Mr Frank Muytjens
J.Crew’s menswear guru reveals that the secret to dressing your house is similar to dressing yourself – it’s all about curating and editing.
One of the neatest tricks of retail wizardry in the past decade was J.Crew’s success in bringing a cool, fresh feel to what were essentially wardrobe staples: chinos, button-downs, V necks. Part of this transformation stemmed from the 2008 launch of the Liquor Store, a standalone menswear boutique on the site of an old bar in New York’s TriBeCa. Part stemmed from Mr Frank Muytjens, J.Crew’s menswear director and someone who could blend traditional with modern in a way that spoke to the aesthetically switched-on regular guy.
“The challenge with J.Crew was bringing real fashion credibility to a brand that had previously been pigeonholed as a preppy catalogue company,” says Mr Muytjens, 54, as he makes a pot of coffee in his cottage in upstate New York and sets out some home-made cookies.
“My dining table has become like a larger version of a coffee table but it means everything is more visible so I pick things up more often than if they’re out of sight”
Left: “I love the Old Masters and I paint as a hobby. That porcelain horse on the floor is one of mine”Right: “I’m mid-way through converting the garage into a studio or guest accommodation. That’s the next project”
The transformation began with the product, improving the cut and fabrics. The merchandise was edited down to the absolute essentials every man should own from weekend workwear to clothes to wear for work. The introduction of the Ludlow suit, J.Crew’s signature silhouette, blew the similarly priced competition out the water. And then there’s the Liquor Store effect.
“The idea behind the Liquor Store was to create a place to showcase an edited and curated selection of our best product,” says Mr Muytjens, his musical Dutch accent quickening with enthusiasm, “a place where men would feel comfortable and that would look so cool they would want to move in. Not only do you want that suit but you want the artwork or that vintage lamp or that sofa and it all fits together.”
Illustrating the point, the sofa on which the designer sits at the top of the story is one he first discovered in J.Crew’s Fifth Avenue store. “The visuals team sourced it. I looked it at for one second and knew straight away that I wanted one,” he says. “The shape is beautiful and the craftsmanship is amazing.” Three weeks later his own sofa arrived and the craftsman responsible, Mr Stephen Kenn, is now a close friend.
“I grow all sorts of vegetables. It's the most wonderful feeling to go in with your fork and lift them from the earth”
“This Brooklyn bus scroll is from Paula Rubenstein’s antiques store in New York”
At the same time as he was creating the perfect bachelor pad for his brand, Mr Muytjens was doing something similar for himself. In 2007 he bought this rustic weekend cottage, a two-and-a-half hour drive from the waterfront warehouse apartment in Williamsburg where he and his four-year-old Vizsla, Dutch, live Monday to Friday.
The property is set in 1.7 acres of land. Dutch has the run of the place while Dutch’s master spends his down time in double denim and robust boots, tending the impressive vegetable patch where he grows beans, peas, zucchini, corn, beets, carrots and potatoes. “It’s amazing to be able to live off the land a little,” says Mr Muytjens, who grew up in a rural village in the south of Holland. He throws a ball for his dog to bound after. “Gardening is a calming process. I feel like it’s a form of painting with the different colours and textures and how they interact together.”
“I love the quiet and the peacefulness, the air, the sounds and the smells. Dutch loves it because he can run in the yard all weekend”
“I've purchased things continually over the past seven years. It's about the layers – these things don't just come together in a month”
Back inside, with the low sunlight refracting through the turning leaves of early autumn, the living space looks like a still life. The aesthetic is eclectic, a tasteful collection of bits and pieces that have been picked up by a man with a keen eye and an intuitive sense of what goes together.
Mr Muytjens initially studied to be a fashion illustrator before moving across to design. “It was in the early 1980s, when graphic design, album-cover art and fashion were all intertwined so it was a seamless transition.” He moved to New York 20 years ago and spent eight years at Ralph Lauren where he developed his “love for everything American and vintage”.
