Coming Full Circle pix
After a second career with two big-name retailers, Joseph Lembo is working for himself again
Elizabeth Blish Hughes -- Interior Design, 12/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Joseph Lembo has been designing for long enough now to see the patterns of his own career path with acuity, and he accepts the way that people and projects from the past return with new opportunities. He believes in the inspirational benefits of travel. He trusts in the power of collaboration to achieve greater creativity, a faith born of an unusual combination of selflessness and self-confidence. And his work—the product of his creed— exhibits the heft expected of a member of the Interior Design Hall of Fame.
"You can only go as far as you can see, and he sees a very big picture," says fellow Hall of Famer Laura Bohn, his partner in Lembo Bohn Design Associates from 1985 to 1995 and a great friend to this day. The pair met in 1976, while working for John Saladino, and went on to complete restaurant, retail, and residential projects in countries as far as away Saudi Arabia and Japan. Lembo left the practice to become design director for Ralph Lauren Paint. Three years later, he joined Nautica as vice president of home, store planning and design, and creative services, the 15,000-square-foot New York flagship being one of his legacies.
Now on his own, as Lembo Design, he just completed a glorious renovation of an 1810 farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut. He's also hoping to lecture at Shanghai's Donghua University—which has a relationship with New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, where he already teaches regularly. On January 10, Parsons the New School for Design unveils "Anarchy to Affluence: Design in New York, 1974-1984," a show for which he designed an installation with none other than his old partner, Laura Bohn.
Which Lembo Bohn project makes you the proudest?
In 1985, Laura and I did the set design for The Year of the Dragon, a movie filmed in Brooklyn. It was a highly visible project, and it was remarkably interesting to work for the director, Michael Cimino, who's studied architecture.
What prompted your move to Ralph Lauren?
They asked me to head up Ralph Lauren Paint. Was I thinking about paint? No. But they were very intuitive. They saw something in me that I never recognized. Initially it was daunting, but my philosophy is to take intimidation and turn it into positive energy.
What did you do there?
We designed seasonal paint collections and specialty wall treatments. We worked with technicians at Sherwin-Williams to design textured paint, metallics, and accessories— stencils, brushes. It was amazing. Ralph is amazing. Everything we did was synergistic with the other branches of the company.
And at Nautica?
I worked on the Rockefeller Center flagship in New York, and I designed more than 200 international store rollouts, shop-in-shops, and freestanding stores, including the architecture, interiors, fixtures, mannequins, and signage. I also directed all designs for furniture, bedding, and tabletop.
How do you build a brand?
You need to determine what the brand says and make sure that the products speak to that. And always be aware of cross-merchandising: Do the textiles align with the furniture, lighting, and rugs? For Nautica's glass accessories, for example, we thought blue-and-white. So we went to Murano, near Venice, and designed clear glass, cobalt-blue glass, metallic glass. Then we considered how that would be reinforced by Nautica's apparel, fragrances, etc.
How has travel inspired you?
I've used a camera to create image banks from trips around the world—the photographic vocabulary can be plugged into many different venues. At the flea markets in Paris, what are the details? At a temple in Japan, what is the terrain? At a spa, what does water represent? In India, Jaipur's architecture is pink. Is that clothing, bedding, or tabletop? Or is that color a detail?
What do you tell your students?
Expand your vision. Often we have blinders on. We're concerned with just getting uptown or downtown. If I expand my vision by even 10 degrees, I notice new details, new color harmonies.
How did the Connecticut farmhouse come about?
I look for people with extraordinary vision, and this client has it. When I learned of his recent acquisitions—Biedermeier, deco, Eero Saarinen— they invited me to think of a language that could unite them. It was a team effort.
Any more collaborations on the horizon?
I have residential projects in Manhattan, New York State, and Connecticut, and I'm in talks to produce textiles in Beijing. A furniture line is on the list of things I'd like to do eventually. Because I love dance, which is absolutely collaborative, I'd also like to work on set design again. I don't think we ever do it alone.