Design

John Derian and His Living Cabinet of Curiosities

Mieke Ten Have

Photography by Stephen Kent Johnson

JohnDerian_Cultured_SKJ_02
John Derian’s new West Village shop is nestled in a row of buildings on Christopher Street, which the designer has been eyeing since the late ‘90s. Produced by Michael Reynolds.

“Sometimes I get these building crushes,” says John Derian of the row of early 19th-century whitewashed buildings on Christopher Street in the West Village, where he opened an outpost of his East Village design mecca earlier this year. Derian—who started out as a purveyor of glossy decoupage accessories with a charming, if not slightly off kilter, 19th-century spirit—has become the go-to for handmade goods for the home with a romantic touch and a vintage quality.

“Retail is weird. Traffic is down, staffing is hard, but still, I thought, OK, this is meant to be,” he says, describing the space—which he had his eye on for years—as a kind of “divey old pet shop.” With a seashell-embedded fireplace in the back and rear garden, it reminded Derian of his home in Provincetown, while the front he found reminiscent of Astier de Villatte, the cult ceramics atelier in Paris with whom Derian often collaborates.

Derian is a brick-and-mortar bulwark in a retail landscape that shifts as quickly and ominously as quicksand. Since opening the East Village location in 1995, the shop has expanded, as have the makers and categories Derian sells. Whether it be lush and tactile paper flowers by Livia Cetti, whimsical drawings by Hugo Guinness or folkloric silk scarves by Nathalie Lété, Derian has a knack for finding and representing designers that interiors aesthetes fall in love with and glossy magazine editors rapturously cover.

“I have said in the past that I like looking at things. I like that sort of curiosity, and I think we need it in a way. It is an experience going through these handmade, textural things,” he says. “My shop is a destination.”

And that is the ethos of his brand: a store for people who know about it and understand it. His West Village outlet is a continuation of that theme. With 18th-century wainscoting, walls boast a “cracked, peeling patina,” achieved by using three kinds of varnish. A back room has densely patterned floral wallpaper from a collection Derian recently launched with Designers Guild. He also had custom shelving made for the austerely luxurious, milky-white glazed black terracotta Astier de Villatte collections he sells. “There is a sense of history, of authenticity, in this place,” he says.

While Derian is instinctually inclined towards past eras, he’s not in denial of contemporary demands either. “I relaunched my website a month ago; it looks great,” he says. “I had to work with people who understand it because I wasn’t sure how… how do you create a tactile place online?”

In spite of the less-than-rosy Manhattan retail outlook, Derian is optimistic about his new neighborhood. “Feedback has been positive,” he explains, recalling several recent remarks from long-time residents. “They tell me ‘all the shops used to look like this one, and now there are no more.’”