John Piexinho: The Tastemaker

Guiding the decorating desires of Newport socialites takes the skills of a diplomat as John Piexinho has discovered.

More than a decade later, Oatsie Charles still remembers the taste of a dessert that John Peixinho baked, a sweet concoction of poached meringue floating on creme anglaise in a burnt sugar sauce. Peixinho hosted a dinner that night for their mutual friend, Betty Blake, and it marked the first time that Mrs. Charles—the doyenne of Newport society—saw the inside of the eighteenth-century house that Peixinho had restored. She loved what he had done with the house, which was a relief, because some houses (she says now, at age eighty-eight), “You’d rather be dead than have to go into.”

But not this one, the Spanish white colonial on Golden Hill. This house had “a certain atmosphere that’s very livable and very attractive,” she recalls. Later, Mrs. Charles contacted her host, “Fish,” (she calls him Fish because peixinho means fish in Portuguese), and told him “you’ll have to do a room for me.”

Peixinho said he’d love to help Mrs. Charles decorate a room in her house, a converted nine-car garage on the Land’s End estate that had once belonged to the novelist Edith Wharton. “I mean I’ve never thrown bait that was so quickly taken up, and so brilliantly, as Fish took this.”

Of course, Peixinho was thrilled to help Mrs. Charles decorate. At the time, he was in his early thirties and a manager in his father’s successful tuxedo rental business, and he was looking for something more interesting than counting cummerbunds, kerchiefs and bowties. So he helped Mrs. Charles overhaul what she called her Green Room, which featured walls covered in a rich green burlap. Peixinho decided to keep the burlap because he liked the texture, but he added recessed bookshelves, reupholstered a plush, pink easy chair in yellowish chinoiserie linen (for which he recently received major props from thepeakofchic.blogspot) and hung voluminous yellow silk curtains that evoke, he says, “the proportions of a party dress.”

Mrs. Charles loved what he did to the Green Room; word spread among friends. “And the rest,” she says, “is history.”

The arc of Peixinho’s rise from tuxedo store manager to one of the most sought-after interior designers in Newport and New York did not actually go as neatly as all that. Very few little boys say, “When I grow up, I want to be an interior designer,” and John Peixinho was no exception.

Peixinho was raised in the shadow of the Mount Hope Bridge in a part of Portsmouth called Bristol Ferry, a chummy little neighborhood with its own post office, even its own zip code, 02811. His family’s Dutch Colonial house stood on a lot that sloped down to the water, and he could swim from his front yard. His father ran a successful business tailoring uniforms for naval officers attending schools on the thriving Newport Navy Base, an enterprise that spawned two related businesses—tuxedo rentals and dry cleaning.

Around the time Peixinho was overhauling the Green Room for Oatsie Charles, his father gave him the dry cleaning business.

“I just hated it,” Peixinho says of his years in the dry cleaning business. “I hated everything about it.” So he sold that to nurture the little part-time antiques business he’d previously opened on Franklin Street; hence his design firm’s name, Franklin & Co.

Before the antiques store and the cleaning business and the tuxedo rentals were the two years as a third-grade teacher. He liked that, but it didn’t even pay his utility bills. Before that was a month at Edgehill rehabilitation center in order to kick an alcohol addiction.

Those dark days of the rehab center came half a lifetime ago. At the age of twenty-one, John Peixinho checked into Edgehill to dry out. He had wrecked a car driving home from the Newport nightlife to his parents’ house in Portsmouth, the latest calamity that had hit him since he began drinking in high school. So he spent thirty days at Edgehill, and unlike so many of those stories, his attempt at rehabilitation really worked. He learned that there is something about his body that does not metabolize alcohol, so he stopped drinking it. “I’m grateful that I got to deal with that at twenty instead of sixty,” he says now.

Peixinho’s grandfather, Leo Chabot, was an entrepreneurial spirit who liked buying houses. When Peixinho finished rehab, Chabot bought a rundown, eighteenth-century house on Golden Hill Street, near Newport’s Public Library, so John could move into it and fix it up.

“He really did think that if I had a project, I wouldn’t drink again,” Peixinho recalls.

When Peixinho first saw the house on Golden Hill Street, it literally turned his stomach. It loomed three stories tall, painted “this horrible beige-y color with red trim that looked like scrambled eggs and ketchup.”

Most twenty-one-year-old men might not have felt such a gut response, but even then, Peixinho had an artist’s feel for color. He painted the house Spanish white, the color of historic Trinity Church, which he could see a few blocks away. Inside the house, he ripped out the false ceilings, exposing the original beams; he overhauled every system, the electricity, the plumbing.

“When you go into a house like that, you have got to take it back to a time in its history. You have to be mindful and respectful of the history of the house and the evolution that it’s had in its own right,” Peixinho says.

