Jim Walrod

Under the Radar and Over The Top

New York City: Jim Walrod is the most famous interior designer you have never heard of. Since opening his first shop on a desolate block on Lafayette Street in 1987, he has developed relationships with the widest range of legendary New York characters. If you’re an old-school rapper, graffiti artist, painter of cotton candy, builder of foam core lunar landers, motorcycle racing cult director, dashing hotelier or infamous downtown fashion photographer, then of course you know who Jim is. Mike D of the Beastie Boys famously called Jim his ‘furniture pimp’, yet any top decorator in the world, who would literally kill for his clients, would have no idea who Jim was. Why? Because Jim flies under the radar in nearly everything he does. This below-the-radar style is what enables Jim to continue to have the sharpest eye for the next greatest forgotten designs, making him one of the most sought-after designers for the most sought-after clients who appreciate Jim’s particular bricolage of the modern and post-modern decorative art worlds. Mind you this all might be changing: Jim is in negotiations to be the host of a new television show in which he and his non-decorator friends drive around the country discovering forgotten and undiscovered modernist homes. But before he enters the realm of household celebrity and his cover is blown, Jim and I sat down for a chat in his Chinatown loft that he shares with the lovely Mara and his sassy Cairn terrier, Tito.

So, tell me how you got this amazing apartment.

I inherited it from Mark Gonzales. He was moving to France and had lived here for a really short period of time and he just turned it over to me.

How long have you been here?

About a year.

You’ve done a lot in a year.

Yeah, there was nothing really here so we did this renovation on it, but not really a renovation, because I liked the way the space felt.

I’ve heard you say that people take loft spaces in New York and try to turn them into apartments these days and they don’t really appreciate what the space is all about.

People want to live in SoHo, and the word ‘loft’ has become a term for something that is opulent. There was a type of home when I first came to New York City that felt like a ‘New York’ space, and those apartments don’t really exist anymore because of the gentrification of New York City. But the space we are in now is one of those remaining dream homes that I thought existed.

Maybe the reader will be able to tell from the pictures, but to get to this apartment you have to literally walk through a hardware store. It’s a very surreal entrance into this space, because you would never think that this place existed.

It’s kind of a dream space. I mean it’s a dream of anybody that lives or wants to live a certain way in New York. I like the idea of this fantasy of being able to walk through a hardware store and come into an apartment. There is nothing more attractive to me. I don’t want to live next to a Prada store, or walk above a trendy restaurant. The idea of a secret space is something I’ve aspired to from the time I was a child.

Your landlords, who own the hardware store, have become kind of your friends here too, haven’t they?

Yeah, they’re incredible. They’re absolutely great. They’re my doormen, my security guards, and my friends.

Had you seen the apartment before Mark offered it to you? If so, you must have been freaking out when he offered it to you.

What was funny was that he hadn’t signed a lease on it. It was totally unofficial, he had just taken the apartment. I had come over to see him and his new place, and in typical Mark fashion he was painting in it and smoking tons of cigars and saying to me ‘Yeah, I just got this space but I don’t think I’m really gonna stay here. I don’t think I really want to be in New York anymore’. And at the same time I was like ‘Are you crazy?’ This is like a dream space… But you know he, like a lot of other interesting people, have fled New York City.

Or they’re moving to the outer boroughs, and once that’s done, who knows what it’s going to be.

Yeah. It’s weird because I get to live in a way that’s more artistic, in a space that is raw, and in a city that I love. I just never thought I would have that chance again. That’s why I think a lot of people have left New York, because that originality and energy of the city is disappearing. I obviously design apartments and places for people whose concerns come down to the tiniest details—the angle of how the ceiling hits this, or that—but I feel it’s kind of a joke when people live this way. They used to just do ‘renovations’. When someone moved into a loft there was no interior designer. One of my guiding principles in setting up this space was to just do ‘a renovation’, you know—paint the place. I couldn’t have put in an amazing tin ceiling like this, and I like the idea of exposed pipes and painted concrete and wood floors. I could never propose this type of thing to a client.

