There are few straight paths in life and designer John Douglas Eason took a while to get to where he wanted to be, finally breaking into interior design by becoming (after many other jobs) a chauffeur for the well-known decorator, Noel Jeffries. Just as he was about to resign—he hated chauffeuring—Cindy Rinfret, the senior designer for Noel Jeffries at the time—told him that she was forming her own company in Greenwich, CT and would he come along as a bookkeeper? Eventually he found himself designing Tommy Hilfiger’s house as well as many, many projects in pink and green, for this was the late eighties. If anyone complained, Ms. Rinfret would tell them, “Shut up. Pink and green pays your salaries.” He’s since graduated to a quiet palette of greys and has established his own firm but he admits it was a long haul: “It’s taken me a long time to really feel comfortable in this business.”
So, we know that you like Cary Grant and we know that your dad wanted you to be a sports hero … and
Jeez! Where did you find out all that? Oh, I know—the “It Gets Better” video, right?
Well, we’ll talk about that in a while. But first I want to talk about the Apartment Therapy description of your apartment as “moving walls” and “ghostly grays” and “sleight of hand”. It makes you sound like a conjuror!
[laughs] I’m not sure I know exactly what he meant other than it being a creative way to frame it. I’m drawn to greys.
And you also said that you should decorate in colors in which you yourself look good. A lot of people believe in that.
I find that for myself, this whole thing with gray. It’s a color that I’m comfortable in. I feel good in it.
Well you do have that shock of white hair, which is a great contrast. When did you turn grey … or is it silver?
I got my first grey hairs, like when I was sixteen. At forty it was definitely salt-and-pepper. Then somewhere between forty and fifty … in the last six years it’s like … oh jeez!
Well you have very good hair. Were you dismayed when you first noticed it changing color?
Somewhere in my thirties I tried the route of coloring my hair. It looked like the Arnold Schwarznegger red-brown thing and I was like, okay this is never going to work.
Dyed hair doesn’t ever work on men, I don’t know why. Also I don’t know why we’re talking so much about your hair. Let’s ask you about where you grew up and how that was.
I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas … the typical gay boy story—I always just thought that if I could get to Dallas, a place that was a little bit more fashionable, then I’d be happy. And then when I was in Dallas, I just kept thinking the whole time I was there … if I could just get to New York.
Had you visited New York?
I had been to New York to visit. In the sixties my father had to come a lot to New York on business but he hated New York and hated Chicago. He brought us to New York once, back in the sixties—you know where you’d hop in the car for a two-week vacation and where everybody was pretty much miserable. The whole time, my dad was like, “We’ve seen enough! It’s time to get out! This is a horrible life. You’d never want to be here!” I think that really just upped the ante for me.
So you came?
A marvelous friend of mine said, “If you want to go to New York, then go to New York.” And I thought, you know what, why don’t I? I’m not in love; I was out of work. I had worked in ten years in an industry I hated: the paper and printing industry. Hated every minute of it. I sold everything I owned. I had $2000 and a friend who said that I could stay with him for two weeks.
What was your first job here?
So I went to work for Manny Hanny (Manufacturers Hanover Bank), working in the factoring department. Basically you send notes to people and say this is what’s due and “kindly remit.” That’s the only thing I really remember: the “kindly remit”. And, like many people do in New York, I was a cater waiter by night … I was so impressed with myself because I wound up working for Glorious Foods, which at the time, all the most gorgeous men in New York worked for Glorious Foods. [Eventually] I saw an ad in the paper to manage the concessions for Les Miserables … selling Les Miserabilia. I always wanted to do theater … you know, sure enough being around actors and actresses all day … er … not so much!
It’s good to find out what you don’t want to do by doing it … it sounds like you’ve done a lot of that.
I did! I still have the letter my dad gave me in high school telling me what path I should consider for life and that was I should either work for General Electric or Price Waterhouse. By the way, my father, who after thirty-two years of marriage, divorced my mother and decided he was going to be an artist … therefore the paintings I have in the bedroom!
We have to talk about your dad now. He wanted you to be a jock, right?
He did. The whole “John Douglas Eason” was because he thought it was a great name for a baseball player. May I just tell you I cannot throw a ball to save my life. It’s the thing like this … where it rolls off the back of my hand.
That must have been a huge pressure on you.
It was. I think as life has gone on—unfortunately both my parents are deceased—I think he saw the seedlings of my being gay. He really did think he was helping me. He was so business-oriented and I don’t think he and my mother were that happily married. He could come home from work and not speak for three or four days.
Do you have any siblings?
I have a brother who teaches ballroom dancing in Texas. He wasn’t very good at the sports thing either. One of the things I love about my brother—although we’re not terribly close—is that we’ve never had to talk about business and we’ve never had to talk about athletics.
Why was it important to you to do the “It Gets Better” video? [Note: the It Gets Better project makes videos in which LGBT people from all walks of life talk about their own experiences as teenagers in order to inspire and assure teens that “it gets better”.]
Well when I was seventeen, I didn’t really know what “gay” was. I mean I knew that men excited me but I didn’t think at any point that meant I could have a relationship with them or sleep with them. One of the things I find interesting is that one of the guys who was really one of the worst at teasing me and picking on me—his wife and I are friends and have been forever. We were in the same grade together. They now live in Tuscany and on more than one occasion she’s said, “John, please if you’re ever anywhere near here, we would love you to come and stay.” [laughs] How funny is that?!
Would you go? Has he ever said to you, “I know I was a jerk.”
Not a word. I’ve seen him at a couple of reunions and you know what, it was not like teasing for him. It was just a part of growing up. And the invitation to Tuscany is nothing more than a very well-intentioned invitation. I absolutely would go. And I’m like, “Ain’t that a crazy thing, the way the world goes around?”
Okay now we have to get to Cary Grant …
He has such style. I love old movies. And that’s where we got the name for Mr. Smith [John’s dog] –it’s from a Cary Grant movie, “The Awful Truth” and that’s the name of the dog in the movie.