Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Buzz on James Lumsden: Back to the Classics

Just in case you missed my interview with James Lumsden on Decorati:

The morning I interviewed Los Angeles design icon, Jim Lumsden, I forgot to eat breakfast and had low blood sugar. So when I arrived at his gorgeous home and office in the Hollywood Hills, I was feeling a bit woozy.

When I arrived, one of his staff offered me coffee, asked me to take a seat in the foyer, and let me know that Jim would be right down. So I sat in this wonderful antique armchair that had the most unusual lumbar pillow. It was a small and wonderful landscape painting in a gilt frame and wrapped in some sort of gauze.

How unusual right? That’s what I thought until I sat down, felt the mirror frame dig into my rear and realized I had just sat on a painting that was in no way part of the antique chair.

Thank God, just before Jim came down to greet me, I jumped up, examined the painting for damage, readjusted its place on the seat, and tried as hard as I could to look casual and collected while enjoying the excellent cup of coffee.

Note to Jim: Sorry I didn’t mention this when I saw you but I was afraid you’d throw me out the second story French doors.

How best to describe Jim: charming, natty, fit, funny, and just generally someone who has tremendous class. Not to mention talent both as a professional architect and interior designer. His traditional interiors and designs have dazzled me for years. To me he is the classicist designer personified. His work is truly timeless. Plus he was a lot of fun to interview.

BLK: True of false: you’re an interior designer as well as an architect?

JL: Very true.

BLK: Which came first then, the chicken (designer) or the egg (architect)?

JL: Neither. When I was growing up I always knew I was going to be an architect and had the distressing habit of creating a minefield of cardboard houses and building layouts all over the Living Room floor, planning houses and towns, all in traditional styles. I love traditional architecture and wanted to make that my career.

So I enrolled in architecture school. But to my horror, one of the first things they “taught” me was that the then-prominent Mid Century modern style was the future of architecture. I was so appalled; I fled to UCLA’s, picked up a couple of degrees in Economics and went on to get my Masters in Interior Design.

BLK: So you’re a classicist?

JL: Yes.

BLK: But have your thoughts changed on Mid Century Modern now that it’s become so old that it’s now a “retro” design trend?

JL: No, I just hope this retro trend is over soon. Think about it. When you drive down a street of houses built over the last fifty years it is the ones that are essentially traditional in style that are still good while the supposed modern ones look horribly dated and, frankly, a bit cheesy. The same goes for the interiors. In my out of the mainstream opinion, only a few of the furniture pieces designed in that period have held up. But, having said that, I have owned a few of those and will use them in projects.

BLK: Ok, well let’s get back to your formal training for a moment. So if you got your degree in interior design, then where did you get your skills as an architect?

JL: I’m essentially self-taught as an architect. One day, several years into my interior design career, a client told me he was having trouble getting a Williamsburg style addition designed for his authentic Williamsburg house by any of the architects he engaged (the dreaded Mid Century style having decimated the ranks of the traditional architects) so I stepped into the breach and added traditional architecture to my practice. I always work with a licensed architect or engineer so as not to claim to be something I am not.

BLK: You made me laugh when you told me that every client these days says they want a “Tuscan” look but really mean something else. Can you explain?

JL: Tuscan has become a buzz (no pun intended) word for real estate agents and bad spec builders. Anything with a tile roof seems to qualify.

My approach when asked for that style is to show clients reference photos of houses of all sorts and have them point to what they like, or dislike. Visual speech works best here. Usually, what I end up with is not a formal villa or a rustic farmhouse but something with elements of both, as if the whole affair had grown over the years.

BLK: Many top designers today revel in saying “I don’t take on projects for less than a million dollars.” But your philosophy is quite different. Can you explain?

JL: Oh, please. How grand can you get? I tend to stay busy during both good times and bad, probably because my clients know I don’t make such ridiculous demands. Besides, we’re are supposed to be professionals, not divas, and I believe that professional designers should accept any project that excites their artistic juices. I only have one condition: that the clients are nice people. If not, I “realize” I have an out of town project that conflicts with theirs and respectfully decline the job.
If someone calls and asks if I could help them do over the guest bedroom, I am on my way. The fun of it is sitting down with a blank paper and working out a new, usual and exciting solution for what might have been a dreary back room. I recommend that designers adjourn to the cocktail napkin of the local bar where, as is well known, we probably do our best work.

