At just 17, Leyden Lewis had already decided that he wanted to transform people’s homes. Still in school, studying illustration, he got a part-time job as an assistant at an interior decorator’s studio to pick up some extra cash. ‘When I walked into those homes, at that early age, I had no idea that people lived with museum-quality pieces of art,’ he recalls.
He was used to being surrounded by his father’s paintings, but this was something else entirely. The possibilities were exciting, and it was, he says, ‘a total buy-in moment’.
Since that early induction into the world of luxury interiors, Leyden has studied Architecture at Parsons School of Design and, in 2000, founded his eponymous interior design studio, setting up office in Brooklyn, where he grew up and still lives today. One of the founding members of the global Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG), he is also, like his father, abstract painter Lionel Lewis, an accomplished artist. His aim, he says, ‘is to inspire other black and brown people to understand their value as designers. It’s not about raising people up, but about recognising what’s already there; building a canon’.
The latest step on that path began early this year, with the launch of the Obsidian Virtual Concept House, a vision of the multigenerational black home of the future, created by the BADG, promoting the core principles of innovation, sustainability and black family practices. It is, he has joked, ‘Wakanda-like’. It’s also a world away from his own apartment, the less futuristic but personality-packed 74-square-metre space that he shares with his dog, Nika.
When Leyden moved in 17 years ago, the place was an empty rectangular box, rather than a home. ‘You walked in the door and you could see straight through to the bedroom window,’ he says. ‘There was no pause.’ By extending a built-in closet to create a foyer and adding a curtain to section off a sleeping space, he has created essential moments of division and seclusion.
It was a natural process for a designer who approaches interiors like artistic compositions. ‘I don’t look for the fabric on a couch to tell a story, I’d rather the shape of the couch did the work,’ he explains. ‘It’s all about mass, colour, balance, asymmetrical balance – all the good stuff.’
Far from the sleek, gallery-like homes he is known for creating for many of his clients, Leyden’s own world is an overflowing creative laboratory. Everywhere you look, there’s artwork by family and friends, including Lyle Ashton Harris and Jeffrey Hargrave, as well as a growing collection of toys and treasured pieces of 20th-century furniture – some of them snagged for a song while antique-hunting in Brooklyn.
His design philosophy – not style (one of Leyden’s most hated words, alongside the dreaded ‘trend’) – is predominantly fuelled by the search for happiness. It can come from being surrounded by colour, art or pieces he is passionate about but, most of all, he says, ‘joy is people’.
‘When I am designing a space, generally I’m thinking about how it will be activated by people,’ he continues. That is why a large polished chrome Parsons-style dining table takes up so much of his living area, tucked in behind the custom-made desk that visually divides this open-plan space. ‘I have it,’ he says, ‘not because I love the table, but because I love to fill it with food! To have people come over and eat with me.’
There will be plenty of opportunity to gather around that table soon (global pandemic willing) as Leyden currently has much to celebrate. As well as the launch of the Obsidian Virtual Concept House, he is in the planning and fundraising stages for one of his first international projects, a foundation for the education of women in Khartoum, Sudan. Also in the works is the interior of a duplex in New York’s Meatpacking district and a project in upstate New York.
Things are busy at the moment, but Leyden still makes time to look inwards, to his inner child and his spiritual self. Much like when beginning a project for one of his clients, he likes to, as he explains, ‘pay attention, really listen, and find that thing that makes you happy’. Because, he adds, ‘the thing about joy is, it should also be discovery’. leydenlewis.com; badguild.info
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration March 2021
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