Artist John Derian talks festive taste
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
My personal style signifier is a pair of black Cutler and Gross glasses given to me by a friend who owns a shop called Map in Provincetown on Cape Cod. They’re sturdy; I’ve stepped on them, twisted one of the arms, and they’re still in great shape. I also wear antique French trousers in cotton and corduroy that I buy at the Marché aux Puces. They’re baggy, shapeless and comfortable. I like to get lost in my clothes.
The last thing I bought and loved was a painting of watermelons from Paula Rubenstein gallery in New York. The artist is unknown, and I just love the shape, purity and colour of the fruit – I have a thing for watermelons. The painting is 2ft high and wide, and hangs in my studio.
The place that means a lot to me is the Beech Forest in Provincetown. My boyfriend, Stephen, and I walk here year round. In fall, it’s mushroom season, and while we don’t eat them the shapes inspire many of my Christmas ornaments. Provincetown gives me energy; the light there is a thing and because the land is so far out east, the reflection of the sunsets is magical.
My festive decoration approach is using Princess Pine plants for the thinnest possible garlands. I love the pretty, naïve lines, and that they add just a little whimsy. And some potted amaryllis in pink – if I can get them – or white.
The best book I’ve read in the past year is North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I love old classics and wordy fiction. I’m also reading Speech Team by Tim Murphy, which is a funny story about four Gen X friends.
My style icon is Cary Grant. I could only dream of dressing like him. His mix of masculine and feminine is very appealing and charming. He always looked so comfortable and effortless in perfectly tailored clothes.
No celebration is complete without friends, of course – and tequila, ice and limes. I always have music, preferably old‑time tunes from the 1920s like “I Want to Be Bad”, sung by Bernadette Peters in Pennies From Heaven, or songs by Helen Kane – anything with a “boop-oop-a-doop” sound. Also, beeswax candles.
The best gift I’ve given recently is ceramic watermelons to a friend who I knew would sort of “get” this beautiful joke present. They’re by Penkridge Ceramics in England, a studio that makes wonderful glazed fruits and vegetables – tomatoes, chestnuts, pears – and each is one-of-a-kind.
And the best gift I’ve received is an illustrated book by Stephen, who is an interiors photographer, of our first year together. He is a talented illustrator and this book brings to life so many special moments. This was the most touching and beautiful gift ever – so much so that I told him to never give me anything again.
I have a collection of large antique 19th-century mercury balls. They are usually about 10in to 15in around and look like planets to me. They are in all kinds of clear, blue and silver shades. I get them at auction, through friends or on my travels. They’re perfect at Christmastime.
In my fridge you’ll always find lemons, salad greens and feta cheese. You’ll also find Peet’s Coffee, which I like because it was one of the original artisanal coffee makers, as well as almond milk.
The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Lois Dodd. She is one of the owners of my building, and she spends a lot of time outside of the city. She used to paint fires in Maine; rumour has it local firemen would call her when a house was in flames, and she made these big, clear paintings of them that I love. She’s 96 years old now and still incredible.
I’ve recently rediscovered 1970s disco. I think it was considered uncool for a while, but I am loving upbeat, dance-friendly music again. I created an “I’m a Native New Yorker” Pandora playlist that, of course, includes Donna Summer.
The thing I couldn’t do without is my glasses – and my imagination. My wandering brain made me a terrible student but a creative person.
An indulgence I would never forgo is buying flowers of all kinds. I like Dutch Flowers, a wholesaler in NY, and Ariston on Lower Fifth Avenue for long-lasting fresh flowers. The Union Square Farmers’ Market has a great variety of wildflowers too. I grow my own flowers and vegetables on the Cape in summer – roses, hostas, kale, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, shallots…
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a pair of striped cotton trousers from Double RL. At my age, I am all about casual and comfortable – like it or not. Put me in a jacket? Ugh. ralphlauren.com
An object I would never part with is a painting of a street urchin – a boy in a cap – that I bought at the Chelsea flea market. I eyed this painting for a while and I still can’t imagine why someone else didn’t buy it. It’s now hanging in my apartment with a light over it. chelseaflea.com
The grooming staple I’m never without is Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Moisturizer with sunblock. It’s light, not fussy and does double duty. Wherever I go in the world, this is in my bag. I also like Kiehl’s Leave-In Conditioner, but I’m less attached to it.
My favourite room in my house is the kitchen. We have a living area with a sofa in it, and a large, round butcher-block table in the middle of the room. You can move around it easily; it makes chopping, cooking and cocktail-making very convivial.
The festive tradition I most look forward to is playing celebrity and charades before, during and after dinner parties with friends. We cook a lot and are never on time so we play these games simultaneously. Celebrity might be the appetiser, followed by charades, and maybe a combination of the two – with just a song for the clue – for dessert.
The podcasts I’m listening to are Dan Savage’s Savage Love, which is all about sex and politics; Right, Left & Center, which covers more politics and pop culture; and SmartLess with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes and Will Arnett, which is pure comedy, with a surprise guest every episode. This is our trio for long car rides to the Cape.
My grooming and wellbeing gurus are Jeff Chastain who does my hair; the trainers at Hanson Fitness where I have worked out for 30 years; Jay Foley for life-changing massages in Provincetown; Monique Bureau, who is an intuitive osteopath and also sort of psychic; and Jeremy at James Fowler Physical Therapy in New York.
In another life, I would have been a spy or an actor. I’ve always liked the idea of being in disguise and covert. As a kid, I was into acting, and I’m still waiting to be discovered.
I never travel without an Astier de Villatte checker-grid notebook for sketching and noting prices. Each of these notebooks is handmade and one of a kind, and I find them particularly handy for the flea market in Paris. astierdevillatte.com
The works of art that changed everything for me were paintings by members of the Bloomsbury Group. They painted large-scale figurative things on every surface – murals, wallpapers, furniture and fabric – and broke with traditional artistic norms. The whole group and how they lived was cool and not fussy.
The best bit of advice I ever received was from my bookkeeper, Reggie Waldron, when I first moved to New York. She advised me to “do what you can do and find others to do what you can’t”. This has served me well.