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How Corey Damen Jenkins became the ‘gorgeous peacock’ of interior design

Corey Damen Jenkins’ bold color alchemy and blending of classicism with modernity have made him one of America’s most celebrated interior designers

Corey Damen Jenkins has always inhabited a world of his own design. Decades before establishing himself as an interior design A-lister known for his self-described “eclectic maximalism,” a young Jenkins could be found in the library of his Detroit elementary school, reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and C.S. Lewis, or writing his own science fiction books. “They were 400 pages long, with illustrations,” he recalls. 

The oldest­—and unsportiest—of three sons, his banker parents routinely dragged Jenkins to his brothers’ basketball games. He kept himself entertained from his spot in the bleachers. “I focused on the geometry of the gymnasium,” he says. “I’d just sit there studying the lines of the court and architecture of the rafters. I was mesmerized.”

When his parents redecorated their family home, Jenkins got super into it, waiting until his mother had left the room to rearrange the contents of the bookcases, reorienting the spines of the books or swapping out a row of hardcovers for a decorative vase. “It got to the point where my mother was asking my opinion on things—and I was seven,” he says with a laugh.

He’s Zooming from his company’s new office space on lower Park Avenue in Manhattan. The newly painted walls are blank, but they won’t be for long. A proponent of bold color and statement pieces, and rooms that are a blitz of classical and 21st century, Jenkins is not one to shy away from a dramatic design gesture, as the photographs in his new coffee table book Design Remix (Rizzoli) make patently evident.

I like to celebrate the point where antiquity meets modernity.

Corey Damen Jenkins

“I like to celebrate the point where antiquity meets modernity,” he says. “My vibe is 16 pieces of furniture mixed in with African art mixed in with Indian headdresses and a Saarinen table and a Kagan sofa. They don’t go together and yet they flow together.”

A fan of bold colors like marigold, turquoise, and chartreuse, he earned comparison to no less exquisite an animal than a peacock from designer Jamie Drake in the book’s introduction. The bird, Drake writes, “is a symbol of renewal and immortality.” Plus, “the plumage of the peacock is filled with aquamarine, chartreuse, fir, forest, and olive, colors that often appear in Corey’s gorgeous palettes.”

Today, Jenkins’ fashion will have to do the talking. He’s wearing round double-bridge Gucci glasses “from seven seasons ago.” He had the lenses tinted green in honor of his late grandmother Flossie, whose trademark was a tinted cat’s eye. His color-blocked Ted Baker sweater, featuring strips of dusty pink, olive green, and dove gray, hints at his fondness for a strikingly varied palette. And then there’s his smile. Wide and radiant and ever ready to reveal itself, it gets across what he is all about. “Some designers… they aren’t so nice,” he says. “I think that’s changing, though. With this pandemic, we’re all more humble and raw than we were before.” 

My vibe is 16 pieces of furniture mixed in with African art mixed in with Indian headdresses and a Saarinen table and a Kagan sofa. They don’t go together and yet they flow together.

Corey Damen Jenkins

His road here was more of a zig-zag than a steady ascent. After graduating high school, Jenkins set out for New York to pursue a career in interior design, obtaining an entry-level gig at a big firm. But family circumstances were such that the Michigan boy had to return home, and his father made it clear that he expected his son to find a proper job in the automobile industry.

He found work at one of the Big Three companies, first in Human Resources, then in the purchasing department, overseeing a million-dollar budget to purchase the company’s cubicles, furniture, and office supplies as well as some prototype parts. It wasn’t exactly the decorating gig he’d dreamed of, but it paid well, and he was working out at a fancy gym and buying groceries at Whole Foods.

When the recession hit and he was let go in 2007, he was terribly depressed. He spent a year job-searching, to no avail. His re-entry into the design world was a last resort. Driving around in a borrowed car far nicer than the one he owned, he started knocking on doors in prosperous enclaves of Detroit, offering his design services. People said no by the hundreds. Finally, a kindly couple invited him in for tea. The rest is, as they say, history.

All it took was that one project before a television producer from HGTV called him. The network was looking to beef up its on-air talent, and the producer offered Jenkins a role on a competition show—a show that he ended up winning. Next came the magazine features, then the covers. He opened a New York office, and divided his time between Manhattan and Detroit.

Now, in his early 40s, he has finally given himself permission to streamline his life. Since last July, he has called New York his one and only home. His Manhattan base gives him the easiest access to his interior design clients, who are scattered across the Northeast and the South. Serving private clients is only half of what his company Corey Damen Jenkins & Associates (which has a staff of six which he expects to grow to eight by the end of the year) focuses on. The other component is licensing, including a new fabric line with luxury house Kravet. He adds that he also has an Art Deco-meets-Neoclassical-meets-modern-furniture line out with Maitland-Smith.

He also has a slightly less orthodox collaboration, “Mouths Wide Open”—a line of 18 beautifully rendered lead and ink portraits he drew of people across a spectrum of races and ages, all with their mouths agape. It’s available from California-based wall decor company Leftbank Art. “During the pandemic we all started wearing masks and I started really missing the human emotion that is communicated with our mouths,” he says. He shows me an image of a man wearing headphones and who is visibly swept up in the music. It will be blown up and end up on the empty wall behind Jenkins, many steps up from any Zoom background.

When told that the list of what he can do is never-ending, Jenkins breaks into a grin. “You know what I’d like to do?” he says. “I would love to try my hand at pottery. I’ve never touched a kiln before.” By the time you read this story, it’s hard to imagine that statement will still be accurate.

Effect Magazine is brought to you by Effetto