Curating A Lifestyle: Memoirs of an Interior Designer
Across a career spanning nearly 70 years, it is fair to say that renowned interior designer and antiques dealer Jay Suiter has seen it all. When he transferred from the Art Institute of Chicago to UCLA to study interior design in the late 1940s, America was adjusting to a new normal after the end of World War II. A booming economy and a growing dominance in technology, business and the space race allowed Americans to return their focus to a more refined lifestyle. Not since the early 1920s had such an emphasis on luxury and comfort been possible. Now, as department stores across the country saw an increased interest in home furnishings, the budding profession of interior design took off. Window displays were styled in the latest fashions, encouraging passersby to not only stop in, but to avail themselves of store designers who helped to recreate the look of the model rooms at home. For the first time ever, mainstream Americans had the means to hire a professional to assemble their perfect rooms. For new graduate, Jay Suiter, the opportunities were endless.
After a brief (but exciting) first job working with acclaimed Hollywood costume designers Irene Maud Lentz and Travis Banton, Jay returned home to Kansas City, Missouri to help his ailing grandmother and settle in at the local high-end department store as in-house designer. Networking with other professionals throughout the Midwest, Jay met the owner of a large furniture store in Columbus, Ohio who offered a job Jay couldn’t refuse. With the move to Columbus, Jay pursued a passion cultivated by his grandmother’s taste for early European furnishings, opening an antiques business with a friend. Tending to the shop during hours away from his primary job, Jay found more and more opportunities to help buyers place the antique treasures purchased from his store in their homes. Soon, demand for his services outpaced his ability to keep up part-time, so Jay left his job to become an independent designer and full-time shopkeeper. It was the late 1950s, and although most of America was enamored with the Bauhaus movement, Jay’s clients embraced his sophisticated, stately aesthetic.
To meet the seemingly insatiable appetite of a growing audience, Jay sourced materials in the war-torn countries of eastern Europe, Russia and Denmark. Traveling alone, and with little more than a letter of credit from his local bank, Jay would check into a city’s toniest hotel and ask the concierge for the names of the best antique shops. After a purchase or two warmed the mood, he would then ask the shop owner for a referral to yet another dealer or two; going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole to maximize the visit. Behind the iron curtain, Jay had to purchase objects older than 120 years directly from government offices. Communication home was non-existent on those trips; so Jay relied on an encyclopedic knowledge of construction and design and pure gut instincts to “buy right.”
After each trip, Jay’s enthusiastic descriptions of his time away and the beautiful objects in transit preceded the delivery of a shipping container, filled to the brim with treasures and nearly all sold by the time it was unloaded. Buying trips became more frequent, and Jay’s shop grew to be the largest in Ohio. Having moved the prosperous business to an old barn in an upscale suburb, Jay outfitted the stalls with hardwood floors, maintaining an emphasis on staging. His strategy (and keen eye) was a huge success: women throughout Ohio visited the shop and regularly bought the contents of entire rooms. Initially he played to the majority of his clients’ tastes, displaying rooms of early American antiques, but slowly Jay influenced his customer base into an appreciation for good, early European things. Throughout his long career, he has seen design trends come and go, but his business was built solidly on the idea that good quality never goes out of style.
Mostly retired now, Jay still advises close clients (more like close friends). His home is a reflection of decades of buying and collecting (as well as some of his grandmother’s things), placed with equal parts of a designer’s eye and a collector’s heart. With a bank of memories like Jay’s, it’s easy to get lost with him in the stories. His favorite part of working with unique and beautiful objects day-in and day-out? “I just loved owning things for even just a short time, but,” he laments “you always remember the ones you sold and regret, or the things you didn’t buy, but know you should have.” One of his biggest regrets was when Garth Oberlander (the founder of Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers) called him to say, “Jay, you have got to buy this lamp!” (It was a Tiffany dragonfly lamp shade. And, no, he didn’t buy it.) Jay is also quick to remember innumerable successes, including a carved wooden charger with painted miniatures around the perimeter; purchased at a small auction in Cleveland for $250, it sold at Christie’s for more than $9,000.
Over the decades, Jay bought and sold with the biggest names in the antiques and art business as well as private collectors at every level. Now, his name is considered one of the biggest in two industries. Humbly attributing his long ride to an old adage, at the end of our interview, Jay smiled and said “repetition is the mother of skill.” After a walk down memory lane with a legend, it is evident that his success should be attributed to something much more complex than that.
Article first appeared in the September-October issue of Sophisticated Living, page 48-49