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A Day in the Life: Designer Thomas Jayne

What’s better than a bowl of lobster jambalaya? A day in the big easy with Designer Thomas Jayne.

Written by Ted Loos

Standing 6-foot-7, bespectacled, bowtie-wearing Thomas Jayne towers above the crowd. In fact, this award-winning decorator has been standing tall professionally for a quarter century—this year marks the 25th anniversary of his design business. In that time, Jayne has become renowned for his deep knowledge of the history of design and for creating spaces that suit modern life. He has a seemingly effortless ability to make, say, a lacquered Parsons table work with antique Queen Anne-style chairs in a contemporary interior. His impeccable credentials—advanced study at Winterthur and the Met, working at Christie’s and for the legendary Albert Hadley at the firm Parish-Hadley—have never bogged him down in fussiness. He designs for real life, but an elegant version of it. 

Although he’s based in New York, one of Jayne’s greatest loves is the city of New Orleans, where he and husband Rick Ellis have maintained an apartment for 20 years in a historic 1830s building in the French Quarter. The city is many things to Jayne: a hothouse of creative ferment, a practical shopping destination, a social hub, and a place to do the serious business of design. “We find elements here for every interior we do, whether it’s from the auction houses or antique dealers or someone making stationery,” he says.

Tag along as Traditional Home joins Jayne on one of his typical whirlwind days in the Big Easy, a day that combines all of his interests—and a few surprises. 

8a.m. Jayne begins the day deep in the well-preserved precinct of the French Quarter. Not surprisingly, his apartment boasts great antiques—like a daybed once used by the Duke of Windsor. In the living room, there’s also hand-painted wallpaper depicting a panoramic view of the Mississippi Delta, complete with boats and human figures. The Delta’s allure captured the hearts of both Jayne and Ellis, a noted food stylist, when they visited for a Southern food conference in the early 1990s. “We bought this apartment in an extremely important structure for the price of a parking spot in New York—and for a fraction of the cost of something in almost every historic neighborhood in the country,” says Jayne, who manages a stay here about every six weeks. The building is the smallest Creole townhouse in the French Quarter, but it’s the perfect fit for them, says Jayne, as he tops off his look for the day with a jaunty porkpie hat that was made locally. 

8:30a.m. First he grabs a latte across the street at Spitfire Coffee, which looks like it would fit well in Brooklyn. “It’s a great example of how the Quarter is becoming less of a T-shirt shop place,” Jayne says. He heads down a few blocks to the banks of the mighty Mississippi, just as a long and noisy freight train lumbers by. The mix of old and new energizes Jayne. “New Orleans is not frozen in time,” he says. “Here there’s perspective on the past, but they are interested in the future. It’s not perfect, but at least it’s real.”

9:15a.m. Jayne dashes into Peter Patout’s small shop just a few blocks away in the Quarter, and he looks like a kid in a candy store. He spies an 18th-century porcelain cooler, which once made a treat that was a predecessor to ice cream, and clutches it tight: “I wish I owned this!” Patout, a Louisiana native renowned for his expertise on Southern antiques, has become something of an ambassador for the city. “He’s a tastemaker,” says Jayne, who bought a 19th-century Louisiana bookcase for his apartment from Patout. Vogue writer Julia Reed  became a Patout disciple after staying in the 1820s guest cottage tucked behind the dealer’s back courtyard. “People stay with him and they get the bug,” says Jayne, who met the same fate. “He’s a great storyteller.” 

9:30a.m. Mixing business and pleasure is in the DNA of New Orleans, and so Jayne often finds himself buying from his friend Nadine Blake, whose quirky, eponymous shop has all manner of merchandise, from pillows to pajamas to books. “This isn’t just a store, but a salon,” Jayne says as Blake greets him with a warm hug. “And it’s an informal gift registry for me too.” Blake carries custom-made cards with sayings from famous authors and others—including Jayne himself. “Historic legend is sometimes more valuable than historic fact” is a quote on one card attributed to the designer. Jayne particularly likes the paintings by local artists, and he pauses by a Naïve-style 19th-century New Orleans street scene by contemporary painter Andrew LaMar Hopkins. “A great work of art reflects a sense of place,” Jayne says. 