For fifteen years, he worked on that house (“Good design takes time on almost every level,” he says) before selling it in 2002. “That was better than college, or school, or anything. Materials, design issues, permitting; all that sort of stuff you get hands-on.”

For the kind of people who hire John Peixinho to design interiors for their homes, what he does is very important.

“Creating a living space that you’re happy to be in is probably the most important thing you can do,” says Mary Van Pelt, who hired Peixinho to beautify Elm Court, a Newport estate that’s been in her husband’s family for five generations. “Because if you’re at home, and you don’t want to be at home, gosh, what are you going to do?”

“Some people want cars to define it, some people want clothes, but your house is the biggest of all these as an aesthetic identifier,” says Anne Corbin, who hired Peixinho for design in her Periwinkle estate. “It’s the most personal thing.”

Virginia Keith, who hired Peixinho to oversee the gutting and redesign of Broad Lawns, a fourteen-acre estate fronting the West Passage, says, “To know that John is doing this is the reason I can sleep at night.” If, after all that construction, “I was to come in and see that that sconce was off-center by even two inches, it would drive me nuts.”

Peixinho knows that not everyone understands why interior design is so important that it can keep a homeowner awake with worry. “Some people can live in a contemporary sheetrock, one-bedroom apartment and be perfectly happy,” he says. “And more power to them.

“And some people are more dependent on their surroundings, and for these people you have got to get it right.”

So far this year, Peixinho has spent much of his time trying to get it right for Virginia Keith and her husband, J. Colin Keith, a noted investor. Publicly available documents show that the Keiths spent $11 million for their Broad Lawns estate in 2004.

In an interview at Peixinho’s office, which has moved from Franklin Street to Bellevue Avenue, Mr. Keith acknowledges that if he’d had his druthers he’d just as soon have knocked down the rotting, twenty-room mansion, which was built in 1865, and replaced it with a nice new house. But Newport has laws against things like that, so he needed an architect (Steve Laurin) and a designer (Peixinho) who could turn a historic house into something that he and his wife could live with today. To do that, they actually made the house smaller by removing some early twentieth-century additions, returning the house closer to the original lines drawn by architect George Champlin Mason, whose sweeping mansard roofs are visible all over Newport.

“We spent six months in demolition, and we took it down to the studs,” says Mrs. Keith. “We were joined at the hip with both the architect and John. All the interior details—all the trim around the windows, all the door knobs, all the light fixtures—all the everything.”

The reason for the Keiths’ visit on this day is to discuss just one phase of their house’s makeover with Peixinho—the lighting. The three of them have gathered in Franklin & Co.’s showroom around a table built of boards recycled from old barns. Peixinho wears his uniform of flannels and a v-neck sweater. He is forty-two, tall, tonsured, tastefully if casually dressed, with his dark brown hair slicked back. Virginia Keith is in a black turtleneck, while Mr. Keith, a sixtyish man with a shock of white hair, sports a deep blue dress shirt. He plugs a piece into his left ear from which he occasionally takes messages.

“I have an aversion to recessed lights in a house like that,” Peixinho says, to kick off the conversation.

Mrs. Keith responds: “Our parameters are really based around ease of reading—we want plenty of light in this house.” She insists on some recessed light in the kit-chen: “You can’t have lamps on the kitchen counters!”Nuala Pell and John Piexinho

Peixinho agrees—as long as that is the only recessed lighting they use. “People overlight areas, and then they wind up using the table lamps and the holes in the ceilings never get turned on,” he grouses. (After recessed lighting, his second pet peeve is “people who put flat-screen TVs on the wall and over the mantelpiece. You’ve got to realize a TV is a TV and set it on a table. They’re trying to turn them into pieces of art.”)

For the house’s eight bathrooms, Peixinho suggests a basic flush-mount ceiling light with four wall sconces over the sinks; the bell-shaped sconce lamps would face down over the mirrors and up on the mirrors’ sides.

For the flush-mounted ceiling lights, all three like the nickel finish as opposed to the oil-rub bronze finish, which Mrs. Keith finds too “arts and craftsy.” Besides, the oil-rub bronze finish costs $475 per light—$200 more than the nickel finish. “That’s a waste of money to me,” says Mrs. Keith. “The trick with John is he’ll tell me how to save $200 on this lamp.”

From a pile of literature she’s brought, Mrs. Keith pulls a decorating magazine that shows some sconces she’d like to consider. “When you’re decorating a house, you look at every design magazine, and suddenly, you want to do everything you see.”

Peixinho says the lamps in the magazine were designed to look like gas lamps in an old Victorian house. “My take on the lighting was to make it not so Victorian that it looked like a T.G.I. Friday’s.”

