Interior designer Thomas Jayne is the only person on the planet who can wear a colored bow tie in the daytime and not have it look like it is an annoying affectation of scholarliness. We love him so much we’ve interviewed him twice, once in his Soho loft and now this piece about his New Orleans apartment in a house near Bourbon Street. A city that names its main street after a kind of whisky has got to be fun, one of the main reasons that Thomas is so attracted to the place, but he admits that it also has a history of bigotry, snobbery and, of course, the horror of Hurricane Katrina. It’s so typical of him, with his eye for unique combinations of quirk and quality, to be drawn to such a place. Before we started the interview we had a brief discussion about whether he was conservative or not (he’s essentially an historian) and he summed himself up by saying that the kind of thing he loves is the way Benjamin Franklin wore his Quaker outfit with a bright red lining. It’s a perfect metaphor for Thomas himself.
So just tell us how you came by this property and what its story is.
Well we’ve been going to New Orleans since the nineties. Jane Stubbs introduced us to Peter Patout, the great antiquarian and we (he and his partner, Rick) began staying with him and spending time there. And then parallel to that my first cousin, Tim, was made a Marine recruiter, our parents were siblings and both our parents died really young and we just became close – even though he was this big macho Marine, he was able to embrace his homosexual cousin! … he married this girl from New Orleans, so now her family is still in New Orleans and in fact they’re using the apartment this weekend, so it’s become a sort of family base.
So you bought this when?
I bought it two months before the storm [Hurricane Katrina] But we’re eight feet above sea level so we had no flooding. We had a little wind.
Where exactly in New Orleans is it?
It’s on St. Peter’s Street. If you stand out on the balcony, you can see the cathedral. It’s in the center of the city.
Why did you buy it?
I really like the city. We don’t have a country house because, frankly everywhere we want to be, we can’t afford, and we’d have to drive three hours every weekend … I could afford a small apartment in the French Quarter because it’s pretty self-contained. Also I would like to spend more time in New Orleans when I’m old and I wanted to have a toehold in the real estate because I know how valuable New Orleans will become. It’s the last great historic core in the country that hasn’t become really valuable property.
What’s the feeling of the city?
Historically it has such a great dynamic … the 18th and 19th century is palpable … it’s a confluence of so many things, and being from California, I really admire the light and the indoor-outdoor feeling of it.
And you have friends, there’s a context for you.
I do. No I’m not sitting in the house by myself. New Orleans is extremely sociable in an old-fashioned way. If you give a party, you’re included in the next party. And also old people come to the parties. That’s what I really love. It’s very multi-generational.
Why is that?
Because I think Southerners still value a story, and a narrative … and their relatives are cool. They smoke cigarettes and go dancing and drink bourbon and eat gumbo and they’re funny. There’s a downside to New Orleans of course, and that it that for a century, the old guard didn’t let new people into society, so they left and they went to Houston.
[Sian] And how is that now? I have to tell you that when I went there to look at graduate school, they had me stay with a woman from a very old family and she took me to bars at night. There was one man who so disdainful. I got the distinct feeling that they saw me as Jew from New York coming to invade their territory.
It’s changing. The old families are more open but there’s still this entrenched … there’s still this sort of tradition that is not for the greater good.
Is it changing because of events, or just because times are generally changing?
Because I think they’ve had adversity and they realize they can’t behave like they did.
Can you give us a sense of how the city is now, post-Katrina?
Well I would say it’s a very dynamic time. You have the old Quarter essentially preserved. You have the fringes of the old Quarter in flux, and they’re supporting the old quarter, so you have this paradigm of the storm and the damage and the re-building and this great sense of antiquity, so there is a dynamic tension in that. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of money, so the change is slow. The culture has changed because everyone who is in New Orleans wants to be New Orleans. The middle class can’t afford to uproot and come back, poor people have come back, rich people have come back. A lot of artists are there right now because it’s inexpensive to live. The food component is still strong. The music is strong. Tourism is back to pre-storm levels.
Do people talk about global warming?
Obviously it’s discussed but there is a sort of denial … it’s like living on a sand bar. I told my friend that I didn’t want a house on Fire Island because I’m already living on two flood plains, New York and New Orleans!
Do you think you’re going to go there to retire, when you’re leaning on your Zimmer frame and live out your days?
I definitely want to have a presence there in my dotage and stay in a luxury hotel in New York.
Can you live without New York?
Well I actually have a theory about being retired in New York – no one wants to talk to you. As one of my clients pointed out, New York is a Dutch city and when you stop being a conduit to money in any way then people quit calling you up.