Founder and creative director of his own firm, Brooklyn native Leyden Lewis’ +30-year design career focuses on creating poetic and culturally sensitive spaces and furniture—both in the U.S. and abroad. Capture Leyden’s bold and artistic design sense with his personally consigned pieces on Sotheby’s Home.
Designer Leyden Lewis believes there is interior design and interior work—and the latter is the harder. “Self-evaluation, self-actualization comes through interior work,” as he puts it. Lewis has put in a tremendous amount of work on both fronts: as a designer, he keeps his practice with laser-sharp focus on both purpose and context; on the personal side, his growth is ongoing and out in the open. His forwardness in life and in his social media posts has enlightened the corners of Instagram with reflections that are both timely to 2020 as they are to anyone trying to make it all work while being comfortable in their own skin. “I wasn’t as eager to tell somebody I was from Trinidad and associate myself with my Caribbean heritage. It was part of my own growth to understand how important that is and to own that part of myself. And to be not only proud of it, but to understand how it works, that it’s constantly working through me and to know that it’s not a fixed-time project, it’s one that’s constantly being revealed and blossoming, knowing of selves.”
The interior work is never done, and the same could be said about a design project. Lewis finds himself in the midst of a pandemic, reflecting on Black Lives Matter and what it means to be a Black designer practicing design for the last 30 years. “This is such a rich, amazing moment for everybody to take a pause and take inventory and say, ‘Clearly things have not been working,’ and a seismic shift has to happen, so that everybody is included—not just feels included—because lip service that follows amnesia is of no service to anybody. It’s an investment in a larger shift that might be more violent if it’s not addressed now.”
Are the items you are consigning personal or from clients, or are they a mix?
They’re both. Some of them are personal and some from clients.
Is there anything special you’d like us to highlight?
The Lyle Ashton Harris piece, Ready Made, which I think is such a beautiful piece, particularly given Black Lives Matter…This is a piece that I collected from Lyle Ashton Harris’ collection; he’s a very good friend of mine, I own several of his pieces. And the fact that it’s an Italian advertising for Adidas, which would never happen in the United States, that a Black man is washing and massaging the feet of a white man (laughs). This is an ad from 2001 or something—my partner, who is Algerian, said, “I don’t know about this piece anymore.” So that piece has a story behind it. I love it because there’s also something sensual and erotic about the exchange between the two people. You’ll see the undercurrent of what’s being played out.
You mentioned Black Lives Matter. How can companies address the lack of inclusion? How to stop the lip service and show action?
I think the question is, “what are the changes companies are making on the executive end?” Think about Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation, at the head of the foundation. It’s an organization that understands that if we have a mission to be of service to a breadth of peoples and communities in need, we have to put somebody from that community at the head of it. What is amazing about someone like Darren Walker or Thelma Golden is that we all come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, but we all are learned. We all are trained in our own profession, into our own education, into our own professional experience. The institution, the edifice that exists now, understands that people of color will buy non-people of color’s stuff in the largest way, whether it’s from Goya pigeon peas, to Nike sneakers, to Hermès scarves, to Louis Vuitton bags, everybody’s going to buy that stuff. Now the question is: are you going to buy what we make? And someone has got to lose on their quarterly projections in order for others to gain in theirs (laughs).
How do you see the effect of designers spending this much time at home, and how are we going to change our relationships to our homes after COVID-19?
I’m fortunate to be in an industry that I can work remotely. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, because there’s a part of me that’s detached from what was really happening at the hospitals—although I did lose an uncle, and we said goodbye to him at the emergency room door. That was the last time any of us as a family saw our uncle. That in itself can show you the potential for how hospitals can be redesigned. If the front door is the last time you can see a loved one during a pandemic, that needs to be examined. So that’s already an architecture change that can emerge where there are people that are sectioned off, but there’s surfaces where one can be observed and watched, without coming in touch with contaminants. I’m very much interested in this, and as an academic as well (I not only have a practice but I also teach interior architecture and interior design at New York School of Interior Design and Parsons). So, there’s a lot of opportunities for real innovation, and not contrary innovation, but design that’s really in service of doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, in my opinion, which is to bring us together, not to keep us apart.
How does your Trinidadian upbringing—as well as your partner being from Algeria—how is this non-American point-of-view expressed in your own creativity and how you approach interior design?