BLK: When you dream of your ideal design project, tell me what it’s like?

JL: A client who gives me the freedom to create something truly special, and tells me to plunge ahead. A long-time client handed me a topo map of a lot he had purchased in Pacific Palisades, told me he wanted a Spanish Colonial Revival house for him and his growing family and left for Hawaii. A month later I handed him the plans. That’s a dream client.

BLK: When you take on a design project, what are three things that you can’t live without?

JL: Sorry, Buzz, but I never know how to answer that question. I think the right answer is food, water, and a deposit. But designers being interviewed never say that.

BLK: But you just did and that’s a great answer. Ok, let me think of a harder question. What design style do you feel is completely overdone?

JL: I’m not sure if you can call it a style, but all those overbuilt houses with tall, double doors that should only be on a bank. Don’t they know it’s better to enter through a door that’s in proportion and then be blown away by a dramatic, unexpected space inside?

BLK: Where’s the most exotic venue where you’ve had a project?

JL: Not exotic in the way you are thinking but unusual for a Los Angeles designer. I’ve designed several houses in a small East Texas town where oil was discovered and the people are so nice you can’t believe it. My clients there are amazingly open minded and interested in trying new ways of doing things. I really enjoy working there.

BLK: Is there a location that’s most inspirational to you or that you visit again and again for new ideas?

JL: Have you ever visited the California missions? Spend some time in one of them and you cannot help but understand the basics of California design. Strong, elemental, but with flashes of whimsy and charm in the painted detail. I always go away inspired.

BLK: What is the singular most beautiful room you’ve ever designed?

JL: Every room that I completed years ago but still looks as chic today as when it was first completed. That’s one reason I don’t do trendy.

BLK: What happens if you design something for a client and the client pulls an “I’ve changed my mind about the color and the design, so we need to redo the work you’ve done so far.” How do you handle those awkward situations?

JL: I really don’t encounter that because I work closely with my client in a genuinely collaborative way. I think it’s very important to really listen to what the client says. If they want a green bathroom, then give them a very stylish green bathroom. You can’t go too far wrong giving people what they want, can you?

I am also fortunate that I have a lot of clients I have worked with for years so I am familiar with their life-styles and needs and we have built up trust over the years and we can go right to work.

But when I start with a new client I spend as much time as possible interviewing them about how they live and maybe more importantly how they would like to live. That’s where the designer comes in. Take the raw material and invest it with style. Otherwise, why bother?

BLK: At C. Mariani, we’re famous for the grandest antiques. In order to avoid a “museum look”, what do you incorporate into your ultra-luxe rooms that counter balance antiques?

JL: I agree. The museum look will put you right to sleep. Start with one really strong antique, hopefully something outrageous and over the top. The kind of thing elevates the room and gives it importance and interest. Then, make sure to give the piece lots of breathing room and add complementary pieces from diverse periods and styles. My mantra is to keep it light and don’t lose your sense of humor.

Actually, I have a second mantra: use color and don’t take yourself too seriously.

In one such room I recently completed I started with a French Directoire mantle clock, placed it on a classical millwork background of my design, quite alone and a bit stark. Then I collected an Art Deco settee, an insanely important 18th c. Venetian tray table that I found at the Biennale in Paris and a bold ivory- inlaid Anglo Indian table. Then I took all of these pieces and presented them on a reproduction rug from the Louvre which I had made in the original bold vermillion, turquoise, black and white, not the faded genteel colors we see so much these days. The result: a room that’s not stuffy and so inviting that everyone gravitates towards it at parties.

BLK: What role do antiques play in your design philosophy?

JL: I think a house without at least one fairly good antique is not complete. Even if you have a Mid Century house, place one smashing antique in the entry hall and the severity of the rest makes sense.

If you can afford it, some insanely crazy piece of 18th century European excess can make the room.
Bland perfectionism simply doesn’t hold up over the long haul. You need the patina and the oddity to maintain your interest. Makes you want to walk by it every day to get that jolt of inspiration.