Though he seems detached from the conversation about lighting for Broad Lawns, Mr. Keith knows exactly where the discussion is now: “Jack the Ripper style,” he says. “I don’t want it to be Jack the Ripper style lights.”

“You know how many of these things are on the market?” Mrs. Keith asks. “Thousands. I could go on the Internet and look at fixtures all day. See, John culls them down.”

She drops a coffee-table book of design in front of Peixinho. “See?” she says, pointing to what she thought would be a nice light to illuminate her husband’s bookcase.

“This could be the deal breaker,” Peixinho responds.

The bookcase light that Mrs. Keith has her eye on is a circular lamp attached to a long neck. For Peixinho, it evokes an image: the long, eyeball-like ray guns that creepily swivel from the flying saucers in the movie War of the Worlds.

“You don’t like that,” Mrs. Keith says.

“Yeah, I do,” he lies, to be kind; but he can’t help but add: “Kind of War of the Worlds-ish.”

“What is it?” she says. “Tell me what it is you don’t like.”

“I don’t know—show Colin!”

This is a risky maneuver, appealing to the husband. Mr. Keith peers down at the options before him: the plain, rectangular light mounted nearly flush against the bookcase that Peixinho favors, or the swivel-mounted light chosen by his wife.

“I don’t like that either,” he says. “I don’t like the sticky-out one either. I agree with John.”

“Okay, Colin doesn’t like the sticky-out one either,” Mrs. Keith says. “Can you note that we’re unsure on the library lighting?” Then they move onto exterior lighting.

Oatsie Charles says she likes John Peixinho because they have so much in common: “We both like houses. We both like—thangs,” she says, deliberately drawing out the word in her native Alabama drawl.

Peixinho is forever on the hunt to find “thangs” with which to decorate homes. His search takes him frequently to the Decoration and Design Building in Manhattan; another place he likes to shop is at auctions, such as the almost-monthly sales in the auction hall on a hill in Portsmouth.

At a recent auction, Peixinho set his sights on a black bridge table built in the 1920s by George Vernon, a Newport furniture-maker. Peixinho operates on the theory that if he would not display an item in his house, he will not use it to decorate a client’s. And a Vernon chinoiserie bridge table does indeed grace a room in his own home, a 1730 gambrel-roofed house that he rents from the Newport Restoration Foundation that was recently showcased in House Beautiful magazine. (“A wonderfully cozy, lived-in look,” the magazine gushed.)

Peixinho likes to arrive an hour before bidding begins to take a pre-auction peek at the merchandise. On this day, there is easily a quarter-million dollars worth of goods stuffed into the narrow, barn-like hall: paintings (including a William T. Richards maritime scene that eventually sells for $41,000), furniture (the Vernon table), a Kazak rug, leather-bound books, muskets, and knick-knacks such as foot-high porcelain Meissen statuettes depicting two long-legged women that will fetch $3,300 and $3,700. (“I think stuff like that is appalling,” Peixinho opines of the Meissen figures. “I just don’t understand the market for it.”)

The social atmosphere inside the hall is convivial yet guarded; no one wants to reveal the objects they desire, for fear of driving up the price.

Peixinho finds the Vernon bridge table folded against a rear wall. Like the table in his house it is of chinoiserie design, a style of art reflecting Chinese influence. Asian characters painted in gold stand out against the table’s black legs; the top is upholstered in silk to make it easy for players to pick up their cards.

“It’s a totally Newport thing,” he says of the Vernon chinoiserie table. “I sell them like crazy.” He hopes to spend $300 to land this one, though he has bid up to $800 for a Vernon bridge table lacquered in red.

Peixinho also has designs on a set of four  “wagon wheel” rosewood chairs—squat, heavy things with a seatback spoked like a wagon wheel. They’re upholstered in some kind of spotted fur (“painted cow,” he guesses) and will need reupholstering. He’ll bid up to $4,000 for this set.

Peixinho also spies one item he hadn’t noticed in the catalogue: a portrait of Topsy Taylor’s mother, Leslie Crawford. Topsy is a friend and a client who owns a stone bungalow on Gooseberry Island, a stone’s throw from Ocean Avenue. She likes to nap out there with the waves pounding out a lullaby, so he introduced some comfortable cotton pillows in China blue, and white linen curtains to draw against the sun. He calls Topsy on his Blackberry to tell her that he’s found a portrait of her mother painted when she was young, and that he intends to buy it.

The auctioneer, a spry octogenarian named Michael Corcoran, steps on the stage and the crowd files into the rows of folding chairs to begin the bidding. Peixinho spies a distinguished-looking woman with white hair spilling over a green parka as she settles into a third-row seat.

“There’s Nuala now,” he says, recognizing his friend and client, Nuala Pell, wife of Senator Claiborne Pell. It doesn’t make sense to him that she is here, and he makes a mental note to speak with her. But before he can, Corcoran, the auctioneer, intones: “We move quickly today; no fooling around.”