This raw space is such a great contrast to what you collect, which is radical ‘70s and ‘80s design. Anti-design really.

There’s this weird thing of liking what other people don’t like and finding beauty within things that people don’t really find beauty within. It’s discovering it and using it against other things, proving a point to some extent. When someone says ‘That stuff is ugly’, I am immediately drawn to it because it just means that it’s challenging. Take for example Memphis furniture and objects, which people are now kind of beginning to consider. They were the scourge of the design world for the longest time and I always found it to be the most legitimate design movement since the Bauhaus. It was an all-encompassing world view of what design could be. And it was based on the idea of looking at the past and regurgitating it tastefully. When I was 16 I worked at Fiorucci. Sottssas and Mendini and Nathalie Du Pasquier all had worked for Fiorucci there and I knew immediately that what they were doing was looking back at Americana.

They had worked there?

Yeah, they worked as the design directors. They were passing each piece of their own design through the store, so it was almost like this laboratory for Memphis for the longest time. The Italians were looking back at the American ‘50s and reinventing it in a very modern way, and this started in 1975. By the time I got there it was ’83, and that was how I learned about American ‘50s furniture: by looking at that stuff and saying ‘Okay, where did this come from?’ So that experience was the first thing that piqued my interest in ‘50s mid-century furniture. It’s kind of like listening to The Beatles and learning about The Isley Brothers or soul music. It’s a time that’s always going to be interesting to me. It was a really fruitful, deep period of thought and design richness.

I like when you say that when someone says it’s ugly, you take that as a challenge. I see that you definitely do that with your own space, but are you able to do that with your clients or not? Is it something you kind of keep to yourself?

I show it to clients. I sneak it in…. and I’m always shocked that they bite. And they do. Once you get the tiniest nibble, you push it a little bit further, and then the floodgates open. I’m really lucky that I’ve had clients who have really gone after it. The truth is, if they’re hiring me, they’re a little crazy or adventurous anyway, or they’re trying to discover something that they can’t get to themselves, I hope—otherwise they’re a boring client.

'Sottsass had a career that was completely established. He could have worked as a very safe interior designer, but he chose to keep one foot planted in the arts'.

Now we have talked about the ‘80s, Ettore Sottsass, Fiorucci, and Memphis… all of that seems to revolve around one person: Sottsass, and I know you’re a huge fan of his. Tell me a little bit about why.

Well there are two maestros as far as I’m concerned: Ettore Sottsass and Gaetano Pesce. Sottsass had a career that was completely established. He could have worked as a very safe interior designer, but he chose to keep one foot planted in the arts. He was friends with all the Beat poets in San Francisco in the early ‘60s; he wrote introductions and made drawings for their Beat manifestos while still remaining very rooted in the industrial world of Italy. And then out of nowhere, in 1969, during the Triennale, he sided with the students that were talking about design being overblown garbage for the rich and he sided with the students. Then he went and aligned himself with the anti-design movement and radical thinkers in design like Superstudio and Archizoom, at the age of 52. He was a guy where anytime you thought you knew what something was going to be, he would just rip it apart and start again. All the way into the early ‘90s. And Gaetano Pesce is another thing.

Aren’t you going to do a show of his drawings at The Drawing Center?

Yeah, I hope so. The Drawing Center of New York has proposed it to Pesce and I’m supposed to co-curate it with Hester Diamond.

Gaetano Pesce is a guy who manufacturers have never understood, and artists have always understood. He has consistently aligned himself with artists, and he is an artist in the truest sense. When you look at the lineage of his work, it’s powerhouse sexual when he’s in his sexual prime, and then as he gets older it becomes more expressionist and almost childlike to some degree. But the immediacy with which he can create is amazing—he can imagine and build furniture at the drop of a hat because he developed a way of using poured resin instead of drawings. He can make a chair for you in ten minutes and doesn’t have to deal with manufacturers, doesn’t have to deal with distributors, doesn’t have to deal with anybody. It’s the ultimate DIY; like punk rock used to be, where they say ‘We don’t want record labels, we don’t want distributors, we don’t want anything’. Every time I ever see Gaetano, and you know he’s approaching 80, I just think he’s the most fucking punk rock guy I’ve ever met in my life! That is the spirit of it.

