The World of John Derian

John Derian sits in the “yellow room” of his Provincetown home on a sofa he designed for Cisco Brothers, a hip furniture company in Los Angeles. His home is filled with antiques and flea-market finds, including a 19th-cenutry balustrade lamp and a vintage working phone.

Text by Joseph Porcari | Photography by Melanie McGraw

The view of Provincetown Harbor from the front sitting room of John Derian’s Commercial Street home is perfectly framed; it’s a lot like the composition of one of his scenic decoupage platters on display in his adjacent shop. The house is a showcase for Derian’s signature mix of antique and flea market finds combined with upholstered furniture of his own design. It is a retreat from his busy life as a designer and merchant in New York City, in a setting where he can slow down, and where, he says, “nature rules.”

In John Derian’s Provincetown store, a 19th-century French cabinet displays Astier de Villatte pottery, handmade in Paris, with images by Derian.

Derian’s success consists of three celebrated stores in New York’s East Village, along with a seasonal store in Provincetown, a studio producing handmade decoupage objects sold in hundreds of stores and catalogs worldwide, and design collaborations with companies ranging from Target to France’s Astier de Villate and L.A.’s hip furniture company, Cisco Brothers. Derian’s stores and homes have been featured in Vogue, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and Vanity Fair. And now there’s a dazzling coffee-table book, “John Derian Picture Book,” with a foreword by Vogue’s Anna Wintour. It’s a collection of 350 of Derian’s favorite images—18th- and 19th-century engravings, lithographs and ephemera he has used in his decoupage.

The store in Provincetown is a miniature version of his three in the East Village, with the same quirky collection of ceramics, glass, antiques and textiles selected by Derian for their “beauty, charm, and wit” and connections to the past. Shopping in the store feels more like combing through the attic treasures of a globe-trotting and eccentric great aunt and uncle. There are quilts made from vintage saris, the stunning paper flowers of Livia Cetti, Carrara marble fruit, batiked linens by John Robshaw and linocut prints by Hugo Guinness. There’s also a large collection of Derian’s decoupage, including some pieces designed exclusively for the Provincetown store—views of the town, the bay and 19th-century maps.

Recently, he created a scented candle in collaboration with Astier de Vilatte, named Provincetown. “It’s a little bit of all the scents of the sea and land, mostly inspired by my walks in the woods,” says Derian.

Derian had always loved the Cape, but hadn’t been looking to buy a house. As he puts it, “the house went looking for him.” He discovered the 18th-century captain’s house, adorned with early 19th-century Greek revival columns, during an impromptu day trip to Provincetown in 2006. There was a “for sale” sign in the front yard along with an “under agreement” sign. He fell in love with the house, especially the columns, and peered through the windows decorated with lace curtains. The house looked abandoned and he filmed a video of all four sides on his phone. Back in New York, Derian forgot about the house until a few months later. Footage of the video began to play spontaneously whenever he set his phone down.

John Derian’s kitchen in Provincetown features an antique butcher block table on top of a vintage Moroccan palm frond mat from his shop.

After several of these episodes, he searched online for Provincetown real estate, and the first photo to appear was the house. He called his agent; the house was back on the market and within a few weeks, it was his.

Derian has been called a “designer superstar” and the “king of decoupage.” This self-described New England boy and native of Watertown has always “liked to make things and collect stuff.” As the youngest of six children, “I was left alone and able to explore my creativity,” he says. A visit to Brimfield when he was 15 generated a passion for antiques, and the pivotal moment was his discovery of a box of 19th-century books at a flea market in Salem in 1983. Inside were “two very colorful floral prints, like hidden treasures.”

“Images speak to me,” says Derian, and he looks for “something personal or unintentional the artist or printmaker may have left behind.” He tries to find something mysterious or nostalgic, capable of eliciting an emotional response in the viewer—whether it be a fragment of a wistful note written in elegant script, a doodle of a vase of flowers from an 18th-century scrapbook, a 19th-century child’s paper doll cutout, or the detail of a woman’s face. Derian has uncovered and rescued a world of images, which would otherwise be lost.

Derian’s decoupage paperweights are displayed on
a narrow Belgian table. The cabinet holds a collection of handmade faux “cake” and “wine bottle” candles from Italy.

Derian’s habit of making things steered him toward the neglected craft of reverse decoupage—the art of cutting and gluing images under glass. He quickly realized this was the ideal way to share his growing collection of printed images, and he began making plates, paperweights, platters and trays. The decoupage objects are made by a staff of 18 in Derian’s East Village studio. The images are reprinted in-house on acid-free paper, hand cut and arranged in a collage.

Nature—the woods and ocean—is the source of Derian’s greatest inspiration. Botanical prints and other natural imagery are the basis of most of his designs. Derian says much  of his inspiration comes from the Cape since he has visited the peninsula since he was a child. He enjoys all four seasons on the Cape: the serenity of winter; lilacs, spirea and mock orange in spring; beaches in the summer; mushrooms on woodland walks in the fall. Weather permitting, cycling, walking and swimming are year-round activities. He looks forward to a quick dip in the bay even in winter.

Derian loves the natural beauty surrounding Provincetown—Beech Forest, Hatches Harbor, the dunes and the Truro ponds. He coaxes his house guests onto bicycles as soon as they’re unpacked, guiding them through town to the breakwater, where they can linger, enjoy the view of the harbor, and “shed the city.” Like many other artists, he is drawn to the light in Provincetown—“It is magical and I’m in awe of it all the time.”

John Derian New England is located on Law Street (back of 396 Commercial St.), Provincetown, 508-487-1362. The store is open from June through September and worth a short detour on Law Street off Commercial Street in the East End. Prepare to be transported and expect to be nourished.

A collection of antique bottles catch the light on the kitchen window sill.

In John Derian’s Provincetown store, an 18th-century French chandelier hangs above a handmade paper geranium plant. Also pictured: A one-of-a kind Robert Ogden table lamp sits on a galvanized metal dry sink and Italian marble fruit is displayed in a vintage clam shell.

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