And the bidding begins.

“Now this tray we found in an attic in Brunswick, Maine,” says Corcoran, while an assistant holds up a hand-painted serving tray. The bidding begins at $500 and escalates till it sells for $3,000. Peixinho is not surprised: “A good painter, good condition, and not something that’s difficult to sell or transport.”

When the portrait of Topsy Taylor’s mother appears on stage, Peixinho is the only bidder at $100.

The wagon wheel chairs come up for bid at $1,100 for the set, and Peixinho subtly nods his head at Corcoran. He does not speak or even raise a hand, just a single head bob. (“I think being subtle and low key about it is the best way,” he explains. “You want to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.”)

No one else bids on the chairs, and for $1,100 Peixinho has bought a set of chairs for which he would have gladly paid $4,000. His luck is equally as good on the Vernon bridge table; he takes it for $200.

“That was a steal,” he whispers.

In between bids, he does speak with Mrs. Pell, who confides she is there to buy some items of sentimental significance. Peixinho is concerned that her interest in items will drive up their prices, so he agrees to do her bidding for her, acquiring, for $300, a set of bohemian goblets. If he knows why she wants them, he’s not saying.

There is more to interior design than what meets the eye. In working with the Keiths, Peixinho rolled out blueprints for their home’s three stories. He examined each room and sketched in every stick of furniture, drawn to scale. In his mind’s eye he knew what every chair, table and loveseat would look like, not only its design but its color, texture and fabric.

By placing the furniture in the blueprint he could see where he would need electrical outlets for lamps, laptops, televisions; he then drew the required outlets into the blueprints. He did the same for plumbing, sketching in the vanities and cabinets, toilets and sinks, all the while picturing their colors and fixtures while he indicated to the architect where he’d need plumbing.

“Most people left to their own design are going to screw it up,” says Corbin of Periwinkle. “But he has a way of letting people find their own aesthetic but at the same time getting it right.”

“He’s got great taste and was able to tamp down my wilder ideas,” says Mrs. Pell. At her home, Pelican Lodge, located on Waves estate, Peixinho remade Claiborne Pell’s blue-and-white home office into a relaxing sitting room with walls of a golden yellow. “He’s very good,” Mrs. Pell says. “We did disagree on what kind of rug to use. I prevailed on that.”

“I think he’s a genius,” says Van Pelt of Elm Court. “It took a lot of years of learning and education, and probably a lot of research on his own, mixed with sort of a knack and eye for style.”

It also took a culture. Growing up on Aquidneck Island, Peixinho took advantage of opportunities he would not have had in the Midwest. At age eight, he was poking around with his grandmother at auctions and sales; at sixteen, he was a tour guide at the eighteenth-century Hunter House in Newport, a Georgian Colonial that served as the French admiral’s headquarters during the American Revolution.

In his early twenties, Peixinho found a mentor in the late Ben Reed, former head of the Newport Restoration Foundation, the group that has restored eighty-two Colonial-era homes in Newport. Reed acted as a mentor, showing Peixinho elements of good design, teaching him how to cook, how to be a good host, how to be at home among the Newport socialites who became Peixinho’s friends long before they were his clients.

And to this day, Peixinho still turns to the dean of Newport interior designers, Richard Nelson, for advice on decorating and taste. “I rely on his eye and his advice and counsel,” Peixinho says. People like Nelson and Reed: “They stay with you your whole life.”

Nelson, seventy-five, learned the trade by apprenticing with Sister Parish, who won a contract to redesign the White House for Jacqueline Kennedy in the early 1960s. Parish’s husband, a Republican, did not want her doing it, so she assigned Nelson, then her young protege.

“She had what I thought was incredible taste really, so it was very easy to work with her,” Nelson recalls of Mrs. Kennedy. His work is still visible in the White House in places such as the Red Room (“Certainly they’ve changed the curtain design since I was there”), and in the Oval Room (a private family room on the second floor), and in the State Dining Room.

In some respects, Peixinho is carrying a torch passed from Sister Parish to Richard Nelson to the next generation, though he’s too young and too busy now to worry about earning his place in that pantheon. What tends to occupy his mind these days are the innumerable details of the three-dozen projects he’s juggling, problems like, “bidding on a bunch of stuff for Mrs. Keith at a big auction in New York at Christie’s. There are some items I want her to buy, but she’s hesitant.”

He hopes to talk her into bidding for a “great Victorian bookcase that’s perfect for the library.” And a sideboard “that’s fairly ugly but is exactly right” for the space he had in mind. And a “George the Third, eighteenth-century mahogany dining-room table.”

Mrs. Keith is proving to be a tough sell on those items. Perhaps he’ll appeal to her husband.