Designer John Lyle looks right at home in his 3500 square foot Design Studio, a chic Long Island City loft overlooking the iconic Manhattan skyline. This is the home of John Lyle Design, his expansive furniture collection, and of INOX New York, his exciting new line created in stainless steel. During an inspiring career spanning more than 25 years, Lyle has created furniture, accessories and unique interior designs. Featured often in such top design magazines as Elle Décor, Architectural Digest, Interior Design, Veranda, New York Spaces, and Traditional Home, Lyle continues to influence the pulse of what’s trending. Recently showcased in the Donghia NYC flagship showroom, INOX New York dares to be the city’s next big thing.
Transplanting from Jackson, Mississippi to Manhattan in 1980 he’s as much New York as Central Park and brunch. At one with the city with his remarkable duality, he’s a true Southern New Yorker. His work aesthetic reflects this multi-dimensional flavor and sophistication. His design is rooted in the balance and form of Classicism with a creative, unique, and simply undeniably fresh twist. For our late morning interview, he arrives on his Vespa, dressed in a t-shirt, dark jeans, and all sports toe shoes—he’s just left the gym, and one instantly notices his youthful vitality. We ride up the elevator, making small talk, and I can tell he’s a little nervous, a surprising yet charming thought considering his vast knowledge and expertise. But I understand, because we are friends. And it is one of the things I love most about him. This humble designer rarely ventures to steal the spotlight away from his work, his passion. During those rare moments, over brunch or dinner, or walking the streets of Manhattan, we chat about his chance encounters with writers Truman Capote and Eudora Welty or his endearing Lady Bird Johnson story, Lyle’s southern drawl taking center stage, and for a brief instant, I see the young man who “naively” created his very own “New York, New York.”
I roam around the loft, taking a few pictures of the stunning Console Tables, Andirons, and Floor Lamps made in materials such as shagreen, ebony, bronze and parchment. After he sets the stage—always the quintessential host—with champagne served in crystal flutes and Chet Baker humming in the background, we settle down at the Dagmar Desk, sculpted from bronze and white French limestone, one of my favorite pieces, and begin talking about his colorful journey into design.
Riley: How did you make your way from Mississippi to New York?
John Lyle: I never grew up thinking ooh I’m gonna live there someday—I only knew the city from books, movies and television shows. One day in the late 70’s to Mississippi came the International Ballet Competition, of all things they hold it in Jackson. The thing to do for those few days was go to the ballet so of course I went, and I was introduced to a couple of the featured dancers who were my age, and I said, “I’ll take you around town and take you to dinner so you won’t be bored.”
Kimberly Graves, William Starrett, and I went to a few dinners together. Some time passed, then one day Kimberly called from New York and said, “I’m going on tour this summer. Do you want to take care of my cats and my apartment?” With no hesitation, I answered, “Yes!” Once I was here for a couple of weeks, I thought, I better find another apartment or sublet, because I’m not finished with this place yet. I am still here.
Riley: Did you fall in love with New York immediately?
Lyle: I did. I think the thing I found most alluring was I couldn’t take it all in at one time. It kept me occupied visually and intellectually. I remember someone just said something to me like “you belong in New York.” And I as naïvely, thought, I do? I do! . . .
Riley: One of the interesting things about you is the fact that you’re still very southern in many ways, holding onto that romantic identity. And yet you are very New York. How do you do it? How do you hold onto and embrace a little of both extreme cultures?
Lyle: Well, my family and my roots—I love being in the South, maybe not the heat. And I love my family. They will always draw me back. I love the food, the music, the writers, and the mannerly culture of the south. The Blues was born 20 miles from my house. I love the blues and jazz.
You know that silly song, “New York, New York?” I remember I was singing it on the plane on the way here—“If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere, It’s up to you, bla, blab la..”—all excited, 21 years old; and somehow I am still here. At first I just made it along, job to job, fleeing or being fired from every last one of them. I made it clear to myself what I should not be doing as a job.
Riley: What kind of jobs? You didn’t fall right into design when you first arrived?
Lyle: Nooo. I was in a bar and a guy asked if I wanted to work there as a bar back. I asked, “What’s that?” I worked there for a short time. Place closed at 4 and you’re still cleaning up at 5am. And I said this just isn’t for me. I quit that one.
So I got a job next at a place called Lady Continental Shoes on 69th and Madison at the bottom of the old Westbury Hotel. The highlight there was meeting Lady Bird Johnson. One day, I wasn’t supposed to answer the telephone, but I did. I answered, “Lady Continental Shoes.” A purring French accent responded. “Hellooooo, this is Pauline Trigere, I have Mrs. Johnson here and I’m wondering if you have any size 7 AAA.” There could only be one Mrs. Johnson. Without looking, I said, “Yes of course we do. Well send her over; she can ask for me, John Lyle.” I went rummaging downstairs in all those shoes and found 3 pairs that were 7 AAA, and they were all 5 inch heels, metallic snake skin cha-cha shoes. She came in with the secret service, sat down, and I put the shoe on her foot. She stood up and looked at herself in the mirror. She said, “These are really attractive but I know my smile would fall in half an hour if I had to wear them. You’ve been very kind though.”
From there I did Telephone sales to lawyers, while working at a publishing company. Then I worked at Phil Porter and Cindy Hughes’s startup fashion design company. After the business started struggling, I heard that Tracy Mills was looking for someone in sales. Got the job. Not into it. They fired me. Then I went through the telephone Yellow Pages under Interior Designer and started calling interior designers. By the time I got to G, for Bob Gans, I landed an interview and then the job as an assistant. That lasted until I left a client’s door unlocked, and then I was let go. Cried a little that time. I was getting close to something that really interested me.
