On a sunny weekday morning, interior designer Damon Liss greets me at the entrance to his Tribeca studio. The door is propped open, since friends, neighbors and colleagues tend to pop into the tidy storefront-like space, which also functions as a sort of pared-down portfolio of the designer’s work. The kind of items that often punctuate a Liss-designed home thoughtfully furnish the studio: Two 1960s Paolo Buffa wingback chairs form a vignette near the door; a series of slick, geometric, yellow USM Modular sideboards line the northern wall. (Liss is apt to mix these candy-colored steel-paneled storage units with more artisanal objects in kids’ rooms and home offices.) And a walnut slab table, set with ladder-back chairs, creates a lived-in-looking conference area up front, lined with windows that overlook lower Hudson Street.
That hand-worked BDDW slab table, unique and made-to-measure, embodies a design tenet that quite literally courses through Liss’s veins: From the 1950s through the ’80s, his father owned a bespoke clothing shop called Women’s Haberdashers, with locations in New York, Paris and London. Liss, a born-and-bred Manhattanite, used to help out at the location on Madison Avenue and 77th Street when he was a kid. During breaks from school, he’d assist with odd jobs around the store. He remembers Angela Lansbury popping in for a fitting and Burgess Meredith coming by to order a gift; years later, he was flipping through a Marilyn Monroe fashion book and saw his father’s shop cited as one of her suppliers.
His father’s practice, it seems, left an enduring mark on the designer, whose New York firm, Damon Liss Design, and affiliated brokerage, Liss Real Estate, often take clients from purchase to renovation to move-in day. “We study our clients,” he says. “Not just their homes.”
“There was always a practical element to my father’s designs,” Liss continues. “It was very wearable clothing. It was high fashion, but, in the same sense, it was everyday. And I think that’s the way we design.” As he finishes this thought, he gestures toward the Buffa chairs. “They’re comfortable, usable, approachable — things that people can actually live with. A huge percentage of our clients have kids, so we’re always conscious about making sure we’re not doing things that are impractical.”
Indeed, any quick glance at Liss’s portfolio immediately supports that claim while documenting the designer’s propensity for mixing exquisite mid-century finds with contemporary craftsmanship. The results tend to have an effortless elegance they are casual but refined, composed but not overdone. In a Hudson Street loft, a set of 1960s Italian chairs, bought from neighborhood dealer (and 1stdibs member) Paul Donzella, surround another BDDW slab table. In a Duane Street duplex, glass teardrops slung from a modern Patrick Naggar for Ralph Pucci chandelier invert the curvature of the space’s stunning arched windows while four boxy-but-plush Christophe Delcourt chairs sit at a Robert Bristow taboret, and a geometric vault of lovingly preserved industrial beams soars overhead. “We always try to keep an element that’s a little crude,” Liss says, “to make it all more approachable.”
What I find refreshing about Damon’s approach to interior design is his unique way of translating sophistication and elegance,” says Donzella, who counts Liss not just as a frequent client but as a friend. “His use of pared-down forms and noble materials such as wood, glass and ceramics brings to mind some of the best architects doing interiors in Italy in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. His interiors feel elegant without the use of bling or flash.” Unsurprisingly, Liss’s own homes epitomize this credo, too. He shows me images of the quaint, 1,300-square-foot cottage he and his wife, Lisa — a realtor, designer and a partner in the firm — gut renovated in East Hampton. The place was originally part of a larger house built by the Grimshaw family in 1875. It was detached in 1925, moved some 1,000 yards away and used to house their in-laws during visits. “That’s why it has this kind of funny shape to it,” Liss says. “It has more of a loft-like feel because it wasn’t designed to be a stand-alone home.” The warm, intimate space is studded with vintage metal café chairs; rugs, mirrors and credenzas by BDDW; and contemporary occasional tables by Wharfside and Ligne Rosset. The overall effect is warm and inviting, albeit with a confident modern edge — the funky aqua patina on the vintage café chairs provides a welcome contrast to the dining room’s clean lines and milky palette, and a 1950s-era banister-back chair unexpectedly pairs with a white split-wood side table. The Lisses are also in the process of renovating their new loft in TriBeCa — a window-lined space overlooking a lush patch of Duane Park that they’ve had their eyes on for years.
In addition to crafting women’s clothes, Liss’s father was something of a design hobbyist, having built furniture for the family’s summer house in Nova Scotia. But despite this upbringing, the path Liss took into the field proved somewhat circuitous: After high school in Manhattan, he studied sociology at Emory University, in Atlanta, where he remained after graduating, excluding a stint in Chicago, working for a steel company in purchasing. He moved back to New York in the late 1990s, taking a job in sales in the women’s clothing department at Barneys. By then, his attention had started to veer back toward design. He enrolled in a few courses at Parsons but never pursued any formal training. Instead, he says the majority of his design education has come through on-the-job experience with two key mentors — New York interior designers Noel Jeffrey and Kevin Hart — and by fostering close relationships with many of his favorite mid-century dealers, Donzella, Frank Rogin and Carlos Junqueira, of the Brazil-centric Espasso, among them.
After rehabbing several of his own apartments and working as a design assistant for both Jeffrey and Hart, Liss struck out on his own as an interior designer in 2002. At the same time, he obtained a real-estate license, not out of shrewdness, he says now — though shrewd is precisely what the decision has proven to be in New York’s seemingly ever-appreciating real-estate market — but because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to generate an income on design alone.
The two elements of the company coalesced “from the very beginning,” Liss says. “So many people who we found homes for ended up using us for design work, and some of the people we designed for asked us to sell their homes because we knew their spaces better than anybody.”
There’s something special, something singular, Liss says, about helping someone create a home. He recalls a client whose two lofts he fused into a stunning duplex in Chelsea. “I got an email from her just the other day. She said, ‘I need to tell you — every day that I’m at home, I can’t believe I live here and how amazing it is for our family.’ ”
“To me, that’s the goal,” Liss says. “That’s what keeps us excited to continue doing this.”