custom and are upholstered in a fabric from Romo. The light pendant above the dining table is from Sciolari.
Looking into a corner of the downstairs dining room. ‘Paths and Edges’, an etching by Richard Serra, hangs above the fireplace.
More views of the rich mahogany paneled dining room.
L. to r.:A zebra-patterned carpet from Patterson, Flynn and Martin runs up the townhouse staircase.; An oil painting by Steven Skollar hangs at the top of the stairs.

It just seems so incredibly hard to go from being an architecture school graduate at an entry level position to establishing your own business. It’s a tough and crowded field, isn’t it?

You know I was very lucky in a lot of ways. I’ve never had the big, huge, fancy projects  but I’ve always had nice, solid projects and solid people. From my very first client—and this has never happened again—I think I got ten clients. And I still do work for that first client … and let us say that was a long time ago … I don’t even want to tell you how long ago that was! And I was also trying to balance children … my husband is very participatory in that.

Is he an architect as well?

No, he publishes plays. It’s very boutique.

The stairwells of Joan’s townhouse are filled with art. The frames are as varied as the work itself.

L. to r.: Bookshelves fill a corner of daughter Blythe’s bedroom.; Joan created the chandelier by combining two pendants she found at the annual holiday craft market in Union Square. A small portrait by Ed Valentine hangs above a Biedermeier chest of drawers.
‘Bug Out’ a mixed media work on paper by Devin Gould hangs above the marble mantel in Blythe’s bedroom.
The carpet is from Fort Street Studio and the Swedish grandfather clock is from Evergreen Antiques.
The sun rises above Blythe’s bed.
Blythe’s workspace was carved out of a small hallway connecting her room to the guest room.

That sounds like a job from the 19th century. Do you mean he produces the plays?

No. When you publish a play you do really two things, you print a script in whatever format and you sell that script either to bookstores or to people. And then the other side of it is that you license production rights to various categories of performance. Like, Tony Kushner’s Angels In America—that’s probably the best known of the plays that he publishes—and so when colleges or community theaters or professional theaters outside of New York want to do it, they contact him.

Are lots of people busy writing plays?

Oh my … every dentist has one. So many people feel they have story they want to tell … oh … I do know some incredibly smart, fabulous dentists … that was such a bad thing to say … but you know, lawyers [write plays] too, especially lawyers!

In the guest bedroom, a sunburst mirror hangs above the bed by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings.

‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ an oil on canvas by artist Josh Gosfield, who also did illustrations for The New York Times magazine, hangs above the guest room marble fireplace.
Flanking the guestroom fireplace is a pair of paintings by Norwegian artist Kjell Erik Killi Olsen. The ceiling fixture is a vintage Verner Panton.
Peeking into the guest bathroom.

We’ll dig you out of this … okay, so I once had a friend who is an architect and we hired her to do our apartment—and we are still friends but there were moments when it might have foundered. What’s your take on working for friends? Would you say yes to a friend who needed an architect?

I’ve actually designed for a lot of friends. I get so much pleasure out of it. I’m actually doing [a design] for my husband’s ex-girlfriend.

Gosh, you must be very tactful.

Oh, I love her. She’s one of the people I respect most. And working with her has given me this window on her worldview and it’s fantastic. I love it! But it is actually rare that someone strikes you with such powerfully positive revelations.

But it can be very fraught.

I’ve had fraught … but not from friends of mine. Oddly, friends of friends can be a big danger zone. I don’t know why. It’s neither one thing or the other. This business is so intimate.

Decorative artist Eva Buchmiller painted this stairway wall mural.
In Joan and her husband, Kip’s bedroom an oversized headboard of cerused oak and leather by Sergio Mejia hangs behind the bed.
Oil portraits by artist Sean Early and a ceramic sculpture are arranged in a corner of Joan and Kip’s bedroom. The curtain fabric is from Henry Calvin. The bedside light is a vintage 1950’s desk lamp.
Hanging above the marble mantel is a mixed media work, ‘Straightjacket for Houdini’, by Richard Carboni. On either side of the fireplace an antiqued mirror hangs above a pair of tobacco leaf veneer chests designed by Joan. Charlotte’s bed is placed under an etching by Salvator Dali.
Custom bedroom shelves are filled with books, photos and more art and objects.
Family photos.
A pendant by Sciolari hangs above a carpet from Fort Street Studio.

Three south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows fill Joan and Kip’s bedroom with light.
The spa-like master bath was designed in soothing hues of gray, blue and white.

If someone asks you to characterize your style, what do you say? I read one of the few things online about you and you said, “I have a weakness for large and rich things.”

I do! I don’t do “little” [says in little girl’s voice]. I’m absolutely fine with small spaces but my feeling is that you’re going to have more impact in a small space with one big painting on the wall rather than lots of small things.

Why do so many people these days want their houses to look like hotels?

Oh, well yes. We encounter that frequently. There’s that luxury-travel thing, definitely. When you go on vacation and have a nice time, don’t you ever want to move to that city? I do. When you are on vacation especially … you’re taken care of. And it’s pristine. A lot of people are not looking for the quirky.

L. to r.: A view from Joan and Kip’s bedroom into Kip’s office.; A side view of Kip’s desk by furniture designer Adrian Pearsall.
Joan’s husband, Kip Gould is president and owner of Broadway Play Publishing. His office shelves are filled with novels, some of which have been turned into plays.
More views of Kip’s office.
The shelves behind his desk are filled with more plays that have been published by Broadway Play Publishing.

Well, I suppose quirky people don’t really want to have designer.


Are you a reader or a TV watcher?

I watch Breaking BadMad Men, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and that is really it. I don’t read very many novels but I do like them when they’re good. I spent several months reading Infinite Jest [by David Foster Wallace] this year. And when I finished, I was angry at it … but then oddly, I when I finished I wanted to start all over again.

Why were you angry at it?

It was just so self-satisfied, so swaggering, almost adolescent male quality … and I don’t play tennis.

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