10:15a.m. As he speeds around the corner to enter the 30,000-square-foot M.S. Rau Antiques, Jayne notes the dealer “has long reigned as the important place for old-line, high-polish antiques.” The store is stuffed with showstoppers like Empress Carlotta’s grand piano from 1865 ($225,000), a rare Ice Age bear skeleton ($98,500), and an elaborately carved 19th-century Italian exhibition cabinet ($298,500). “I admire the way they supported the community after Katrina,” Jayne says of M.S. Rau’s post-hurricane contributions. He doesn’t make a purchase on this day, but he does get a tour of the “secret room” for VIPs in back, through a hidden door. There, among other things, sits a striking marble bust of Napoleon. The rest we can’t tell you. 

10:45a.m. Jayne heads over to one of New Orleans’s most specialized and most attractive shops: the culinarily focused Lucullus, founded by prominent antiques dealer Patrick Dunne and managed by Kerry Moody. It’s bright, airy, and friendly, stuffed with silver, porcelain, glassware, tables, and food-theme artwork. “What Kerry and Patrick have done is make people unafraid of living with antiques,” Jayne says. “My apartment owes them a debt—our great pier mirror came from here, and I have so many of their tablewares.” Vintage glass from a variety of eras is his favorite thing to pick up here.

11:30a.m. Jayne tackles a very fashionable errand next: He wants a new hatband for his porkpie, and so he visits the maker, Meyer the Hatter, a Canal Street landmark since 1894. Navy blue—always classic—does the trick. 

Noon. Jayne tries to shed light on under-appreciated New Orleans assets, so his next stop is the Williams Residence, part of the Historic New Orleans Collection. The gracious 1889 house was owned by the founders of the Collection, Gen. Kemper Williams and Leila Hardie Moore Williams, and decorated in the golds and dusty lilac tones of the mid-20th century. “It doesn’t get played up, but it’s such an important, intact interior—it’s Colonial Revival overlaid with Hollywood Moderne,” Jayne says. “This is all part of my idea of mixing ancient and modern.”

1p.m. Even the go-getting Jayne stops for lunch. He invites Blake to join him at a French Quarter favorite, Café Amelie, known for its hushed courtyard and its crab cakes. 

2p.m. E-mail never sleeps. Jayne stops back home to manage the information flow from his 60 active clients. “A lot of what I do is proactive e-mails to clients about what to expect and problem-solving,” he says. He deals with issues including his chairman role at the Delaware Antiques Show in November; Paris clients who are building a houseboat; questions about which wood will grace a Miami living room ceiling (fir or poplar?); purchases with his art advisers (Etienne Breton for European works and David Henry for American ones); and airline reservations. Jayne, the author of two Monacelli Press books—The Finest Rooms in America (2010) and American Decoration (2012)—tries to steal a day a week to write about design and its history.

3p.m. Time to leave the Quarter for the Garden District. One of the few people in New Orleans who matches Jayne’s ability to combine disparate items is Ann Koerner, whose shop has the calmly composed aesthetic of a true connoisseur. She has a special insight when it comes to artfully distressed surfaces, which may relate to her work as a painter. “She buys a lot of great European and American pieces, and she has such a great eye,” says Jayne, who checks out a gleaming Biedermeier desk and a funky piece of contemporary pottery. 

4p.m. Directly across the street from Koerner, Jayne ducks into Neal Auction Company, which he has patronized often in the past. The display area is bare since the company has just finished a rash of events, but he asks his contacts about upcoming sales and notes the answer: Their signature three-day extravaganza, the Louisiana Purchase Auction, starts November 20. 

5p.m. Jayne is proud to use local workshops in his projects and makes his last stop of the day at Peyroux’s Custom Curtains. Luckily, proprietor Neil Peyroux is prepared for Jayne’s hands-on approach: This is a decorator who knows design from the inside out. Checking up on a local project for a longtime family client, Jayne says, “Generally I come and apply the trim myself. My great mentor, Sister Parish, said, ‘Never deliver curtains untrimmed.’  ” He folds back the bottom of one curtain to reveal its complex inner workings and holds forth on how trim hides the construction. Another must-have: an inner lining between the curtain and backing.

7p.m. It’s Nadine Blake’s birthday, so Jayne has a dozen people over for drinks and cake to fête her. “Be organized and keep it simple,” he says of his entertaining philosophy. “People are happy to be invited.” Over laughter and glasses of lemonade and bourbon, a drink that was probably served in the same room 150 years ago, Jayne relishes the continuum he’s a part of in New Orleans: “I always say, ‘Tradition is an active word. It’s not just something that was.’  ” 

Photography: Paul Costello
Produced by Doris Athineos

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