Furniture and interior designer John Lyle says that most of the things that have happened to him in life happened as “dominoes falling” although that does not mean that he has not worked to then make the kismet productive. His pieces, starting with his very first lamp, sell in places like Holly Hunt, but he did not start off as a trained designer, instead working some years in the fashion industry as an agent representing fashion photographers. It was a pleasure to listen to his soft Southern-inflected voice—he’s from Jackson, Mississippi—and to laugh at his droll responses (“There’s a lot of fear in design.”). It was just as much of a pleasure to sit in his apartment that, while full of the slightly unsettling and fascinting objects and paintings he obviously loves, also manages to be colorful, cozy and elegant.
I liked the bit on your website where you describe yourself and your style as “artistic, luxurious, outspoken and a bit irreverent.” I hope all those things are going to be on display today!
Well, many of them are around the apartment for sure and I do have a bit of an irreverent nature.
Do you think we’re kind of losing irreverence and eccentricity in our corporate culture?
I think there’s always going to be certain groups that want to take steps backwards. Maybe there’s a big lasso of milquetoast going around … I can see that.
I just feel that if you’re a corporation or a huge company and you find something that works, then you’re less inclined to want to experiment.
Many people like to stick with what they know. This apartment has had so many incarnations. It’s always been a certain piece that catches my eye and completely makes me want to start over.
Can you describe the various incarnations?
When I first came here I was very devoted to Empire. The only piece left is a bureau. The first change from swags and bows was the very modern chandelier in the dining room. I took out a Georgian chandelier and put the modern one in and thought, “Wow, now everything looks wrong.” My color palette was greys and yellows and mahoganies. Then I took a trip to Turkey … I said to myself, “I’m not buying anything and I’m certainly not going to buy a rug.” So … I bought a rug and everything else in here turned dull.
We interviewed Eve Ashcraft, the paint and color consultant, and she said the fatal thing to do is to go to a country like India or Morocco and you’re taken by all the color. Then you come back and paint your New York apartment those colors and it just doesn’t work.
It can work.
You’ve painted your living room walls this color – what’s it called? Hot salmon? The name alone would terrify most people.
I think that really is the name of the color. Most design decisions terrify most people. There’s a lot of fear in design.
Ah, that might well be true. Did you set out to be a designer?
I really didn’t. I suppose through my life there’s been dominoes falling that I wasn’t even aware were falling and that led me to it. I’ve always loved architecture and art and, in turn, furniture. One day I was looking for lighting and never could find anything I really wanted so I thought, “Why don’t I make something of my own?” It was one lamp and it looked very much like an ancient Roman oil burner. Very naively I walked into a great showroom called LCS, at the time in 1985 it was the number one showroom in the country. I met with the owner’s wife who took a look at the lamp and said, “We’ll take you.” She changed my life that day.
Had you done anything like that before?
Never. I represented fashion photographers. I was an agent. I was the guy with the portfolios, going to the ad agencies and then one day I said a thing you should never say to someone you are representing … a photographer came into my office and I said, “My heart’s just not in this anymore.” And it finished. It changed my life. Again a domino I didn’t know was there. I think he [and all my other clients] realized the best thing for them to do was to find someone who really was into representing them. They told each other and when all those portfolios went away, I had to figure out what I wanted to do.
So was there a scary limbo period?
Yeah! I’ve had lots of scary limbo periods in my life! You have to be brave to get from Mississippi to New York!
Why does it require bravery to move from Mississippi to New York?
I don’t know why … I guess you do have to be brave. I moved to New York in 1980. I think when you’re young you have a lot less fear – I’ve always tried to hold on to that fearlessness.
And have you managed?
It fluctuates. But lately I’m pretty fearless.
What would you attribute that to?
I think getting older and realizing that fear will only hold me back. Take a chance. If it fails, try again.
We’re terribly anxious as a society.
Well, anxiety is one of my traits.
Do you know someone who isn’t?
Well … no [laughs]. I feel like my father is not so anxious. He seems to have everything under control. In all these years he never cracks.
I suppose anxiety might be related to creativity but I’m not always sure about that correlation.
Yeah, if you sedate your anxiety then you don’t come up with the creative things … but I don’t know for sure either.
Where do you make your furniture now?
I make the furniture in New York and some pieces I make in Mississippi and South Carolina. I get the exotic skins from South East Asia. I love shagreen and I went online because I thought, you know, “Where can I find these skins?”
How do they kill the stingrays?
They eat them—actually they’re delicious—but honestly I don’t see the killing part. I think they fish them, like ordinary fish. But they have farms. Have you ever eaten ray?
No, it has never occurred to me.
I just had one the other night. It tastes like a cross between fish and lobster, a wonderful texture. I ordered it a Le Singe Vert.
I’ve always found them very beautiful creatures.
That’s true, they’re very graceful. But they’re not endangered. That’s verboten for me.
What was growing up in Mississipi like?
Which part of Mississippi are you from?
Jackson, Mississippi. It’s all hot.
That’s where The Help is set – what did you think of the book and/or movie?
I thought the book was great and I enjoyed the movie. I was very young when that was going on but I do remember some of these things. My family personally wasn’t very proud of that time. Their reaction to the movie was tears. It wasn’t a sterling time for humanity.
So tell me about this moment you call the “turn key” moment that is so significant to you.
Well as the overachieving little boy … trying very hard to please, I’ve had projects where people go away for the winter and there’s an 11-bedroom summer house with not a stick of furniture in it that needs to be completely renovated: furnished, curtains, rugs, wallpaper, paint, accessories, glasses, linens, back-up linens, soaps … I have it all planned. And then, when I know they’re coming, I’ll have the fireplace going, the soup on the stove, the table set, the candles burning, music … and they walk in and it’s their home. I’m not there for that. I’m sitting by the phone like this [hunches forward] “They must be there by now. I know they’re going to call …” And they do. And I’ve gotten tears. That means a lot. I love to bring people to happy tears.
Do you have a summer house?
Not any more. I have just here. In the summer I play Camp Manhattan. You can get into any restaurant you want. I ride around on a vintage Vespa, so on weekends, the traffic’s gone.
Yes, staying in Manhattan for the summer is one of the best kept secrets.