Designers on Design: Christian May

Apartment Therapy Interview

Christian May wears many hats. You may know him as the bubbly and irreverent voice behind the popular blog Maison 21. If you live in Los Angeles, you may have stumbled across him (as I did) via the vintage furniture he sells on Craigslist. But the hat for which he's receiving accolades this week is designer. As one of three emerging designers in the annual Legends of LaCienaga event, he's designed a window that can be seen throughout the event (which takes place this weekend). He shared his thought process and offered up a whole lot of great decor tips!

How'd you get started? I know you sold vintage furniture. Was that your entree?

it's been an obsession of mine for as long as i can remember. In fact, the very first place I went after I got my driver's license was the Salvation Army. I picked up some vintage drinking glasses from the 50s and that was it. I was hooked and I've been shopping at thrift stores every since! So I had a horrible retail job and I'd spend all my money buying vintage furniture and then, twice a year, I'd have these incredible killer yard sales. When the internet came I realized I could sell stuff online so I started doing that and it put me through design school! And then I got an internship with Vance Burke which turned into a real job two weeks later.

And the blog grew out of that?

The blog came in 2007. I didn't know what a blog was but I was trying to establish myself as an independent designer but it was right when the economy had taken a turn for the worse and I was talking to a friend and he said, you need to publicize yourself. Well, that's great but I can't afford a publicist. And he said, start a blog. There weren't so many design blogs yet. And I started getting design jobs through the blog.

So let's talk a little bit about Legends of LaCienaga and about your window.

So around the same time I was starting up my blog, the merchants around LaCienaga banded together to form the LaCienaga Design Quarter (LCDQ) to promote their businesses. Traditionally designers have had offices around LaCienaga. The idea was to celebrate that heritage and that's how Legends of LaCienaga was born. And now it's in its fourth year and it's grown so that now there are all of these events.

And you were asked you to do a window as one of the three emerging designers. How did you come up with the design? What were some of the challenges?

The theme this year is "Windows to the World". Every designer was asked to choose a destination that inspired them and nothing inspires me more than Palm Springs. I love vintage furniture and that is the empire of vintage furniture on the west coast. I didn't know which window I was going to be assigned but I knew that I wanted to use wallpaper from Tracy Hiner of Black Crow Studios. And I had a bolt of vintage 80s bright yellow fabric that I'd been holding on to forever. And it was perfect because what's a better complement for yellow than blue [the color of Tracy's wallpaper]. So that was my starting point. So then I got my window which is at Gray Morell. They sell very traditional furniture and that had to be incorporated. Another thing was that instead of having a wall that separates the window from the store, my window looks directly into the store, into this big space. So I had to do something to partition off my little section which led to the folding screen which Grace Home Furnishings in Brentwood graciously made for me. And we covered that in Tracy's wallpaper. And then I was looking for chairs to cover in the yellow fabric. And I got hooked up with Gina Berschneider Furniture who are relaunching with a space on LaCienaga. Once I had the chairs and the screen, all of the rest just fell into place. I found a great pair of benches at Harbinger and I borrowed a coffee table from a friend and brought in the lucite from my living room and then, of course, I had the monkey. Which is actually in the window because of you guys.

Really?

When I found the monkey at the thrift store it had this really garish paint job and it needed to be painted. So I busted out the spray paint and posted a picture on my blog and you guys covered it and the comments were scathing. So I thought, you know what, I want to use that monkey in my window to show that it's cool and that in the right setting it can be great and it adds a bit of fun. And then there's also a tradition of plaster furniture, like Serge Roche and John Dickinson, that I love.

So let's talk about how you'd apply that same thought process to a home. You walk into a room and what's the first thing you're looking at?

The very first thing I notice is how the furniture is laid out. The floor plan is the bible. You know right off the bat, Oh, I can't have a sofa that's more than seven feet because it just will not fit.

What do you think some of the common mistakes are?

Using too many too small things in a room. People order out of catalogs or off of a website and because they don't read measurements for a living, it comes and it doesn't look like it did in the picture. Or it may even be the right size but because of the detailing or the fabric or something, it reads bigger or smaller. The other common mistake is rugs that are too small. Nothing is worse. People think that if they have a small room they should have a small rug and it's exactly the opposite. Get one as big as will fit, with maybe six inches all around. And same thing with furniture. The smaller the room the bigger the pieces because if you use small things it starts to feel like a dollhouse and nobody wants to be in there.

What do you think you're guilty of falling back on?

For starters? A chrome coffee table. Nothing makes me happier than a chrome coffee table. And I probably overuse tulip-style tables like the Saarinen or the Docksta.

What's your go-to room color?

I don't really have one though right now I'm loving grey walls. I love color but I would never do a living room in a really bright color. A powder room, an entry, yes. But in a living room, muted is the way to go. And then I'll bring in the color with the upholstery and the carpet and the accessories.

Who are your favorite designers?

David Hicks for the way he'd put a pair of antique chairs next to a chrome coffee table. He was the master of that kind of juxtaposition and because of that his interiors still look as fresh and modern today as they did back then. Michael Taylor because he did the big over scale California look. And then, of course, there's Dorothy Draper whom everyone loves for the color and her use of contrast. Contrast is so important. Every room should have some black and every room should have some white. And Kelly Wearstler. She's done so much to invigorate decorating. She really revitalized the profession and I think it's because of her that people started to become a lot more conversant in design.

Do you have any suggestions for our readers? Any tips?

Well as I said about the monkey, I think every room needs something a little tacky to highlight the good stuff. There's nothing worse than walking into a room that has decorator vomit all over it; everything matches and everything is perfect and nothing is out of place. That's boring. There has to be something interesting, that gives a room a spark of life. What else? Oh pay attention to your lighting! Everyone always has it too bright. Don't turn on the overheads in a living room; use a table lamp instead. Or buy a dimmer. Buy a dimmer for everything. A room should have little puddles of light. Then I think that every seat needs to have something next to it to put a glass on. It doesn't have to be a table; use a stack of books! And every room needs to have something living -- a plant, a flower -- and it can't be fake. I love the orchids at Trader Joe's. They're so cheap you can buy one and if it dies, go get another one. And then, you know when you're arranging knickknacks? There's the high low thing of course and groups of three and then there's this trick. The trick is to stand back and squint so you see clumps not individual objects and that way you can tell if an area is looking a little empty or if things are off balance. Then fill in the space! Make it look prettyl

You can find Christian's window at Gray Morell, 915 N. La Cienega blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90069. More details about his window can be found on his blog, Maison 21. For more about the Los Angeles Design Quarter and Legends of LaCienaga, click here.

(Images: Headshot by Amy Benton, window display, monkey in situ, monkey by Christian May, Living room by David Hicks via House Beautiful, all courtesy of Christian May)

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