Thomas Jayne

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We were fascinated by Thomas Jayne. He is scholarly, seemingly conservative and obviously well-read, yet there is this whole other side to him which is wildly imaginative and great fun. He loves costume parties and showed us photographs from an elaborate and irreverent Christmas party, and he does not take himself too seriously. His SoHo loft, which he shares with his partner, Rick Ellis, is filled with memento mori, which appear to stand for aesthetic evidence of respect for mortality as well as a defiant love of life. He is humble, has great warmth and is one of the most thoughtful designers we have interviewed. (Also, it has to be noted, he is six foot eight inches tall.)

This was really worth the five-floor walk-up! Why all the skulls and books about cemeteries – what do they tell you?

I’ve always been interested in ritual and monuments and that’s how I got interested in these things. It’s one area that makes people different from animals because [people] bury their dead and there’s ceremony around it. It’s just interesting what people choose to do and also I think cemeteries are a permanent and very accurate history of design in stone. My sister called me up [after she saw the apartment published in a magazine] and said ‘You have to get some house plants. You have an awful lot dead things in there!’ We actually had a rule at the beginning: No skeletons in the living room but …

So how do you feel about your own death then? 

I feel like I have no problem with that but I’m so informed about funerals and rituals that I don’t care. Do whatever you think is comfortable for you. I have suggested some things … but I have a friend who is so into his own funeral that he’s described what kind of  paper the service leaflets should be.

Where did you grow up?

In Los Angeles. Pacific Pallisades.

L to R.: Exterior of the 1885 loft building. Thomas helped to restore the original color to its façade; View from top of staircase. The loft is a fifth floor walk-up
The sign at top of the stairs to the loft saying ‘You have industry and will prosper.’ was purchased on trip to China.

What was that like?

It was very colorful because it really got fully settled right after the war (World War II) and I would say it was one-third expatriate and one-third people from UCLA or Rand. So when I was growing up I had an amazing group of people around me. The woman I would visit after school was Cacti and Succulent Editor for Sunset Magazine, which was the greatest Western organ. And the woman across the street had done the windows and merchandising for this great department store. She had the most amazing redwood house with polished concrete floors that had been tinted pink. Her wall decorations were these really great photographs that she had blown up of Dutch landscapes. And outside of her window she had built a tea house that was bright orange. Once she had arranged bowls of lemons and they had ‘dropped’ and become that wonderful brown-lemon color. We grew lemons and I thought I should bring her some fresh ones, so I did but she said she wanted the old ones‘because I like the color better.’ I thought that was great.

How was school for you?

I was really lucky. My parents had been going to a little church in the middle of town and they were encouraged by the church to buy a tract of land. They were all young and they pledged all their assets to buying the property and they built a church and a school. The church was designed by A. Quincy Jones. It was extremely stylish. The school was also by him. There were a lot of special things about it. We had chapel every day. Just the calm of that before school was really amazing. They don’t do it anymore because they think it takes too much time away from the curriculum. And we also had an amazing choirmaster, so we developed all that stage presence. Someone came up to me the other day and said ‘Were you a choir student?’ and I said ‘Well no, but I went to an Episcopal Day School.’

Why did he ask you that?


The graffiti style pedestal was painted by Robert McLaughlin. An oversized Michael Hossner painting hangs on the rear wall and the dining chairs are by Prouvé.
A view of the open kitchen. Architect Elizabeth Hardwick worked on the renovation of the loft.
L. to R.: Thomas’ partner Rick Ellis, is a trained chef so the kitchen is well-stocked, and well used; Snacks.
Skulls … and more skulls.
Light falls through the panes of glass from the kitchen to bathroom. Classical statuary has been placed on top of the kitchen cabinets.

Do you go to church regularly now?

I go to St. Mary’s. It’s an Anglo-Catholic church on 46th Street. It’s one of those places where, well, first of all, it’s very ‘catholic’ with a big ‘C’ and a small ‘c’. The ritual is extremely beautiful, the music is beautiful and the building’s beautiful so you have a very powerful chance at beauty. One thing will be beautiful no matter what. Something will happen to you that will be completely transporting. There’s no social climbing value to going to St Mary’s. There’s no one rich that you can meet to promote your career, there’s no nursery school to try to get your kids into… everyone just wants to be there.

What are you looking for with your faith?

I think that famous verse from Corinthians: Faith is the substance of the things unseen and the evidence of things hoped for. I do believe that there’s so much in the world we don’t see that that is license for religion in itself. And I deal in a very temporal business. Having things is not wrong. Objects are wonderful … but I don’t know one person that is happy because they have a big, fancy house. No material object has ever given anyone happiness – it can give them delight, but it doesn’t make you happy.

Should designing an interior be a joyful process? That’s interesting. You tend to be with people when they are in transition in their lives. It’s not necessarily of a religious nature but you have to be very sensitive to where people are in their lives. And that’s a spiritual path. In the old days people wanted decorators, you know, really hands-on-hips decorators to stir up their lives and make them exciting because their lives weren’t exciting and now I think people are looking to you for calm.

