Sunday, February 06, 2000

He's partyin' like he's 60

Decorator's friends throw five soirees to mark birthday

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        So you have a milestone birthday, you get a party, right?

        Well, yeah, unless you're high-end interior designer John Harrison. Then you get five.

        Five? “Well, I've always wanted a really big birthday party. This is it.”

        No, these are they.

        Harrison, the Closson's interior designer who has been decorating Cincinnati's upper crust since 1963, turned 60 Saturday and loves it.

        “Let me tell you why I love being 60 — because I get to make all these profound statements and people listen. It's all B.S., of course, but it feels good.”

        Sounds good, too, what with that soft voice and the New Zealand accent he never lost, even though he left that island 38 years ago.

        So here he is now, stretching his long legs (he's 6-foot-7) in the Hyde Park apartment he shares with longtime partner Robert Halenbeek, clicking off a few of his favorite things. “At 60, You no longer have to feel self-competitive. You have your goals and you finally realize they're out of reach, but you also have your laurels and you realize you can rest on them now and again.”

        Was that some of that profound B.S.?

        “You listened, didn't you? And also, there are the parties.”

        Round One was last weekend in San Diego with West Coast friends and family in from New Zealand.

        Round Two arrived this weekend in a dizzying blur for Harrison and 150 of his nearest and dearest: Centerpiece was a “Black Tie and Big Jewels” dinner dance Saturday at the Hyde Park home of arts patron Melody Sawyer Richardson. That was after Saturday's luncheon at the home of Cincinnati's former development director, Nell Surber, which was after “Cocktails and Art” Friday at the downtown condo of art dealer John Shore and wife Ronnie, but before today's “All-American Brunch” at the Hyde Park home of Federated exec Tom Cody and his wife, Mary Ellen.

        “They're all homes I've decorated, so I guess you could say I'm showing off a bit.”

        Maybe, but showing off with understatement. Like his apartment, mostly done in beiges and earth tones, but with slashes of red everywhere: A bright red 3-D wall hanging in the living room. An architectural drawing in a red frame. Two ceramic tomatoes with plants “I'm trying not to kill.” Even the Jim Dine coffee table book — all white except for a bright red jacket — and his drink of choice, “a deep Merlot.”

        He's sitting amid all this now, dressed in his standard dark trousers and black mock turtleneck, trying to explain his success.

        “I think I know why people come to me. It's because I have no "look.' So many designers have a look, by which I mean you go to so and so, and you know you get the stark look. Or you go to someone else, knowing you get a crammed Victorian look.

        “I work differently. I decided long ago that the ideal approach is to meet a client, talk about anything but decorating, get to know them as friends, then work on a design that gives their home a personality. Their personality, not mine.

        “It's worked for me. I can't guess how many homes I've done — 32 in the Regency alone, dozens at Edgecliff Point at the St. James. It's a lot of repeat business and a lot of children of clients.

        “I like to think every project is a little bit different. I'm in love with diversity. Mixing it up is a real passion.”

        That explains his own walls: The smiling cats in the whimsical piece of electric blue folk art; a proper architectural rendering; and eight aged and beloved Teddy bears “all of them with names. This is Claude. I sleep with him.”


        “I have a slightly infantile side that I maintain and relish. To me, that's the secret of aging gracefully.

        “Another secret is passion.”

        In Harrison's case, that passion is the arts — Cincinnati Ballet, Friends of CCM, Cincinnati Opera, Carnegie Arts Center, Playhouse in the Park all get healthy doses of his attention.

        “I grew up with parents totally uninterested in the arts. I'm sure I was a total mystery to them, but they encouraged me so much that I almost had an arts career. I even started out as a theatrical designer.

        “Theater is still what I really love. I take several New York trips a year and always see at least one show.”

        That explains the large wicker basket brimming with Playbills resting next to his burgundy easy chair. “You even want to know about my Playbill? You do ask a lot of questions.”

        We're about to ask more. How about a game of fill in the blanks? Maybe shake loose some of that profound B.S.

        “Go ahead.”

        Here's how a skinny kid from New Zealand ended up in Cincinnati ...

        “That's a funny story. I had been to the States but was working in England and didn't like it, when I fell desperately in love with a gentleman from Dayton and moved. I saw Dayton and knew I had to get out. Cincinnati was the closest place to get a green card, so I came here and fell in love with the city. It's odd. I always intended to end up in New York, but I can't imagine ever leaving here, even though I hate the climate.”

        One thing I'd never do in a home I'm decorating ...

        Ignore the client. I spend a lot of time with every new client before I let myself kick in. You have to spend that time or their home would be me, not them.

        One thing I always use in decor ...

        Books. Always books, and books that are read, as opposed to decorator books. There's a warmth there that radiates into the whole room.

        One thing I never use ...

        Artificial plants. It doesn't matter whether they're silk or anything else. I can't use them. But I think a lot of clients put them in after I leave, then hide them when I come back. Lord, do I sound like some kind of crazed gardener? I'm not. I'm God's gift to florists.

        Decorators I admire ...

        That's easy: Walter Farmer, Paul Dorsett, Deems Meyer — what a totally free spirit she is — and of course (the late) dear John Chesteen.

        One thing I always avoid ...

        Is artifice. I think, if you're not willing to be honest, then what's the point?

        Here's how I really feel about turning 60 ...

        “I'm truly serious when I say I love it. Besides, I don't have much of a choice, do I?”


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