Talking Shop

Artful Living

Anna Carnick

Interior designer and artist Leyden Lewis on crafting beautiful, personal spaces for showcasing collectible art

In his own, art-filled home, a light, 800-square-foot loft in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Leyden Lewis has conscientiously created what he calls his “sacred space.” Lewis beautifully layers heirlooms, objects, and artworks in a range of media—painting, textiles, photography, sculpture, and beyond—all of which reflect a lifetime of casual and purposeful collecting. “Being here calms me, energizes me, and makes me really happy,” Lewis says.

As an award-winning interior designer, formally trained architect, sought-after art advisor, and widely exhibited fine artist, Lewis extends the same open-hearted spirit to his clients. “Every project offers a lesson and a means to grow as an artist and designer,” he observes. Who better, then, to speak to for insight on designing inspiring personal spaces for collecting art?

Left: Interior designer Leyden Lewis and his dog Nika in their Brooklyn loft. Right: An ink drawing of a Rastafarian’s back by Chinatsu Seya and a sculpture by Lewis himself greet guests in his entrance foyer. Photos © David A. Land

How do you describe your design approach generally?

A client’s home should reflect the energy that they wish to achieve, and the design should support that vision. As a trained architect, I’m looking at the spatial quality of things as well as the balance of decorative elements, color, and materiality. We cultivate mindfulness about design versus style and trends: Design is timeless and sustainable, while trends imply a throwing away of objects when they are no longer “in.”

What is your approach to creating spaces for collecting and displaying art?

It’s an intuitive process—like a living sculpture or performance. We have to have a connection to the piece of art even prior to considering the [setting]; that ultimately informs the crafting of the space. In essence, the client knows what they want at a core level, and we work to interpret the client’s vision and articulate it in space and design.

Early on in my career, I frequently visited art collectors’ homes, which made a strong impression. I’d never in my life seen people living amongst museum-quality art. It made me understand that art is not just an exclusive entity to go and visit, but something that you can live with.

I always suggest to my clients to look for pieces of art on their travels and in their city. Look for artists that are telling a story that relates to your own. Visit local art galleries, blue chip galleries, museums, art fairs, and craft markets. Find your aesthetic heart strings and pluck away at them. Be conscious of the things that bring you joy and trigger your passion. This takes as many forms as there are forms to take—from painting to records, sculpture, photography, minerals, and books.

Leyden's design for this Prospect Park West home features a custom fireplace that creates a curvilinear Modernist nod to the Art Deco era of the 1929 building by Emory Roth. Hand drawing by Chinatsu Seya above contemporary stools covered in blue velvet. Trees and Clouds rug by Joseph Carini Carpets. Photo © Michel Arnaud

How do you choose pieces that resonate and converse with an art collection—rather than overwhelm or disappear?

Depending on the ultimate narrative of a space, some clients prefer that we place the artwork as the primary element hierarchically and the furnishings to support the art; other times it's a balance of decorative elements and furniture in concert with the artwork. Fundamentally, in each scenario, the furniture has the same design intention and craftsmanship equal to the work of art.

How do you make an interior personal and tailored to your clients?

In our Prospect Park West renovation, the client needed a space that was completely barrier-free and accessible. Our solution was to consciously use ADA elements and transform them into decorative features. The grab bar, for example, became a custom sculptural piece in the primary bathroom. In our 100 UN Plaza project, the clients wanted to reminisce in the Soho era galleries of the 1970s. Each client is essentially provided a customized theater for living, working, and playing.

In Lewis's UN Plaza project, an elegant cube contains the kitchen. The four framed prints on the back wall are by Ana Mercedes Hoyos. The clients requested the Backenzahn Stools by Philipp Mainzer act as both coffee table and pedestals for art. Photo © Pratya Jankong

From this view, a dark tobacco wall divides the room while still letting in light. The collage is by William Kentridge; banana-colored lounge chair by Charles and Ray Eames; diptych watermelon painting and bronze fruit bowl sculpture by Ana Mercedes Hoyos. Photo © Pratya Jankong

Any particularly memorable instances of working with clients with collectible art?

In our UN Plaza project, the clients had a very intimate relationship with the artist Ana Mercedes Hoyos, and a collection of the late artist’s work in their living space was designed as a gallery of her sculpture and paintings. Additionally, their love of opera inspired them to purchase William Kentridges’ collage, to emphasize the performance qualities inherent in the overall design scheme.

While it’s clear from your portfolio that you avoid a one-size-fits-all approach, are there certain elements, parameters, or designers you find yourself going back to again and again in your work?

Antonio Citterio’s Diesis sofa for B&B Italia always belongs, as do textiles by Jack Lenor Larsen and Ulf Moritz, Jomo Tariku’s furniture, and Malene Barnett’s ceramics. Formally, we are always challenging existing geometries of a space, whether by breaking the interior away from the facade or tilting planes all in order to invite a new perception of a space.

In this moment, as we’re all spending so much more time at home, do you have any thoughts or tips on ways to approach the design of one’s personal space?

Home is about dimension and energy, including social separations and autonomy for functionality. During COVID, not having separation of work versus home has certainly been challenging, but it has furthermore promoted my appreciation of the home as a sacred space. Home is the one place where standards can be set, and it is where we gather ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. We should set the stage accordingly. ◆

In Lewis's own home, the living space is partitioned by a West Elm sofa, set beneath a painting by Ricardo Gonzalez. The coffee table is custom made by Anthony Whitfield; armchair by Vico Magistretti for Cassina; Wiggle Stool by Frank Gehry; 24 Karat Blau pendant light by Axel Schultes for Ingo Maurer. Photo © David A. Land

Lewis's home also features artworks by family and friends, like a painting of an abstract plumed creature by his father, artist Lionel Lewis. Jack Pearson’s Stay hangs below a large portrait of a man’s head by Teofilo Olivieri, among others. Photo © David A. Land


* This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.