Design guru with wealth of knowledge

NEW YORK • In the trendsetting world covered by style magazines, there are headline names - artists, fashionistas, celebrities - but there are also facilitators, people who, through their ideas, insights or networking, help define a scene without necessarily being stars of it.

Jim Walrod was one of those.

He was, at times, an interior designer, one who shaped the looks of places such as the Gild Hall hotel in New York's financial district and the Thompson LES hotel on the Lower East Side.

He was, on occasion, a dealer in the kinds of furniture and art objects that end up in the homes of the well-heeled, such as Mike D of the Beastie Boys.

And he was, above all, a resource, a compendium of knowledge about mid-century modern and other design genres - someone who knew a lot about a lot and was eager to share it. Friends came to realise that his stories sometimes contained as much fiction as fact, but even so, "design guru" was a label they often affixed to him.

Walrod died on Sept 25 at his apartment in Chinatown. He was 56. His sister, Kathleen Walrod, said a heart attack was suspected.

Jim Walrod at Colors, a restaurant whose interior he designed, in New York in this 2006 photograph. PHOTO: NYTIMES

James John Walrod was born on Aug 25, 1961, in Jersey City.

His father, Donald, was an engineer, and his mother, Joan, was undersheriff of Hudson County, New Jersey.

His sister said that even as a young teenager, he was finding furniture at Salvation Army stores and refurbishing it for sale.

After high school, he did not go to college, but moved to New York City to be nearer the museums and street life he loved.

He also got a job as a sales clerk at Fiorucci, the store on East 59th Street in Manhattan, created by Italian designer Elio Fiorucci, that attracted artist Andy Warhol, singer-actress Cher and anyone else who was part of the see-and-be-seen crowd of the moment.

Fiorucci was Walrod's entry into the cool-kids world and he developed a reputation for design tastes that gravitated towards the unusual.

"Jim had an incredible eye for objects that only he knew," Omar Sosa, a founder of Apartamento magazine, for which Walrod wrote, said in a telephone interview.

"He had a bunch of stuff that no one even wanted that MoMA ended up buying."

High-end clients hired him to design their apartments, their offices, their boutique hotels such as the Standard, Downtown in Los Angeles. His credits also include Colors, a restaurant in the East Village, and even Crunch Fitness gyms.

Walrod's marriage in 2010 to Mara Ravitz ended in divorce. He is survived by his sister.

Walrod often said that a designer's role should not be to dictate, but to help clients clarify their own tastes.

Sometimes, that meant introducing them to a piece or style they might not have realised fit their sensibilities, then letting things percolate.

"Time is the only real critic that matters," he said in a programme note for Difficult, a 2015 show he curated at the R & Company gallery in Tribeca that focused on significant 20th-century works that initially evoked scorn or befuddlement.

"I wish I had a dime for every time I showed a client a piece of design and had him look at me as if I was crazy, only to have him ask me if I could find him the same piece a few years later."

As for Walrod's somewhat indefinable role in the design world, artist Toland Grinnell tried to explain it to a reporter for a 2002 article about Walrod in The New York Times Magazine.

"There are always people in the community who don't get written into history," Grinnell said.

"In every scene, there are like two or three Walrods - you need that floating free radical.

"You look back in history and can't believe that someone was doing deconstructive French cuisine at the same time that someone else was doing deconstructive furniture, because there was some Jim Walrod visiting both places. It's like a bee delivering pollen."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Design guru with wealth of knowledge'. Print Edition | Subscribe