Dark Knight; a Budding Film Director Turns a New York House Into a Louche Fantasy
BY SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO
The moment that James Oakley knew he wasn’t cut out for the life he was born into came in high school, in Tennessee, when he watched David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” A contrarian even as a teenager, growing up in a tasteful, well-to-do household (his stepfather, brother to the governor, owns the Cleveland Browns), he felt the film’s smoky, dangerous vibe awaken something inside him. He realized he would never be content in the sparkling white interiors of his genteel childhood.
“I knew then that I wanted to make movies, and I fell in love with those sort of noirish environments,” says Oakley, now 42.
Moviemaking has proven arduous — he completed his first film nearly 10 years ago, a thriller called “Devil You Know” with Rosamund Pike and an appearance by a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence, which was never released in theaters — but there is little question that he has created the shadowy lair of his dreams, a 19th-century West Village townhouse fit for a cultured, dissolute 1930s bon vivant.
“It’s sort of dark in here . . . might take a minute to adjust your eyes,” he says softly, opening the front door in stocking feet, rubbing his cropped beard. Indeed. Walking into his home, on one of Manhattan’s most atmospheric streets, is a bit like getting waved onto a closed movie set, perhaps for an update of Dracula. It’s not far-fetched to imagine Oakley himself — languid, contemplative, mysterious — in the lead. And that seems precisely the feeling that he and the Uruguayan designerFernando Santangelo — known for helping the hotelier André Balazs redo the public spaces of the Chateau Marmont as well as a couple of Balazs’s homes — had in mind.
Cinematic references are explicit: The elegant yet dessicated drawing rooms and sweeping hallways of Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” the imposing neo-Classical and modern mix of the Villa Necchi Campiglio, nestled in the center of Milan, which was the setting for “I Am Love,” the 2010 film starring Tilda Swinton. His isn’t the “sort of place that has pictures of my nieces and nephews on the mantle, though I love them dearly,” he says. Instead, he’s tried to invoke a men’s club or a grand hotel gone ever-so-artfully to ruin. “I like the transitory, anonymous luxury of hotels,” he says.
The previous owners had stripped the townhouse of its original details and made it a white-on-white Japanese Zen oasis, creating a double-height living room and opening the entire back of the building with a wall of glass. Oakley acknowledges the purity of such an approach, but barely hides a shudder. He seems to regard the surfeit of light — a rarity in rowhouses — as a bit of a hindrance. And as for the white decor, well, the less said the better: “I hate white, I despise it.”
To that end, he and Santangelo have banished the shade in favor of a palette of garnet, olive, charcoal and midnight blue, “those muddy colors found in old master paintings,” says Santangelo. And those deep hues are more than just accents. Every single flat surface is covered: in velvety double-padded carpet, terrazzo, Venetian plaster, cork or felt. The kitchen has windows at street level, but they are now inset with a plaster frame and a piece of onyx in place of glass, the better to block out any beam of additional light.
Oakley cares nothing about provenance, either his own (“I think it’s so pointless when people are obsessed with their family tree. They’re dead, move on.”) or that of his possessions, so he directed Santangelo to choose furnishings based entirely on their beauty and whether they contribute to the aesthetic. We pass by a set of Josef Hoffmannarmchairs in front of a gaslit fireplace in the entry foyer without comment; asked the era of the huge armoire that has been refurbished as an elaborately stocked bar, he draws a blank. “I really just don’t care where things come from.”
Whatever its origins, however, the bar gets quite a workout. Oakley doesn’t generally venture beyond the five-block radius around his apartment (except on the weekends, when he escapes to an almost all-black house Santangelo has done up for him in the Berkshires) and doesn’t take the subway or cabs, he says, so people come to him. “I throw a lot of parties and there is quite a bit of alcohol involved,” he says.
The mornings after, he repairs to his atelier on the top floor, the place where he spends most of his time (there’s even a velvet sectional where he often falls asleep, covered by a cashmere throw, a crumpled pack of Marlboros on the Chinoiserie-style lacquered coffee table). He’s working on a new film, scheduled to shoot in April. Surprisingly, it’s a heist comedy, “The Palm Beach Story” meets “A Fish Called Wanda,” he says.
“I may seem a little dark, but actually this is more authentic me than my first movie. It’s got a lot of layers. I’ve got a lot of layers.”