Do you find that?

Well, I just made that up! But no one is hiring decorators because they want drama in their lives.

The 12 prints hanging in the bedroom hallway are part of series “Tabulaesceletti et musculorumcorporis humani” by Bernard Siegfried Albinus (he was an anatomy professor), 1827, London.
Thomas’ grandfather on the half shelf, and a picture of Rick when he was 21.
The baby picture in the round frame on the second tier of the bookshelf is Thomas’ godchild and the blue vase was a piece from the Betsy Whitney estate.
L. to R.: Looking into the master bedroom; Another view of the bedroom. Art purchased at the 26th Street flea market leans against the wall.
The wall plaques on either side of the master bed are 17th century French.
L. to R.: The delicate mirror is by Oriel Harwood. One of the crosses on the dresser holds a relic of the true cross; Bedside reading. The pillowcase is from Thomas’ great grandmother’s trousseau.

What about interiors that are designed to impress?

Well to what end? I mean I people who wear couture dresses and they’re very expensive but they wear them to delight themselves and other people. It’s not to advertise that they’re wearing couture and that to me is the balance.

What about people who have just made a ton of money and they don’t really understand what they’re getting into … you have to educate them …

I wish those people would call me!

Well, we were thinking of hedge fund type-people …

I once went to a meeting with a hedge fund guy and I showed him my portfolio. It had everything in it. And it had a section on kitchens [ranging from] an 18th century plantation house [to] and a little kitchen that sort of a restoration of 1930s kitchen in Fire Island and it had that linoleum counters with the metal band, a wood floor with a braid rug … and he looked at it and looked at me and said ‘I’m insulted you’ve shown me this picture.’  [whispers]I didn’t get the job.

Thomas used yellow mirrored glass to cover the entryway wall. The sconces are by Belinda Eade and on the sideboard is a 19th century bust of George Washington.
L. to R.: A 19th century English chair stacked with books; The 19th century English statue in foreground is of Fortitude and the red table is by Jansen.
Antique trunks on the left wall serve as a buffet table during frequent dinner gatherings for friends.

So how do you feel about rejection?

You know you always feel bad when you get rejected because you think people don’t understand what you do and you think that you can do something beautiful for them. I mean I remember that story to this day!

Do you worry about going out of style?

I mean being a decorator is one of the ultimate freelance jobs. You never know what you’re doing next and if there’s going to be a next, or if you’re going to go out of style … or if you ever were in style.

A wall of bookcases divides the living room from the ‘cabinet room’, so named because it is a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. It also serves as an office space. The painting is by Mark Beard.
In the living room, portraits of Thomas and Rick by John Kelly. A pair of plaster sphinxes from O.F. Wilson in London. A 17th century French stone plaque rests in middle of the table.
An 18th century Chinese root wood chair.

But do you see yourself coming in and out of style?

I had a very traditional education. I am deeply steeped in historic styles and periods. If you need to have a house restored, I can do it with complete facility. At the same time I was raised in all these Modernist buildings, so I am completely aware of what mid-century Modern looks like and how it is. I never thought any house should be all pre-war because it never was like that. They had their grandmother’s china and they had baskets and ethnographic material. I’ve been a quiet siren to the fact that they never were a piece. There’s never been a house that was all Stickley except in a magazine. I kind of was out of the loop for that period when everyone wanted strictly mid-century.

What do you to do relax? How do you use your own home?

Well almost every Sunday we have people to an early dinner and it’s casual. Rick cooks. We light the chandeliers and we use one of my grandmother’s damask tablecloths and lay the table properly. We invite some different people but we also invite the same people – they’re what we call our unofficial family. They’re the people who we can call at 3 o’clock in the morning and they’ll get the bail, get you out of jail …

L to R.: A view of the cabinet room. A 17th century Dutch chandelier hangs from the ceiling. The stool in the foreground is from Thomas’ grandmother and the carpet is 18th century Portuguese needlepoint; The raven on the pedestal is nicknamed Jake.
L to R.: This portrait is of Thomas’ mother and was painted by Mary Holmes; The massive bookcase is home to an important collection of American cookbooks. The portrait propped against the shelves is by the artist Robert Clepper.

What do you cook?

Roast chicken, or Rick likes to make southern things like gumbo and jambalaya or pork chops.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading a book about Persian gardens. But I must to say that there isn’t that much down time … but once you get organized for the week … Sunday goes … and then it’s Monday.

— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge

Above: South African fox bats are suspended from the pressed tin ceilings.
Right: Treasures in the cabinet of curiosities.
L to R.: A Black Forest bear statue, circa 1900, holds a collection of canes. The shell sconce on the wall is by Belinda Eade; An elegant magazine holder, this 19th century metal basket from Naples is a copy of a Pompeiian bronze.

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