New York interior designer James Aman makes no bones about his dyslexia. In fact, he chose to preface The New Formal: Interiors by James Aman, his first-ever monograph, coming in October from the Monacelli Press, by discussing it outright. Growing up, Aman struggled to convey himself through the written word. After looking to the arts for self-expression, he turned to interior design, a medium in which he found he was fluent. So much so that an early client in the mid-1990s recommended him and John Meeks, his partner in the firm Aman & Meeks, to an art collector friend looking to freshen her exceedingly spare Park Avenue apartment, untouched since the 1970s. The new client wanted a warmer, more personal environment, where she could entertain family and friends while displaying her art to maximum advantage.
CRYSTAL CHANDELIERS ILLUMINATE WORKS BY JEAN DUBUFFET, FERNANDO BOTERO, RICHARD PRINCE, ROY LICHTENSTEIN AND LOUISE NEVELSON, AMONG OTHER ARTISTS. ALL PHOTOGRAPHS © KAREN FUCHS. COURTESY OF THE MONACELLI PRESS.
The client was Emily Fisher Landau, a board member of the Whitney Museum of American Art and owner of some 1,200 works by modern and contemporary masters – from Picasso and Léger to Twombly and Ruscha – Asian furniture and pottery, and furniture by Giacometti and Les Lalannes. A champion of young artists, Landau was ready to take a risk on the relatively unknown Aman – and she was also dyslexic. The two clicked. They devised an interior that was luminous and luxurious, with every element as elegant and evocative as the art on the walls.
A calling card for Aman, that abode attracted new clients, many of them Landau’s family and friends, serious collectors also featured in The New Formal. Aman’s book surveys the tastes of a coterie of connoisseurs whose art is displayed in rooms that captivate with refinement and detail. This, Aman says, is the new formal.
Why do you think the apartment you designed for Emily Landau won you so many clients?
Emily’s previous apartment had been very austere. It was like living in an art gallery. That was the design philosophy back then for how to best display contemporary art. When her friends and family saw how we had transformed it, they were wowed. It was still clean but warm and glamorous with Art Deco furnishings and well-upholstered chairs and sofas. Every element was a work of art, yet it didn’t overwhelm.
Have you had to refresh that apartment since completing it two decades ago?
Not really. It’s what they say about investing in quality. As you can see from the photographs, it still holds up. It has a timeless look.
A TONE-ON-TONE COLOUR SCHEME IN THE LIVING ROOM OF A TOWN HOUSE IN NEW YORK’S CARNEGIE HILL.
Are you still working with any of your early clients?
Absolutely, we have done five or six projects for some clients. We have a small but loyal client base. And the more we work together, the more they understand what we can offer. Our team is small, only about six or seven people, so we are very hands-on. We enjoy every aspect of the work. Our clients appreciate that.
Your firm is called Aman & Meeks. Can you tell us about your partner?
Yes! John Meeks comes from a distinguished family of custom-furniture makers who have been in the trade since the late 18th century. John oversees all the custom work and has made it possible for us to produce one-of-a-kind pieces that complement our clients’ museum-quality collections so well. He is also responsible for coming up with our bespoke textile and embroidery designs.
ANDY WARHOL’S DOUBLE PORTRAIT OF COLLECTOR EMILY FISHER LANDAU IN HER DAUGHTER’S MANHATTAN DUPLEX.
What’s the key issue when designing for a serious collector?
Lighting is very important. A lot of people get caught up in technology. When we work with lighting designers, we opt for lighting that’s as flexible and discreet as possible. You don’t want eyesores in the room. We also try to conceive design schemes that bounce light around to enhance the art. That’s why we so often select sparkly chandeliers and are so partial to glossy enamel paint and Venetian plaster for surface treatments. And when we use Venetian plaster, it’s always with very little movement in it. We’re not fans of how art looks on patterned walls.
Any other issues that are particular to designing for collectors?
Because our clients often loan out or purchase new work and rotate their collections, we try not to design rooms for specific art, because it may well change. Oh, and another issue: walls! They’re important to have, too. We’re working on an apartment in a very tall building on 57th Street, and with all the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, there’s no place to hang anything.
LACQUERED PANELLING IN A CONNECTICUT HOME.
In your preface, you mention that you studied advertising, which was when you learned the importance of salesmanship in whatever you do. Can you give us an example of how you have sold a client on something?
Well, if you don’t believe in something, you can’t sell it. And you have to get a client to be open enough to listen and have trust in you. When we were decorating the Beekman Place duplex of Emily’s daughter, Candia, we went shopping in London. We hadn’t found everything she needed by the end of the trip, so she told us to stay on and keep looking. We found a massive chinoiserie sideboard we thought would be perfect for the library. When we called her and asked if we should send pictures, she told us that if we thought it was right, she’d buy it sight unseen. Now she always tells us it’s her favourite piece in the house.
Where do you go for inspiration?
We find it everywhere. When John and I were in Thailand not long ago for a hotel project, we found some antique fabrics that served as inspiration for a piece of embroidery. When we were decorating a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, whose library had knotty pine panelling, we wanted to keep the feel of the panelling but eliminate that preppy-looking wood. We’d recently been in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to visit early-20th-century decorator Henry Davis Sleeper’s grand retreat, and we loved how he’d painted the walls of the octagon room aubergine. So we lacquered the panelling in Greenwich in the same colour, covered the ceiling in silver-leaf cork paper, put down a carpet in acid yellow and green and covered the Chesterfield sofa in a metallic-infused linen. It sounds wild, but the effect is rich and warm and fun. The clients love it.
Marisa Bartolucci lives in New York, where she writes about art and design.