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JOHN DERIAN by Susanna Salk for 1st dibs
“I was always creating spaces using things I found,” says uber construction and decoupage artist John Derian. “Once as a child I made a living area from a crawl space between a wild grape vine and a fence. I also did a lot of exploring and fort building in abandoned industrial buildings which was exciting and fun. You could say I am basically doing the same things now.” Derian has indeed channeled his nest-making abilities into an eponymous company offering everything from stationary, plates, paperweights, linens and antiques to an international fan base that craves his stunningly unique eye for beauty. A John Derian piece is both instantly recognizable and at the same time, like nothing else in the room.
“Being the youngest of six in from a working class family in Massachusetts, I was the oddball creative one,” says Derian. “My parents had no idea what to do with me, so they would get me things like a spin art kit.” When his 7th grade teacher discovered a talent like Derian’s was wasted on a paint by numbers set, he promptly handed him some paint and brushes. Derian went on to win an award for an original watercolor. “This got me to see another world,” he says. His vision was further pried open, thanks to his Aunt Louise, who was a world traveler and brought back exotic objects for him to admire. And it was his childhood friend, Dora Jones, who got him into the medium of paper mache. Still Derian didn’t yet fully believe in his own power of expression. After drawing a stenciled image of his nephew as a clown and transposing it onto a mirror, Derian took it to the local framer where he was encouraged to sell it. “I was embarrassed,” he remembers, “because to me it seemed so flawed.”
After attending a summer program as a young teenageer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Derian attended the Massachusetts College of Art for a semester “but I never felt comfortable in school,” he remembers. “Mostly I just skipped classes and went antiquing along Boston’s North Shore. This is where I really started my design education.” And while he was hunting and gathering vintage treasures and knowledge, he never stopped making things with his own hands, in particular decorative painting on furniture. His work soon took on a more professional scope when he began selling collages he had created at a store in Boston called La Ruche. And then, in 1989 came his first decoupage plate. The process involved the art of cutting and gluing paper images to surfaces and then applying layers of varnish. (Derian’s work is distinguished in that he glues his engravings inside the glass vessels, giving the allusion of painted ware) Suddenly, all the planets in his design world became aligned. “The plates really worked because they involved my love of craft, painting and antiques.” He incorporated artifacts like old letters into his early patterns, the results feeling both classic and modern at the same time. Even better, he could produce multiples of them. After being turned away at Barneys in New York (“they liked my plates but thought them too expensive”), Derian used a payphone to call further uptown to the shop Lexington Gardens (recommended by his former Boston boss). The owners immediately took his designs with them to a trade show and brought back a $30,000 order. “It felt like a million dollars at the time,” he says. “Somehow, I got my friends to help me fulfill the order, and I was on my way.”
Now the John Derian Company comprises over a dozen employees in its downtown Manhattan studio, each assisting him in fulfilling the many hand made orders, which will then be shipped on to multiple style destinations worldwide. First stop is Derian’s own retail shop on East 2nd Street, which is more like a portal into his vibrant imagination, where nature’s uncanny design is constantly celebrated. Whether it’s the flight of a sparrow captured midflight across an oval platter, a pink zinnia blooming inside a paperweight, or red sea weed floating against a ceramic backdrop, their innate beauty is amplified because of Derian’s loving spotlight.
His own apartment is also a tribute to life’s random acts of kindness and senseless beauty: a vine which unexpectedly arrived dead at a floral shop has been rescued by Derian and now dangles like important sculpture by the light of a window; a framed thank you note from a young nephew hangs near an unframed landscape; a large sea sponge sent from his sister who knew Derian would fall in love with its outer worldly shape, earns a place next to family photos on his bedroom bureau; rows of mismatched antique chairs, most of their cushions torn and unstuffed are meant to be appreciated for their patina rather than for seating. Each wall in his small entry hall has been coated top to bottom with hundreds of pages torn from old books of poetry so visitors feel as though they’ve walked into one of Derian’s celebrated decoupage paperweights. “My plan with my place has just been to fill it with the things I love and then adding and subtracting until it works. It is always changing.” Derian is even more hospitable when it comes to sharing his art, as with his 2008 smash hit collaboration with Target, where his affordable, limited-run pieces instantly sold out and became collector’s items. “I loved sharing my aesthetic with a larger audience,” he says. “And it was fun creating product that could work outdoors.”
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When he’s not delving through the vast troves of his design studio for vintage prints and illustrations for inspiration or tinkering on an upcoming a book project, Derian likes to keep his leisure time decidedly low key. “I like to swim, read, cook, play charades and Bananagrams,” he says. And while he makes it his business to showcase life’s simplest pleasures like a red apple or a fuzzy bumble bee in his work, Derian equally makes it his goal to go outside and appreciate the real thing. “I still enjoy a pretty tree, a cute dog, a rain storm, riding my bike,” he says. “And of course, rearranging my furniture.”
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