A few years ago, when actor Robert Downey Jr was looking for a summer rental on Eastern Long Island, he chose the Amagansett home of interior designer Joe Nahem. So impressed with the “inviting, sophisticated” space were Downey and his wife that at the end of the summer, they asked Nahem to create interiors for their homes in Malibu and East Hampton. “Our previous experience with designers was sucky,” writes Downey in the foreword of Fox-Nahem: The Design Vision of Joe Nahem, just published by Abrams. Not so this time. “Enter Joe – aka ‘force of nature‘ – Nahem. He is calm and available, curious and confident,” continues Downey, who like others on Nahem’s impressive roster of clients, seeks interiors that possess stylish swagger while being supremely comfortable.
A JOE NAHEM-DESIGNED INTERIOR, WITH ART BY GEORGE CONDO AND A PAUL EVANS CONSOLE. PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER MURDOCK.
Nearly four decades ago when he launched his New York-based firm, Fox-Nahem, with his late business partner, Tom Fox, they were recognised as pioneers of high-tech minimalism. But today, Nahem prides himself on having no signature style. Instead, he focuses on channelling the tastes and aspirations of clients to brilliant effect. Marisa Bartolucci chatted with Nahem about his work and his creative methods.
INTERIOR DESIGNER JOE NAHEM. PORTRAIT BY JOSH GADDY.
Although Tom Fox died fourteen years ago, you have kept the firm’s original name. Why was this important to you?
I owe Tom a lot. It was Tom who convinced me that I had the talent to do this professionally, and because of him, I went back to school, to Parsons School of Design, to get a degree in interior design. We started the business before I graduated, and we were lucky enough to have our first project published by The New York Times back in 1980. It was a huge boost. The telephone rang off the hook.
You design rooms with works by artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Kara Walker. How do you go about working with art?
We try to be aware of the art, but we don’t let it intimidate us. A lot of designers, when they are dealing with art and clients who switch out pieces frequently, choose to make the design low-key. Not us. We don’t do beige. What sometimes makes these projects difficult is that they often have amazing views. Figuring out how to balance the art, the views and the design together can be a real challenge.
FOR THE LIVING ROOM OF A WEST VILLAGE TOWN HOUSE, JOE NAHEM DESIGNED A TEXTURED RUG AND SURROUNDED THE GAME TABLE WITH VINTAGE CHAIRS BY JULES LELEU. THE OVERSIZE KALEIDOSCOPIC WORK IS BY GILBERT & GEORGE. PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL MURDOCK.
What do you think makes clients seek your firm out repeatedly?
It doesn’t sound fancy, but it may be the fact that we understand comfort. At the end of the day, clients want a room to hang out in. So making the interiors functional, comfortable and timeless is key. We’re currently decorating a Shelter Island beach house for clients we worked with twenty years ago on a town house, and they told us they haven’t changed a thing because it still works for them and they love it. For another couple, longtime clients, who used to live at 740 Park Avenue in Manhattan, we just did a super-fancy penthouse loft in the Puck Building. When we designed the couch in the den, they said they wanted it to have built-in cup holders in the armrests, phone chargers and snack tables! I said, “Are you turning this place into a retirement home?” But that’s what they wanted.
Years of experience give you the savvy to figure out not just what clients like but also what they need to be happy.
A LIVING ROOM OF NAHEM’S DESIGN IN A GREENWICH VILLAGE TOWN HOUSE. PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL MURDOCK.
Can you talk about the polar opposite of that – the fact that you recently trimmed a living-room sofa in mink?
I knew that the couple loved fur – they both have fur coats – so I wanted to incorporate it into the interior of their town house. I asked them to go to their furrier and choose some pelts. When I checked on the upholsterer, he had applied the fur but not yet trimmed it. I loved the look of the unfinished drape, so we kept it. What’s fun is that because the fur is sheared, people don’t know what the material is until they touch it. Years of experience give you the savvy to figure out not just what clients like but also what they need to be happy. Clients often say they know what they want, but they don’t really. You have to trust your intuition and know how far you can push them outside their comfort zone. And if it’s a couple, it is important to know which person is really the decision maker. It’s not always obvious.
A LIVING ROOM IN A LONG ISLAND WEEKEND RETREAT. PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL MURDOCK.
You use the synthetic surface material Corian frequently. Why?
I have a confession: at first I hated Corian. I told everyone I’d never use it because it was fake. Now I love it because there is so much you can do with it. Take that West Village town house with the fur sofa.
Robert Stern was the architect and he went to great lengths to endow the rooms with a sense of history. But my clients have an important contemporary art collection. So I wanted to communicate a sense of today as soon as you walk through the door. I enclosed the entry in wavy white Corian and moulded a small shelf on one of the walls to display some of the clients’ smaller framed artworks. I couldn’t have done that with any other material. There are no seams!
A DESK AREA IN THE BEDROOM OF A 1960S-ERA MODERNIST HOME. PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL MURDOCK.
You frequently work with great artisans. Who are some of your favourites?
Christophe Côme in Paris is the first who comes to mind. We commissioned a chandelier from him for those clients in the Puck Building penthouse. A recent discovery is the young New York ceramicist Matthew Solomon. We collaborated with him on designing a creeping vine in porcelain to adorn the dining room ceiling of an Upper East Side town house, owned by a young couple keen to fill their new home with custom pieces. Collaborations like these are what make up for all the challenges in my profession. When I’m developing designs with talents like these, I’m always learning, and that makes my job amazing.
I hear that you don’t allow clients to see the work in progress – is that true?
Yes. It’s like one of those reality shows. We handle the whole thing, and then when clients come in, they are so overwhelmed. I’ve seen clients cry! For joy, I should add.
Marisa Bartolucci is a regular contributor to Sotheby’s magazine.
Fox-Nahem: The Design Vision of Joe Nahem, by Anthony Iannacci ($60), with a foreword by Robert Downey Jr, is available from Abrams.