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‘Tradition is now’ is Thomas Jayne’s succinct and apposite mantra, as well as the guiding ethos at Jayne Design Studio which he founded more than three decades ago. It captures both his scholarly knowledge of period detail and his skill in harmonizing this with contemporary comfort and spirited design.
His ability to marry historical sensitivity with a modern sensibility has been recognized with a plethora of interior design industry accolades on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Andrew Martin International Designer of the Year Award 2021.
Here we explore Thomas Jayne’s aesthetic, influences and career.
Projects past and present
The Jayne Design Studio’s work includes contemporary dwellings and historically important houses, from a seaside cottage in Oyster Bay (below) and a Soho loft in New York to The Director’s House at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware and an important 18th century house in Charleston.
Thomas’ lead on redecoration of the drawing room and dining room at Crichel House in England received both The Georgian Group Architectural Award and the Stanford White Award from the New York Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in 2016. The Grade I listed Georgian property in Dorset is recognized for important interiors by neo-classical architect James Wyatt (1746-1813).
Current projects underway by Jayne Design Studio include a new house in Pacific Palisades, an early 20th century Spanish revival cottage in Santa Barbara and the restoration of a colonial revival house in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The Thomas Jayne Design Studio forte
More than 30 years in practice has meant the development of an authoritative contact base. As Thomas says: ‘I used nice things when I started, but I use even more nice things now. Our list of resources is vastly bigger; our circle of traditional craftsmen and makers is rich.’
He adds: ‘We still make beautiful curtains and we know and understand all the traditional aspects of decoration and how to achieve them.’ He is also patently proud of his team: ‘As a studio, we do everything in concert and really come to a decision together.’ He adds, ‘The Andrew Martin award is really for all of us.’
‘We have an antiquarian aesthetic with a modern eye,’ says Thomas whose interiors are noted for a dynamic interplay of eras and references, rooted in decorating tradition.
Comfort and functionality underscore every project yet it is his sophisticated ‘collage’ approach to blending ancient and modern that is, perhaps, most admired.
‘You can see a consistency in our work: it’s not about old-fashioned comfort in a sedate way, it’s about old-fashioned comfort in a lively way,’ he says, adding, ‘a lot of our early work still looks good and ages well because it was a little edgy when it was new. We always push it to be more contemporary.’
He later expands, ‘I dislike the phrase “traditional with a twist”, it is traditional – the twist isn’t a factor – so I disagree with that. It’s not about being slavish to the old, it’s about seeing how it resonates today.’
In fact, as Thomas commented on the 25th anniversary video on his website, ‘We think of tradition as an active voice, not a passive voice or a dead voice. Just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it is flat or boring and regressive; it just means it’s part of a continuum.”
Injecting a playful note is important, too. ‘We have a sense of humor. I think our decoration is serious, has some humor, and there is also a sort of counter-trend, a slightly subversive note,’ Thomas says. ‘Subversive for us is never delivering curtains “on trend”… making sure the pattern on a piece of furniture lays out… being cautious to make a chintz sofa! Mrs Parish told me “one should always use caution with chintz.”‘
An education in design
His upbringing in South California in the Pacific Palisades brought together an influential mix of tradition and modernity. ‘We lived in a house that would, today, be called a tear down; it was modest, but my mother filled it with art and family furniture. It was organized formally with a living room that was a proper room for receiving guests.
‘I went to St Matthews, an episcopal day school, where we read prayer every morning, and to a modern church where they offered a 17th century service. I was living in modern times but with old things and traditional rituals and these informed my decoration.’
Even before his teens, he was already interested in design. ‘When I was 12, I read a book by Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis about The White House; she had done a lot to improve it. It fascinated me and as a direct or indirect response I painted my bedroom red to match the red room at The White House and I moved in some old furniture which was reminiscent of a Lincoln bedroom… so I created a pastiche of the Red Room in The White House in the Palisades!’
Thomas worked at two of the most renowned studios in America: Parish-Hadley & Associates and Kevin McNamara, Inc. before launching his own studio in 1990.
Prior to this, and after graduating from University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, he undertook a series of fellowships and archivist roles including at The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, The Getty Museum and at Christie’s in its Estate and Appraisals department. He also undertook a two-year graduate fellowship at the Winterthur Museum and studied a Master of Arts in ‘History of American and European Architecture and Decorative Arts’ before moving into interior design.
He is grateful for the blessings of his journey. ‘I look at my decorator inheritance as something of an apostolic succession because the great influence of my life is Albert Hadley, and Albert Hadley knew Elsie De Wolf – so that’s like the hand that touched the hand that touched the hand.
‘Albert also worked with Mrs Brown and because of Albert I have this path of great American decorators behind me. Of course, Mrs Parish was friends with Sibyl Colefax, too. That’s what’s great about traditional decoration because you have links to these forbears that influence you in different ways and at different times.’
‘I’m very proud of the people who have worked here (at Jayne Design Studio) and gone to other places because I feel that they take a sensibility and a tradition with them which is informative.
‘And I’d also say the opportunity for us to decorate Crichel made me proud because I never thought I would work on a house of that quality and scale in a foreign country, so that was a tangible achievement.’
‘My design icon would be a hybrid of Albert Hadley and John Fowler… or perhaps more accurately Parish Hadley and Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler,’ says Thomas. ‘I’m Catholic in my idolatry.’
Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s book The Decoration of Houses has also been influential. ‘I’ve read it faithfully throughout my career – once when I was a student, once when I worked on Wharton’s house, The Mount, and at various times since. Their advice has always resonated in my mind.’
Thomas Jayne is himself author of three books on design. His most recent book – Classical Principles for Modern Design: Lessons from Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s The Decoration of Houses explores ways in which his own decoration parallels and sometimes deviates from Edith Wharton’s approach.