Many Brownstoner readers are familiar with the stunning Clinton Hill residence belonging to Jessica Warren of JP Warren Interiors. We published a story about the house on the Insider, and quite a few readers have also seen the house in person, either on a house tour or at one of the many cultural events the Warrens host. In an interview with Design Brooklyn, Warren discusses her creative process. A few select photos show new views of her house and how the furnishings have evolved over time. Design Brooklyn is an occasional column featuring Brooklyn interiors, both residential and commercial. The column is written by Anne Hellman, with photographs by Michel Arnaud. They blog at Design Brooklyn and Abrams published their book of the same name in October.
AH: How long have you practiced as an interior designer? How did you first get involved in it?
JW: I started my business, JP Warren Interiors, in the fall of 2011 when I was offered the opportunity to design the interior of a new home. I’ve always had a passion for modern furniture, and I have always been a thrift store junkie so I’ve been buying pieces and collecting for years. I had amassed furniture, lighting and objects in the basement of my old place and I thought I’d open an antique store or interior design studio when my daughter left for college. We also were renovating a house in Clinton Hill [shown here] which, when completed, got some press. In 2011, a person contacted me about a 10,000-square-foot new construction project. The client completely understood who he was hiring and that this was my first job. It was a great opportunity and the timing was right. I have been a student of design, art, and architecture my entire life. This work is my passion. I love Norma Kamali’s quote and agree that taste comes from a constant curiosity and interest in everything: “Taste is an evolution and refinement of one’s personal likes and dislikes. This evolution takes place with a constant curiosity and interest in everything. The editing consequently refines the choices and defines taste.” Renovating, restoring and designing my house was a tremendous education. I learned an enormous amount from all of the talented people who were involved. For my business, the fact that I had this house as my classroom and also that I was able to do something on this scale that expressed my point of view was incredible. I was able to hit the ground running with a distinctive look and approach.
AH: Do you have any go-to rules or practices that you use when approaching a new project? If so, what are they?
JW: The people who find me often share my sensibility. I take a client’s interests and run them through my filter to create an interior that is artful, interesting and personal – not too designery and not pretentious. I find that part of my job is educating my clients. For some clients it’s showing them how art relates to interior design and furniture, and for others it’s from square one about exposing and teaching them to see and appreciate art, which really is the basis for the design that I do. I try to incorporate artful forms into all of my interiors whether it is art itself or a sculptural lamp, chandelier or chair. Once you refine your taste and you know the forms and shapes that you relate to, then you get happy accidents. It’s all about editing your taste down to a point of view and then colors, shapes and patterns keep repeating. You’ll have a motif that keeps appearing, because you truly like it. Tension creates interesting spaces and arrangements. By placing soft next to hard, organic next to geometric, dark next to light – by placing something next to its opposite, it allows its truest beauty to be seen. When we design a house or apartment, we block everything out. We assign characteristics to the furniture: “We’re going to have an organic shape here; we need stone here …” We apply terms like stone, metal, painted, natural. If the client is collaborating, they know, “I’m looking for a lamp that’s 24 inches tall. It has to be sculptural. It has to be metal.” It really narrows it down. So, even before we start sourcing we have mapped out the aesthetic tension in the room. An interior should tell a story. It starts with architecture. A beautiful space starts with a beautiful room. The furnishings, art and objects add to the story and should be historically aware, personal and layered in a way that shows an evolution as well as being open ended and able to continue this evolution. A space should not be a time capsule or stagnant. Building the story starts with a collection of objects, many of them vintage, which adds a soulfulness. While I appreciate iconic pieces, I use them sparingly. I look for unique piece — the anomalies and also design pieces so that the furniture is not immediately identifiable. This helps to create a space that is personal rather than branded or contrived. I use the word collected rather than eclectic. A space should have a timeless quality. It should look like you got some pieces from your family (even if you didn’t), that you acquired some on vacation, and that you bought some 10 years ago and five years ago, and so on. I like interiors that aren’t too staged and permanent, that keep evolving.
AH: Each home being different, do you ever have immediate visions for an interior in terms of color, furnishings, and/or objects? Can you give an example?
JW: Sometimes I do have an immediate vision for a space. Typically, I spend time in each room — to experience it through a light cycle and to feel how it is or is going to be used. Recently, I painted a very small breakfast room that had lovely original leaded windows the color of the lead, so quite dark. The room became very beautiful and dramatic. The walls receded, drawing all of the attention to the windows. The palettes we choose can come from the room itself and from understanding the light. Especially in an old house, if we have historic detail like a tile surround on a fireplace that we know we’re using, then that will be a starting point in developing the palette. We use a website that anyone can use that is called “Color Explorer.” Sometimes for a room we’ll ask a client for a favorite painting or object. They’ll say “I love this landscape painting,” and we will pull a palette from the piece that they have an emotional response to. It can be anything; it can be a landscape, their parents’ yard, or a piece of clothing. We’ll run it though Color Explorer and boom, you’ve got this palette as a staring point.
AH: In your own home, what are some of your favorite decisions that you made in refurbishing the interior?
JW: There are so many things that I love about my own home but one of the best decisions was to keep the envelope as close to original as possible. In addition to being a modernist, I am very much a preservationist. The decision to eliminate the amber tones inherent in oak [in the parlor floors] was key in establishing an elegant palette. This was achieved by keeping the floors very raw looking and by staining the oak woodwork in the dining room black.
AH: What do you think sets Brooklyn row houses apart from other types of residential structures? How do you think designers can best approach the needs and challenges of these layouts?
JW: Brooklyn row houses have the advantage of being from an age when houses were built to be substantial and solid. They also have the challenge of being sometimes narrow and often dark. We embrace the natural light of a room and design it to be its most beautiful. Years ago a hair stylist asked me (in her French accent), “Do you want long hair or beautiful hair?” The same question can be asked when a client is looking for a light space when they are lacking natural light: “Do you want a white room or a beautiful room?” With narrow rooms the scale of the furniture is key. I look to the original intention of how furniture was to be placed in the room rather than forcing a modern furniture arrangement. I also use rooms in ways that they were not originally intended if this is a better fit for a modern lifestyle.