For John Demsey, it all began with a sofa: an enormous Willy Rizzo curved number that can seat 18. “In the mid-’70s my parents had an apartment at Olympic Tower in New York and they bought some furniture from Willy Rizzo, and the dealer at the time for Rizzo in the United States was C. Z. Guest,” remembers Demsey. (Guest’s representation of the Italian designer Rizzo in the 1970s is a little-known aspect of her illustrious life.)
“When they left the city, they sent it back to Cleveland and it went into storage. So the idea was I wanted to start everything with this couch. And I was in a blue mood. I was very much obsessed with Yves Klein and shades of turquoise.”
That inspiration set the direction for a 17-month gut renovation of his turn-of-the-century townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Demsey, executive group president of the Estée Lauder Companies (overseeing such brands as Tom Ford Beauty, Jo Malone, MAC Cosmetics, and more), bought the 5,300-square-foot home, which he shares with his nine-year-old daughter, Marie-Hélène, after spending nearly a decade in a rented townhouse just two doors down from his new space.
“I decided finally to plant a stake in the ground and to do something all the way,” he avers. “Everything I’ve ever done before was like a stage set. I was never able to have the bathroom I wanted, the closets I wanted, the backyard I wanted, the kitchen I wanted.”
I was in Paris and my friend was wearing these rad Louboutin boots that were turquoise, ocher, red, and gold, and I thought, That’s my color scheme!
Enter Joseph Cornacchia, his architect, who changed everything (even down to the wiring), and Bibi Monnahan, Demsey’s longtime friend and designer.
“John said Yves Klein blue and David Hicks,” recalls Monnahan. “So I went to Stark, and lo and behold they had some Hicks-inspired carpeting that could be done in any size.” Monnahan worked closely with Stark to create custom rugs for the entire house. She then replaced the old brown suede on the Willy Rizzo sofa with a luxurious Romo viscose velvet in a rich azure hue.
With the palette set, the project took off. Each piece was painstakingly curated by Demsey and Monnahan, including a few key pieces Demsey found while traveling on business, like the Vincenzo De Cotiis brass coffee table picked up during a trip to Milan and the Golden Clover table by Guy de Rougemont bought at Galerie Diane de Polignac in Paris.
Demsey’s vast art collection is also on display. The fourth-floor guest suite features several paintings by his mother, Renée Demsey, who was the in-house artist for Bergdorf Goodman in the 1970s.
The beauty executive is also a passionate collector of photography, and the installation of 575 pictures from his trove was mapped out room-by-room with military precision. The installation—covering all six floors—took nine weeks. One recent acquisition Demsey is especially proud of is a striking Steven Klein portrait of Nicki Minaj painted blue and wearing a pink Marilyn Monroe wig. (Demsey recently worked with Minaj on a lipstick collaboration for MAC Cosmetics.)
“His life is his work and his work is his life,” notes Aerin Lauder, a close friend and associate. “You see that in his home, his love of pattern and package and texture; it translates into everything he does. He’s definitely more is more.”
That’s for sure.
“Less is bore,” declares Donald Robertson, roving creative director of the Estée Lauder Companies, of his boss’s style. The prolific illustrator, known as the “Andy Warhol of Instagram,” created a Dita Von Teese–themed wallpaper for one of Demsey’s powder rooms, and his whimsical artwork is sprinkled throughout the house. “He’s a fearless kid with a job and a credit card,” says Robertson. “Imagine a four-year-old with really good credit.”
As for that Willy Rizzo sofa, what would the late C. Z. Guest think of its being the design inspiration for Demsey’s home? “My mother adored John and would get a kick out of him having this beautiful sofa in his house,” says her daughter and another Demsey friend, Cornelia Guest. “Especially since he got it from his parents—and I always took all her furniture. Great minds think alike!”
Meanwhile, has Demsey planted a stake in the ground for good? “As long as I can continue walking up the stairs, yes.”
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