I went to the D&D Building and was told Barrett Hill was hiring. They hired me for a secretarial job. It was like hiring Lucy. I couldn’t even type. One day the manager/owner Michael Kennedy came in and I said, “Good morning.” And he said, “Not for you, you’re getting fired today.” This time I laughed. And then he said, “One day you’re going to thank me for this. You’re meant for bigger things and need to move on.”
I worked as a Fashion Photographer’s rep—did well at that for quite a few years. Then I said those fateful words to one of the photographers, “my heart’s just not in this anymore”. And suddenly I wasn’t a photographer’s rep anymore. I started painting, very abstract. I had a couple of little gallery shows; I didn’t sell much.
I met Mark Umbach at the gym and we struck up a conversation about Art and Classicism, a shared interest. We became friends and discussed how we’d like to make furniture that would be appropriate to use with antiques and antiquity. We made it happen and cast a pair of bronze lamps, based on an ancient oil-burning lamp, and sold them at a friend’s antique shop. Then we thought, now what? Shortly after, I walked into the New York showroom, Luten Clarey Stern, with a lamp in my hand—very earnest, twenty-six years old. The owner’s wife, Ellen Hanson said, “Sure we’ll take you on.” That would never happen again. All of a sudden I was in LCS, the best showroom in the country. Our products were really well made and sold really well. I still have dear friends whom I met there over 25 years ago.
The collection grew from one to many table lamps, floor lamps, and torchiere. First working in bronze then steel I expanded to tables, chairs, benches, fireplace items, etc.… I love working with talented artisans. One is my old friend Michael Stromar who transformed sisal rugs into hand painted masterpieces. Our first big commission was the giant red hand painted “Aubusson”, featured in Architectural Digest, for Francine Coffey. We also made a huge one for Ralph Lauren and they were collected and sold well for about ten years. Michael can’t crawl around like that anymore and I never met anyone else who could work his magic.
LCS went out of business and I sought other representation.
In’ 88, ’89, I Linked up in Chicago with Holly Hunt. As she opened new showrooms across the country I grew with her. Same as David Sutherland—he was in Dallas then he opened in Los Angeles. It kept growing like that. I started doing interior design too.
A friend asked me to redesign his apartment, combining 3 big apartments in The Century Building, Central Park West. I agreed with one caveat: he didn’t get to tell me what to do—he had to allow me creative freedom. The finished apartment was published 4 times. That felt very good for a first project. That was Marlon Young, and he was great to support my creativity like that.
Riley: Intimidated by those big projects?
Lyle: I was excited by it.
Every time I come into a design job, when I first get it, it’s almost like having a term paper assignment. What am I going to write about? What’s it going to be like? And there’s that moment of stress until you find a direction. And then everything springs off that direction. Whether it is a color, a fabric, a shape or an art collection. Comfort. Comfort always drives my design; add wit, and a sense of humor. Things that are too static and too serious lose their spontaneity, and the rigidity is reflected in the way people live in the space. Because your whole life can be affected by what’s around you, obviously. That’s why I think interior design is relevant.
We become enriched by our surroundings wherever they are. If I can bring people’s sensibilities up or to a comfortable place or inspire them with a certain feeling when they walk into their home, then I feel like I’ve done a good job.
Riley: Are your showrooms across the world?
Lyle: Only in the U.S. so far. I’m looking forward to being international.
Right now I’m in the following showrooms:
Holly Hunt: New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and DC
David Sutherland: Dallas, Houston, LA, and Miami
Johanna Spilman: San Francisco
Jennifer West: Seattle
Furn & Co: Boston
Riley: I had the pleasure of attending Donghia’s NYC flagship showroom event with you this past September. Let’s talk about how INOX New York came to be a part of it all.
Lyle: I do love to create and saw an opportunity to start a new line made from one material, stainless Steel. I remember thinking, Donghia doesn’t have any stainless steel furniture, yet it would be a perfect addition. They’re very modern and luxurious. I started a conversation with a sales person and asked how to get in. She sent me to the Manager, who sent me to the Creative Director—and it took off from there.
Donghia has one of the most beautiful showrooms in the country. They’ve really raised the bar as to what a showroom should be.
Riley: Best design advice?
Lyle: Many years ago I asked Holly Hunt, the impresario of design, “What shall I do; what direction shall I take?” And she said “Do what you do best. Bronze. Keep designing your fireplace equipment.” I went from having 4 styles of andirons to having 50, as well as fire screens, fire grates and fire tools; I listened and followed Holly’s suggestion, and it is a big success.
Riley: What’s your designing vibe?
Lyle: I don’t have to have anything special around me or any music in particular to design, it just happens. I am a compulsive sketcher. I could be designing every waking hour but I can’t make everything I think of; I have to be really disciplined.
Riley: Do you have a certain person in mind when you design?
Lyle: No, I really don’t. I design with materials in mind and the possibilities of the materials. I love finding new materials.
Riley: Family is very important to you. Have you found a sense of family in New York?
Lyle: Absolutely. I’m a very loyal friend and it takes me a little while to be friends and warm up but once I do, I’m steadfast.
Riley: What is your Favorite piece in this showroom?
Lyle: I love the Klismos Chair. It’s one of the earliest things I did, but I keep reincarnating it in new materials. The Klismos is an ancient shape and I tweaked it to be modern.
Riley: If someone works with John Lyle, what can they expect?
Lyle: To be Surprised and delighted.