Alexander Wang Has Him On Speed Dial
“Downsizing” has become a common refrain over the past year. Companies are downsizing their staffs. Consumers are downsizing their budgets for the nicer things in life—vacations, nights out, clothes. It’s not all bad, though. The bummer economy has made more than a few people think petite when it comes to space. McMansions are out; walk-ups and bungalows are in. Before you go turning up your nose at the idea of cramped quarters, recall that they’re better for the environment as well as one’s own bottom line, and long-term demographic and economic trends portend the rise, again, of city living. If you think New York is crowded now, just wait. And while you’re waiting, you might as well take a number for the services of Ryan Korban. Over the past two years, interior designer Korban has made a specialty of bringing big-time panache to modest one-bedrooms and live/work spaces; his first client was the jewel box Tribeca shop Edon Manor, which he co-owns and creative-directs. Since then, he’s picked up work from the likes of actor James Franco and designer Alexander Wang, whose offices Korban is currently revamping. Here, Korban talks to Style.com about the power of youth, the beauty of thinking small, and the importance of “the mix.”
How did you get interested in design?
I don’t know exactly—the interest was always there, it was just a matter of figuring out where I wanted to take it. I like fashion, I like art; both those things seemed like possibilities for me, and then at some point I realized that what I really like to do is create environments. And around the same time that I figured that out, my friend Davinia [Wang] asked me to help her open this store—Edon Manor. So that wound up being my first project.
So you never officially “trained”?
My training has either been, you know, self-directed in idiosyncratic ways, or on the job, which I actually feel is the best education. I learned more about lighting from the contractors we brought in to do the installation at Edon Manor than I ever could have reading a book. But in general, everything in my career so far has played out kind of backwards—most designers right out of school, they work under someone for a while, then eventually they get their first residential project, and then at some point down the line the opportunity comes along to do a commercial space. I was doubly lucky in that not only did Edon Manor give me a commercial platform right off the bat, but because that space has such a residential feel, I picked up work in people’s homes almost immediately after we opened.
How? Like, people would just walk in off the street and say they wanted to hire the person who designed the store?
You’d be amazed, the things people ask—they’ll ask to buy the chairs, or the rare books, or the chandelier. Most of the time it’s not that specific, though; it’s more of an ambience that they want to find a way to re-create for themselves.
What kind of ambience? Is there a “Ryan Korban signature” people want from you, at this point?
The people I work with, you know, they’re typically younger and kind of downtown, creative types. They have a ton of personal style. And yet, as creative and as stylish as they are, they have a hard time figuring out how to make their homes accommodate their sensibility. I mean, there’s not a “youth culture” in interiors, the way there is in fashion. You can see that if you look at the shelter magazines. Domino was great, but its aesthetic was very specific, and then the leap from that to Architectural Digest is huge. I think I’m grabbing people who are beyond West Elm and DIY; they want spaces that feel designed, but they don’t respond to the traditionalism of the interiors world per se. So I try to bring in something a little more youthful.
I’m sort of surprised to hear you say that the design world isn’t youthful. It seems like there’s so much energy in that industry. I always seem to be reading about some hot new furniture designer discovered at the ICFF or the Milan Furniture Fair…
But there’s a difference between something “youthful” and something “new.” It’s like—even a super-minimalist space is coming out of a tradition that began a hundred years ago when designers decided they were sick of things being ornate. It feels a little predictable to me, the way we’re still carrying on these categories, classic/uptown versus downtown/hip. My point of view is shaped by fashion, and when I look at the cool girls I know, what I see is “mix.” It’s more playful. You can be young and love books, and love art, and have a sense of history and romance, and I think you can express all that in a home without being, I guess, entrapped by it.
I have a theory that the next wave of invention, in design generally, is going to be less about form and more about resources. What can you reuse from the past? If you’re making something new, what are your materials?
I definitely agree. Why not use what’s already around? One of my go-to periods, for furniture, is Italian design from the seventies—a lot of nickel and chrome, hard reflective surfaces. You put that together with something European, eighteenth century, which is like couture in terms of how it’s made, and even though it’s all vintage and antique, it feels “now.” Or you find a $5 chair at the flea market and reupholster it in $250-a-yard fabric. I think the key is not to be precious. At the end of the day, it’s all just stuff.
Do you have a favorite kind of project?
The thing I most love to work on now is small spaces. I think anyone can decorate a huge house and make it look beautiful, but taking 600 square feet and making something out of it that feels dynamic, that’s a challenge. And the clients I work with, that’s where they live—even a big apartment downtown isn’t that big. A smaller space just means you have to be really specific. When I meet a client for the first time, I have to pay attention: Are they messy? Are there books everywhere? You have to figure out how to make room for their personality. And I take away something from every person I work with, like, Alex [Wang] taught me so much about editing. And James [Franco], too, but in a totally different way. He has exceptional taste—he’s got this incredible art collection, but he’s all about getting that one right piece, like a Richard Prince, rather than covering every inch of his walls with art that’s flavor-of-the-moment. And that’s a good approach to bear in mind, especially when you’re working small. There’s no space to waste.