By Sadie Stein
NEW YORK (New York Times) — John Derian is standing in front of a 19th-century tomb in the summer rain. We are just outside Boston, in the storied Mount Auburn Cemetery, not far from where he grew up. “Some of my mother’s relatives are in here,” he says. Tall and elegant, Derian seems of a piece with his august surroundings: remote and a bit intimidating. But when he talks, he is warm and funny. At one point, a 71 bus, bound for Cambridge, passes by. “That bus changed my life,” he says wryly.
Since starting out as a designer and purveyor of objects and curiosities in the early ’90s, Derian’s name has been a byword for a slightly morbid, cosmopolitan luxury: a Pierre Bonnard painting viewed through the eyes of Edward Gorey. His three Aladdin’s Cave stores, a row in Manhattan’s East Village, are packed with hand-printed textiles, marble fruit sculptures and antique glass. The decoupage plates that Derian makes and sells take their inspiration from English botanical prints or yellowed love letters. A velvet sofa might have the classical lines of a Hepplewhite relic, but with proportions long enough to accommodate his tall frame. Derian has a healthy respect for both history and comfort.
In reality, however, Derian’s hometown is a far cry from the sepia-tinged world he has created. His working-class upbringing in Watertown was surprisingly Technicolor — Boy Scouts, a paper route, hide-and-seek — but Derian is ambivalent about going home; his family was bewildered by his artistic interests and, like many sensitive kids, he came to realize how isolated his childhood was. He moved immediately after high school — first to Boston, then to neighboring Cambridge, then to New York, where he has lived and worked ever since. And yet it’s clear that Derian’s early life influenced his idiosyncratic brand of creativity. As a young man, Derian immersed himself in painting and craft, activities that would later find expression in his shops, which feel like private hiding places filled with secret, hoarded objects.
Derian’s mother’s family is Scottish; his paternal grandparents were Armenian. His father’s mother lived with the family until he was 10, “but her past,” he says, “was always kind of a mystery.” Derian’s childhood was full of such secrets and intriguing characters: There was the funeral home on the corner run by redheaded sisters; the black-clad neighbor in perpetual mourning for her son; the boarders who lived upstairs. “There was a Russian guy named Arthur who stayed in our attic for 40 years,” Derian recalls, as we make our meandering way to the home where he was raised. “When my grandmother was alive, they would play cards and do shots. He’d boil feta cheese until all the salt was gone, and walk around in his underwear saying, ‘I am DEE-sgusted! They do what they want!’ because there were six little kids, causing trouble. I think he might have been gay.”
Derian has a keen eye for detail, especially macabre quirks; he is also generous and kind. Near the Cambridge border, we stop at Star Market, a food store where his father was a manager for 40 years. Derian was the only one of his siblings not to work there, yet he has happy memories of playing in the empty aisles on Sundays, and credits his time there for having made him an excellent packer of car trunks.
As the rain breaks, we reach Dexter Avenue, a narrow Watertown street. “My house looked very much like the one on the right — they were twins,” he says, pointing to the gingerbread-embellished neighbor of a more modern-looking dwelling. “And then,” he says, gesturing to his childhood home, “my dad did basically everything he could to destroy it.” He describes his father’s 1970s refurbishment of the building — lowering the ceilings, ripping out the molding, adding paneling everywhere — with the tone of someone long resigned. “Even as a 10-year-old, I was sort of upset. It seemed like he was taking really cool things and making them ugly.”
Watertown one of the largest Armenian communities in America, and Derian’s old neighborhood is still populated with cultural centers and shops specializing in phylo and borek. “When I come back, it’s for the Armenian food,” he says as he enters Massis Bakery, where they sell salads, pilafs and lahmajun; this is comfort food for him. Derian is proud of these local specialties, which he serves at his annual Christmas party in New York. “Martha Stewart was asking about these,” he says, proffering dolmas. “I told her, ‘These are from my hometown!’ ”
In East Watertown, memories come back to him thick and fast: Here is the local diner where he and his brothers would eat on Fridays when his parents worked late; here is the hardware store possibly owned by an unknown, estranged cousin — “and that’s the abandoned building we used to climb into; these are the projects, part of my paper route.”
Derian discovered acting during high school, and with it a sense of liberation. Although his manner is unassuming, it’s easy to imagine him commanding a stage. He also fell in love with late-’70s Cambridge itself: the energy, the nonconformity, the range of people, the thick roast beef sandwiches at Formaggio Kitchen.
Working after school at a high-end boutique called Adam and Eve, Derian saved up for his first piece of expensive clothing: a wide-wale corduroy blazer by Egon von Fürstenberg. After a lifetime of hand-me-downs, it felt like the start of something. He found he liked retail. The teenage Derian was particularly impressed by a funky, eclectic shop on Harvard Square called Goods Razzle Dazzle. He remembers it as “a sort of miracle — it had everything, and was fun and exciting.” He might be describing his own namesake shops.
During his post-high-school years in Cambridge, Derian lived in 12 different apartments, and became part of an eclectic group of artists, a few of whom are still in his life today. He met many of them working at the New American restaurant 29 Newbury, which he calls “the college I never went to.” Around the same time, he began pursuing his design career. Derian became acquainted with Maria Church and Apple Parish Bartlett and started working part-time in their Newbury Street design shop, La Ruche, eventually selling his own creations — frames embellished with buttons and other found objects, and later, his now-signature decoupage — to their customers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Earlier that day, while en route from Cambridge to Mount Auburn Cemetery, we had driven down Brattle Street, which is lined with historical estates. Derian had commented on its beauty. “The most amazing architecture, all in one place,” he said, admiring the stately homes, their gracious lawns. They looked, for lack of a better description, very John Derian. And when
we walked through the cemetery — whimsical and elegant, but a little scary — it was easy to see how it had informed his aesthetic. (Today his New York apartment overlooks an old graveyard.) But he knows that he has been influenced by more than just the picturesque, that the struggle between normalcy and quirkiness has left its mark on the decoupage of his taste, too. “People think kids need the country,” he said. “But kids can find cool, secret things anywhere.”