I don’t have in my own intuitive nature this one-liner—thank god I wasn’t born in a bubble. I always had a desire to travel, see places, see where my own people come from in Africa. My partner’s from North Africa. Trinidadians are coming from West Africa. The colonization of Trinidad—it’s Creole, it’s Chinese, it’s Indonesian Indian. From the flavors of Trinidad, from curry to West Africa to Latin America just below us. My intuition is to constantly be putting together a collage of multiple things from multiple places and from multiple eras and ages. I just love to do that. I love storytelling in that collage-like way. There’s not a set, one size fits all or “that style” is what I tend to do over and over and over. I tell stories with my clients.
Your Instagram can be very personal, and it’s very honest and full of insight. What would you say to a younger person who’s thinking about interior design, or even to your younger self?
That’s a great question. I think I’ve done so much work—I think to talk about this as though we don’t have to do other types of work besides our interiors is ridiculous. Self-evaluation, self-actualization comes through interior work, right? So, I think that the first interior design job that you have to do is the one inside. For me, I grew up in another place, I grew up in another time, I was coming up in the ’80s with the AIDS epidemic and being queer, and all the things about my industry that I was aspiring to, and I was always interested in design. I think I did get a little bit trapped in the false self, where you’re trying to be somebody that you’re not. I would tell my earlier self or a younger person, be true to yourself and know yourself. Know yourself, be true to yourself, be authentic, keep going. And in that loop, continue to know yourself. And know that it’s not a fixed-time project, it’s one that’s constantly being revealed and blossoming, knowing of selves.
What were the things that liberated you? Was it a specific thing or place, or little by little?
I was born and raised in New York. My parents came here from Caracas, Venezuela in 1967. They left Trinidad to go to Caracas to earn money, and then they came from Caracas to move here. So, I’m the first in my entire family who is a non-immigrant. But I grew up in a Trinidadian household, there’s no question about it. So, what happened? I think it was the High School of Art and Design, which blew my head open. I left Crown Heights, and here I was on East 57th Street with a bunch of artsy nerds, some of them Japanese, and some of them Latino, some of them Jewish—I was really out of my comfort zone from Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
And we don’t talk about it enough because of its own set of problems, but a sexual kind of blossoming and discovery is part of everybody’s growth. What do you call it here, repressed? We’re racist and we’re repressed! So, for me, that was a major part to get connected, that was one of the first communities. I found my artist in my college community and in high school, then I found my gay community as I navigated my own sexuality and coming out, then I found my career, and it was quite recently that I started to feel literally pain, and I was trying to figure it out like it was some mathematical problem. Why I wasn’t getting certain validation in my industry. And I understood this as the wall that I’ve never dealt with, which is the fact that I’m Black. And I’m trying to navigate a very particular industry, which it’s very white, and it’s also white supremacist. It’s full of elitism which is white supremacy. Institutionalization is a way of codifying it and allowing it, and opening the doors and gatekeeping. Do we need to be educated at Yale and Harvard and buy a 19th-century Federal desk at Sotheby’s? Yeah! I guess the answer is yes for certain people. I’m just saying that I understand the system now, and at least I have the consciousness around what is happening. I think I was unconscious. That’s been the latest and last of this iteration, it’s like Leyden 5.7.
What can you tell about the beautiful image and the inspiration behind the work you did with the Black Artists + Design Guild for the DIFFAA project?
The table setting! It was the design industry’s fight for AIDS and AIDS education. One of the major things that’s happening is that in the South, and the stigmatism around being either queer or gay or having HIV, we have a problem in the South where Black women are the competition for having the highest rates of HIV infection with developing countries. And so, the shame that exists (this talks to the other thing about our sexuality part), this is after hundreds of years of rape. The image for us was to bring light in that story for the DIFFA Dining by Design table, that the focus is on the Black woman in this country right now in terms of HIV. It was her gaze, and we have to confront her because she’s focusing on us, and we need to focus on her.
What do you want people to know about working with an interior designer in an era of COVID-19?
All of our consultations and our presentations are currently being done virtually, and when necessary, we’re following all of the protocols when meeting on construction sites and onsite in-person meetings.
Love the look? Shop the rest of Leyden Lewis’ consignment, on Sotheby’s Home.