I love thinking of Pesce as punk rock. So if Pesce is punk rock, what’s Sottsass? Because he’s a little more elegant. Some of his pieces don’t have that same visceral quality.

Right, it’s not as immediate. It’s very, very thought out. There are certain principles behind it. Besides Bugatti, he was probably the only person that really threw out the idea of Western culture. The second you do that you are able to open up a world that’s completely different and new. Sottsass was influenced so much by Eastern philosophies, designs and motifs. To bring that in and to reinterpret it through the sexuality of the ‘60s was just like, you know… firecrackers! And at the same time, he was just a true designer that looked at every single aspect of the process of designing. If you look at every piece of furniture that he’s ever done, it’s so fucking thought out.

So I’m looking around and almost everything in here is Italian, except for a few key French pieces.

Yeah it’s mostly Italian, but with some great American pieces too. And then there’s the Nicola cabinet.

I love Nicola! That’s the only one I’ve ever seen in person.

They kind of knock your socks off. It’s easy to dismiss as something as kitschy because she’s not necessarily a furniture designer; she is an artist who makes functional art, to a degree.

When I first opened my gallery she came to me and asked me to sell some of her work and of course I said yes, but thinking back on that now, it feels like a missed opportunity for not fully recognising her vision and holding onto it. I saw a piece of her work at Frieze NY and it immediately sold. It seems as though she’s coming back to what she really was, an artist. How old is she?

I think she’s 81 or 82… I don’t know if there’s anything that encompasses more of the period that she really worked in better than her pieces. I mean those cabinets were sold by Vrej Baghoomian, who also dealt Jean Michel Basquiat’s work!


Yeah. But you know what the best part of Nicola was? Bad Brains at CBGB – My Picture in the movies, baby! 1982. She shot and directed it.


Yeah! She lived with Bad Brains. They moved in with her and she got the ultimate documentation of the band playing CBGBs in 1979. At the time she was probably in her mid-40s. So to have Bad Brains move in with her…. you know, she’s okay in my book.

Yeah. That is amazing…

I want to get back to your point of something someone calls ‘ugly’ as just being challenging.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s not just a challenge to take that piece and place it in an interior, but to collect it, to live with that idea.

It’s also a metaphor. I’ve hit 46 now, and it’s funny, the people I work for, when I say I live in Chinatown, look at me like I just shot heroin in to my eyeballs. They think ‘Oh my God, why? You could probably live anywhere you want. Why Chinatown?’ But it’s the last vestige of something that feels like the New York that once existed for me. It’s still a little bit dangerous in certain areas if you walk a couple blocks, still the Wild West if you walk a couple more blocks the other way. People don’t talk to you because they don’t speak English. It still kind of feels like how New York used to.

I know you can’t predict the future, but then again, you seem to always be ahead of your time. You were buying all of these pieces before anyone wanted them. I just went to MoMA and on display were all these amazing Olivetti and Brion Vega calculators, typewriters, adding machines, and TVs. It looked like I had walked into Form and Function! And at the time, people thought you were nuts.

That’s really funny, I love when you see the stuff somewhere, and you ask somebody at a flea market or a dealer how much it costs, and they go into this long-winded story trying to explain to me the importance of it. And I always want to tell them: ‘You don’t understand, I owned stores where I had that stuff’, and people would walk in and go ‘Is this for kids? Is this children’s stuff?’ You know the first night I opened Form and Function, the curator of a very large museum that you may have just brought up, but I don’t want to say, walked in and said ‘What is this?’ and I explained to him and said ‘You should know. It was all in your museum at one time and you threw it all out’.