Most of his interior design purchases are one-offs from vintage and antique shops in the local upstate area and from New York (see Insider Trading below). Even humdrum utensils – bone-handled knives and burnished silver forks; wooden spoons; pencils in a cup; balls of string and twine – are artfully displayed. And though the styles and eras differ, it all somehow fits together. Distinctive wire dining chairs – original pieces by the mid-century furniture designer Mr Harry Bertoia – sit around a gnarled and rustic farmhouse table upon which sit neat piles of books (art, gardening and cookery, mostly) as well as vases of dried flowers, a lamp and an old clock. It is a creative’s three-dimensional moodboard, an assortment of inspiration that helps inform his own designs.
“This Stephen Kenn sofa is made from old military tents. It resonated with me because we used vintage tents to make limited-edition bags and shorts. I felt a kinship”
“There’s never really a plan: I buy things and they just come together. The older you get, the more you know what you want. I like vintage things with a patina, a story”
Mr Muytjens is a man who strongly believes in the power of contrast: city and country; slick versus rustic; the new and the old; formal meets informal. “I like when things are imperfect and clash – something like a clean sofa next to a farm table. I love that high and low tension it creates,” he says.
The same tension is also evident in the designer’s collections. “We try to have a large offering with formal and informal wear – again high and low,” he explains referencing the cuffed sweatpants he is wearing inventively with a flannel blazer over a denim jacket.
Putting together your house is not dissimilar to putting together a wardrobe, he explains. You have investment pieces that you will keep forever and then you add and edit and accessorise as you go along. “But it’s never finished, it’s constantly evolving. And there is a close relationship between how you dress a room and how you dress yourself: it’s an expression and extension of your personality.”
“Layers and objects tell a story. You can see the person’s character and personality shining through”
“This place is very rural, and still a work in progress, but that’s what I really like about it – I wouldn't want it to ever be finished or perfect”
The single most important thing to remember when it comes to interior design is not to be in a rush. “When you start with an empty shell as I did here, the temptation is to buy things too quickly. Don’t just go to Ikea and buy everything in one weekend. Where’s the personality in that? It’s the layers and the objects that together tell a story. The process is similar to how I design the line for J.Crew. It’s emotional and personal and it takes time.”
The shoot wrapped, the interview over, Mr Muytjens looks in his refrigerator for refreshment. “Would you prefer rosé or a Brooklyn beer?” he asks. The classic high/ low Liquor Store proposition.
Red Chair, New York, USGood for: “Rustic cottage-style antiques from Scandinavia, France and Italy. I got my bone-handled cutlery from here.”redchair-antiques.com
Michael Trapp, Connecticut, US (pictured)Good for: “An eclectic mix of textiles, homewares and furniture from Indonesia, France and Italy. An amazing place – whenever I go I feel inspired to design.”michaeltrapp.com
Neven And Neven Moderne, New York, USGood for: “Original mid-century furniture. This is where I got my Bertoia chairs.”nevenmoderne.com
Johnson Antiques, New York, USGood for: “A huge selection of vintage treasures from different eras sourced from estate sales.”johnsonsantiquesbarn.com
Hunter Bee in Millerton, New York, USGood for: “Mid-century pieces and quirky Americana.” hunterbee.com
PW Vintage Lighting, Massachusetts, USGood for: “All sorts of vintage and industrial lighting. I got the black lampshade on my dining table here.”pwvintagelighting.com
The Upper RustGood for: “Bone china, antique mirrors, vintage lighting and furniture.”445 E. 9th Street
Steven Sclaroff (pictured)Good for: “Vintage furniture, art, lighting, rugs and quirky one-offs – like my stuffed woodpecker in a glass dome.”stevensclaroff.com
Paula RubensteinGood for: “Vintage furniture, antique jewellery, textiles, collectors’ items.”21 Bond Street
Matteo, California, USGood for: “Bed, bath and table linen. It makes the most beautiful and comfortable bedsheets.”matteohome.com
Bailey’s Home & Garden, Herefordshire, UKGood for: “Kitchen, bathroom and garden wares as well as industrial signs.”baileyshome.com
Labour And Wait, London, UK (pictured)Good for: “Masculine and well-designed stationery, garden tools, household hardware.”labourandwait.co.uk