I recently found a pair of 17th Century southern Mexican columns that the maker, in some dream, thought were going to be Ionic, if you can picture that. They have the strangest proportions and I couldn’t live without them. They made the room.

BLK: What turns you on about antiques? Is it their drama, the fact that they’re hand made, or something else?

JL: I love antiques when they are “off”. Something that makes you wonder what on earth was the artisan thinking. And, as you suggest, the drama is a critical element in their appeal. One smashing antique can save a room otherwise made dull by minimalism or too many so-so reproductions.

And don’t restrict yourself to European antiques, as glorious as the really good ones are. Explore the wonderful furniture made by local craftsmen in the New World. I’m very fond of the charm and naiveté of furnishings invented by simple local carpenters in emulation of the grand European pieces back home. The rustic appeal of a Chippendale chair seen through the eyes of a 19th C. carpenter in rural Mexico or one of the grand, lush Spanish Colonial extravaganzas from early Peru are irresistible.

BLK: What I love about antiques is that each is unique, reflects the artisan’s unique style, is IMPERFECT because it’s made by hand, and each has a story to tell just from examining it’s details. Agree?

JL: When I shop for antiques I avoid “correct” pieces. They simply do not call to me. I really like the one offs, the really unusual. Unfortunately, these tend to be world-class items and the prices can run up a bit.

And if you find a piece that you can’t afford keep looking, because you never know what you might stumble onto. And when you find it and it’s in your budget immediately write the check. You won’t find it again.

BLK: Tell us about a great antique that you repurposed for a use that it was never intended for?

JL: I found a huge Dutch cabinet, 19th century, black polychrome with golden stain trim that I had refitted to hold my collection of wine glasses that became necessary to hold my head up with my wino friends. The interior is a series of separate compartments designed to hold specific glasses as well as candles, votives and other entertainment supplies. I had the interior lacquered in Chinese red so when you open the cabinet to retrieve a glass you get this great blast of color. And all the crystal looks great against it.

BLK: If I walked in to ten Jim Lumsden homes, would there be a common thread or characteristic that might see in all of them?

JL: Yes, there’d be a sense of architecture, even in a drywall box of a room and certainly the use of color. My interiors don’t go out of style and I’ve gone back to old clients’ homes twenty years later and been very happy with what I see. They tend to bring out the sketches of the rooms that I did back then which also makes me feel very good.

BLK: How much preliminary work do you do interviewing clients about their lifestyles and how do you incorporate that information in your design.

JL: I try to have multiple visits, as sometimes at the first meeting they really haven’t thought about some of the answers to the questions I ask. I tell them to tear out pictures from magazines and show me anything they like and also things they don’t like. This is the most valuable kind of communication, as words often do not bring to mind the same pictures for everyone.
By the second or third meeting we usually have developed a very clear direction.

BLK: Are there any color trends you particularly gravitate toward right now?

JL: Absolutely not.

The manipulation of color is one of the great joys of designing. The tiniest tweak and suddenly you have something great. Of course, your client has to be willing to wait until the whole thing falls into place. I no longer worry when a client walks into a newly painted empty room and exclaims they cannot live with those orange walls! Once the paintings and furnishings are in place they call to say they cannot bear to leave that room.

The right and fearless color creates the best background for what is to come. Timidity will result in something not quite as good but you had better know what you are doing. Would it be obnoxious of me to say that I am rather good at color so I have had very few mistakes?

BLK: When decorating a room for a child, what are your primary considerations as to color, safety, themes, furniture, paint, and durability? When I was a kid, I drew clowns on all four walls and my parents wanted to send me to a circus. Isn’t it true that now you can buy paint that just wipes clean like a blackboard?

BLK: Do you like it when clients have favorite colors and how do you incorporate them into the client’s interior.

JL: When a client has a favorite color that not only tells me a lot about the client, if forces me to open up my thinking and invent some new combinations to go with it. And, often it is a huge and unexpected success. I think this is what they nowadays call a win-win.

BLK: What elements of an interior design project should NOT be skimped on even with a limited budget?

JL: The thought process. The experience and talent of a first-rate designer is the cheapest investment you will ever make.

BLK: What makes for good taste? I know that’s a ridiculous question, but I’m dying to hear what you think?

JL: Suitability.

All photographs by Don Lewis Photography.

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