Really? They threw it out?

Well, they probably de-acquisitioned to some extent. They don’t really throw out anything. They ‘put it away’.

There’s all this Memphis furniture and lighting around me, which you said no one liked, but now everyone is starting to like it, so you’re going to have to find something else to rebel against. What are you gonna do?

No, no, no. That’s the other part of it. There’s a period of incubation that doesn’t really exist anymore, when you get to keep something and say ‘It’s mine’, before it goes out into the world and everybody jumps on it for ten minutes and then moves on. I think that’s why there haven’t been any significant music or cultural movements in the past couple decades—everything becomes dispersed so quickly through the Internet. You never get to have a period where 500 of your best friends get to have something unique to hold onto; there is no more of that feeling where it’s you against the world with this ‘thing’. That’s what made music and film and art so important. Because of all the magazines, television, and Internet access, you don’t really get that. But if you do get that, you want to keep it such a fucking secret so that you get to hold onto it for a while. Whether it be a neighbourhood, furniture, or even something that tastes good—at this point I’m just looking for anything that I can protect to call my own.

Do you think there will be a backlash against Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, when people find cool stuff, instead of people saying ‘I’m gonna Instagram it!’ they’re gonna say ‘I’m not gonna show this to anyone?’

You would hope so. It seems like the next Internet billionaire would be the guy that knows how to limit our ability to access information. You know I love Instagram, as you know I am on it 24-7! I don’t even know why I go on Instagram. I really don’t take pictures of stuff that’s in my house or things that I really want. It’s like saying ‘Here, look at this while I grab that’. It almost works as a diversionary tactic. It also helps to keep my eye focused to a large degree, too. I used to find more shit on the street that was incredible but after being in New York a while I became jaded. But things like Instagram focus the way you look at things again. Because, you’re a dealer—remember the days you used to find incredible shit in the garbage? You don’t necessarily find it anymore.

Because everyone knows what everything is, and if they don’t, they can just text a picture to someone who does.

That’s the other part of it too. I remember really early on, I was walking into a Salvation Army and I saw a car with this book called Mid-Century Modern in the front seat, which was like the bible of early collectors. And as I was going down the stairs in the store someone was walking up with a two-stack Eames storage unit. At that moment in 1989 I remember thinking to myself ‘This is all over’.

Little did you know… 35 years later it’s still going strong.

Right. I remember Steven Miesel rented a Swan Chair off of me for an Italian Vogue photo shoot in 1988, and I thought the same thing: ‘That’s it, it’s over’. (Laughs) I always think everything is over, I think summer’s over on July 4th! It’s one of the things that drives me. But there’s a degree of comfort in memories. You reach a point in life when you are able to live in a way that you always aspired to. But sometimes you realise other people aren’t interested in that dream anymore. And that’s what I find here—I can live in the way I always wanted to live in New York City so many years ago.

Does this go back to your childhood? You grew up in Jersey City, right across the river from New York City. You probably saw the skyline daily growing up.

I was here! It was 35 cents to take the Path train over. The first chance I got to come to New York City, every home I went into looked like the inside of this apartment.

There is a degree of comfort in this space for me. You aspire to live a certain way, and that aspiration for me could have been what I saw when I was 17. I don’t know what I would do with a detailed loft, I don’t know how I would do a high-end residence for myself. Design, the way that I work, isn’t based on the principle of ‘beauty’ in the superficial sense: it’s based on an idea of where you can take something, and how opposing things can live harmoniously. I live in Chinatown with a $50,000 cabinet, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wouldn’t want anything other than walking through the hardware store to get to my apartment. It’s all just the way that you live. If my landlord said to me ‘You can have the apartment to do what you want with it’, there’s nothing I would change.

Originally published in Apartamento Magazine, Issue #10 (Autumn/Winter 2012-2013)

Text by Patrick Parrish

Photography by Jeremy Liebman