Produced by Marc Santo & Scott Newman
Associate Producer: Beki Gibney
Camera: Kevin Schaefer
Edited by Christie Brown
Music by Tim Lee of Boy Scout Recordings
Interview by Marc Santo
In the late nineties, Jim Walrod and his creative partner, Fred Schneider of The B-52’s, opened the celebrated design emporium, Form & Function. The shop was too far ahead of its time to last, but fortunately for Jim, his unparalleled vision and revolutionary eye for design was recognized by one of store’s best customers, Mike D of The Beastie Boys, who referred to Jim as his “furniture pimp” in a 1998 Rolling Stone feature. This little shout out had big implications, and the next couple years sent Jim straight to the top of New York’s design world, bestowed with a host of new monikers. Andre Balazs dubbed him “the ultimate design raconteur” and art and design circles continue to refer to him as “the tastemaker’s tastemaker.”
Jim’s design philosophy is instilled with a type of open-minded reasoning that draws inspiration from multiple branches of the art world and pop culture. His work is not simply the sum of the pieces he chooses, but the artistic and innovative ways in which they are juxtaposed in the spaces they occupy.
A self-taught designer, who once worked as the assistant art director for Fiorucci, Jim began collecting furniture as a kid and eventually accumulated enough important design pieces to mold his entire apartment into a replica of the 1943 Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design”exhibit. His highly sought-after projects range from haute hotels like Gild Hall and Thompson LES to concept stores like Steven Alan. His design work for the private multi-million residences of art collectors and style makers are inspirational, innovative and impossible to duplicate.
MARC SANTO: I’ve never known anyone with so much knowledge of cultures, subcultures, movements and all things culturally relevant, especially design. Where did this knowledge come from?
JIM WALROD: I grew up in Jersey City, which is working class, and I remember my dad going bicentennial crazy and painting everything red, white and blue. He would make tables out of old drums and stuff like that, so it wasn’t like we had good design around the house. There were a lot of porches and I would see chairs that looked they should be in cartoons, so I would steal them and bring them home. That got me interested in furniture. I then got a summer job at Fiorucci, which was this art-house fashion store that was doing all kinds of disco and new wave stuff. This got me more into it and I started to connect dots back through history.
MARC: You basically went through an obsessive cross-referencing period of design history?
JIM: This stuff wasn’t really in the landscape of my life. Growing up, I didn’t see any Eames chairs or anything, but when I started to learn about it, I wanted it and grabbed as much of it as I could. I filled my mother’s house with it to the point where she thought I was insane. She threatened to throw it out, so I opened my first store on Lafayette Street when I was 17 years old. I collected some of the best pieces of ‘60s and ‘70s conceptual furniture imaginable and this guy walked in and said, “Is this children’s furniture?” I was thinking, “Man…this is never going to work for me.” I remember talking to my mother later on and she said, “I’m in no way responsible for your success, because I threw out all of your bad furniture.” So yeah, it was teaching myself and obsessively collecting stuff.
MARC: Would you say that one could become tasteful simply by exposing themselves to tasteful things?
JIM: Taste is a matter of taste. Nobody really has it. I remember I saw Nile Rodgers on TV, right before the boom of American Modernism, and he said, “When you start making money, the first thing you do is go out and buy art deco. Then you start to learn about taste.” There are names associated to things—people know Eames, they know Noguchi, they know Nelson—and these names have fallen into the lexicon of language. They can make you appear really smart, really fast. It’s like reading the CliffsNotes of Modernism, but there are a lot of ugly projects done by “tastemakers” that have pushed projects to the point where they don’t make sense. What I’ve learned is–who cares about good taste?
MARC: So where does taste fit into your projects?
JIM: For the longest time I would over-intellectualize spaces and that made me really stagnant. The whole reason I ended up doing interiors in the first place was because people didn’t know what to do with all this design stuff. I design hotels, hipster nightclubs and restaurants, and what generally happens is that when people furnish, they furnish on taste. I’m interested in using their taste in an artistic way.
MARC: What’s the future of design?
JIM: In the U.S. there really isn’t a field for artistic contemporary design. There’s no industry here that can produce that kind of furniture. If you’re a designer you have to decide whether it’s going to be an arts and crafts piece, an art piece or mass-produced. There’s no mass production in the U.S., so designers have to go to Europe. So if you’re an American designer you go into product design and pray that somebody picks you up at a trade show, or you go into arts and crafts. There are no design movements here. There’s no nothing. In New York City I can only think of a handful of designers who design furniture and they have to produce it all themselves, which means chairs end up costing $4,000. In Europe, producing this furniture is still a viable commodity. Look at IKEA —that’s the future. They’re probably the most successful design movement since Bauhaus. It works even better than Bauhaus because people buy it.