Of all the homes in New York City, perhaps there's only one inspired by the late Quentin Crisp. That home belongs to bicoastal interior designer Tim Campbell, who had the great raconteur in mind when he crafted his Lower East Side apartment.
It could be argued that Crisp was a modern-day Oscar Wilde (Crisp was born eight years after Wilde died). Crisp was raised in staid suburban London, but his penchant for unconventionality in a buttoned-up era set him apart.
He was known for walking the streets of war-torn London in full make-up and brightly hennaed hair. He worked as a prostitute and an artist's model before finding a measure of fame when his book The Naked Civil Servant was published and then made into a movie. He moved to New York City in his 70s.
More books, one-man shows, and appearances followed, but while fame and notoriety found him, great wealth did not. He lived in a rather grim, very cluttered apartment (Crisp once famously said: "There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years, the dirt doesn't get any worse.")
"He was my muse for my home, and I know it's an odd inspiration," says Campbell. "I never met Quentin, but I've always been fascinated with him. I know he lived in the East Village, and I imagined how he would exist if he came into some money. The whole look is very Englishman in New York [Sting wrote the ballad as a tribute to Crisp]. I imagined he would have a home that's thrifty, but stylish—a place where high and low mixed in a beautiful way."
Crisp reportedly felt more at home in New York than his native London and, to some extent, Campbell feels the same. The long-time Los Angeles resident began to spend time in New York City and the Hamptons while working on projects for bicoastal clients. Six years ago, he decided to open an East Coast office. It felt like a natural transition in more ways than one.
"As much as I love LA, my personality is much more New York City," Campbell says. "In Los Angeles, the vibe is laid back and casual, but I wear a suit every day—and I walk a bit faster than most of my fellow Angelenos. Basically, I find the the experience of living and working on both coasts enjoyable and creatively stimulating." (The designer has written a book, Intentional Beauty, about his work on both sides of the country.)
Finding a permanent home in New York took more time than adjusting to it. But when Campbell visited a friend's co-op, he knew he'd found the right spot. "I told my real estate agent I wanted to buy a home in the same building, that I was looking for something with the same view, that had the same floor plan, but was in the worst possible shape," says Campbell, explaining he wanted a blank slate.
When a 1,000-square-foot unit that fit the bill came on the market, Campbell bought it sight unseen. Indeed, it was in bad shape, but it had the requested Uptown views that include the Williamsburg Bridge and Empire State Building.
The origins of the circa-1950s building are more humble than the views suggest. Campbell describes its red-brick facade as plain, presenting an anonymous front. "It was one of the first co-ops in Manhattan, and it was built for people working in the garment industry," he says. "But the interior is a little jewel box."
But if the apartment could be considered a jewel, it needed considerable polishing. Campbell started with the floors, which were then what he calls "cheap parquet." Campbell was inspired by the floors of an apartment he has regularly rented in Paris. That surface has the kind of patina that time brings, but he set out to recreate the character-rich finish by hiring the professionals at Carl Marias Carpet Design to distress a herringbone floor.
Before the remodel, the rooms were boxes without embellishment. Campbell added a simple pencil molding on the walls that, in his words, "adorn them a little bit, but not too much."
In the living room, Campbell designed two cabinets with unlacquered brass legs and mesh fronts. "I'm a Virgo, and I need everything to have a place," says Campbell. "These cabinets give me a place to store and display things I pick up on my travels. They also give the room a sense of balance."
Campbell designed the brass coffee tables, and he was inspired by the work of the late, celebrated Marfa, Texas artist Donald Judd, who created a number of highly reflective forms in his lifetime. "They seem to disappear in the space," he says.
That's just the first example of why you want to look closer at Campbell's design. Like the living room, the rest of the rooms are furnished with graceful furniture, smoky gray-blues colors, and brass tones. Glance at it quickly, and it looks like a conventionally elegant home. Look closer, and you see something else—art that introduces a message that's meaningful and controversial.
That includes a photograph by Karin Apollonia Müller of a burning hay truck on an LA highway meant to illustrate the fragility of life; photographs by Dean Sameshima that display the club-kid culture of the 1990s; images by Dru Donovan recreating police arrests in the Bronx; and a neon sign by Sand Popplewell that seeks to redefine our relationship with the word “terror.” These are mixed in with portraits found at flea markets and a painting of Campbell in a t-shirt.
"My personal home is a very political statement about the world we live in today," Campbell says. "It seems like we live in a post-truth society, and I wanted to put together a collection that told a story that cannot be retold or denied."
That renegade note is visible even in the personal dress of the suit-wearing designer. "I may be dressed up nearly every day, but I'm usually wearing something like an antique safety pin or a Scottish kilt pin on my lapel. There's always a something quietly subversive in my personal style."
Reading Crisp's autobiography, you have to think the author would appreciate the unique nature of the home. He wrote: “If a man were to look over the fence on one side of his garden and observe that the neighbor on his left had laid his garden path round a central lawn; and were to look over the fence on the other side of his garden and observe that the neighbor on his right had laid his path down the middle of the lawn, and were then to lay his own garden path diagonally from one corner to the other, that man's soul would be lost. Originality is only to be praised when not prefaced by the look to right and left.”