A Motown Fairy Tale: Corey Damen Jenkins

Raised in a city famous for its hustle, Detroit’s Corey Damen Jenkins went from knocking on doors to knocking down barriers and now finds himself at the top of the design world
living room by by interior designer Corey Damen Jenkins
Corey Damen Jenkins infuses a classically styled room with a jolt of color. All images (except portrait) by Werner Straube Photography © DESIGN REMIX by Corey Damen Jenkins (Rizzoli New York, 2021)

Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat? Like the horn section blasting the arrival of a new sound in the iconic Motown anthem “Dancing in the Street,” the publication of Design Remix: A New Spin on Traditional Rooms (Rizzoli New York, 2021) by Corey Damen Jenkins announces the ascendance of a new talent born from the streets of Motor City now writ large for the whole country to see.

“I have what you might call a ‘Cinder-fella’ story,” laughs Corey. Growing up in a family of three boys, he was interested in color, pattern, drawing, and architecture but was steered toward a more conventional career by his father, whose goal for his sons was financial stability. “When my dad and I were talking about me pursuing a design career in the ’90s, there weren’t many people of color doing design,” says Corey. His dad’s advice? “Why don’t you get a real job?” Corey relented and got a job with one of Detroit’s Big Three automakers that afforded him all the facets of success—a nice car, a fancy apartment, and groceries from Whole Foods.

Then in 2008 the Great Recession hit, claiming Corey’s job as one of its many casualties. Sensing an opportunity amidst the wreckage, Corey got work as a temp in a Michigan Design Center showroom, “changing light bulbs, wiping down mirrors, taking out the trash, getting memo samples for designers, loading their cars.” He met a number of decorators, but none seemed interested in fostering the dreams of a showroom temp worker. Soon he got laid off from that job as well.

portrait of Corey Damen Jenkins, an American black interior designer, wearing a dark blue demin button up, holding his sunglasses in his hands
Corey Damen Jenkins. Photo by Brad Ziegler
“It was then I decided to launch my career,” says Corey, who attributes his gritty determination to his hometown ethos. “There’s a saying here,” he writes in the book. “Detroit hustles harder.”
bedroom and stairwell by interior designer Corey Damen Jenkins
From left: In a bedroom, Corey created peplums on window treatments, one of his signatures, which amp up the glamour. • Gorgeous traditional millwork juxtaposed against modern art evokes Corey’s remix style.

Armed with nothing more than a portfolio of sketches, Corey drove a rental car through the wealthy neighborhoods in Detroit, knocking on doors of homes and businesses, looking for someone to take a chance on an unknown decorator. “Initially I told myself I was going to knock on 1,000 doors,” says Corey. “It was the dead of winter; I was broke; I was getting chased off properties by dogs, laughed off construction sites by contractors. It was tough. So I rounded my goal down to 800. I told myself if I knocked on 800 doors and still had no job, I’d give up.” He knocked on 778 with no luck. Then came door number 779.

An older couple answered and invited him in for tea. They needed help with their home and hired him on the spot, giving him a sizable budget. Corey posted his work on a GoDaddy website and soon got a call from a producer at HGTV. The channel was planning a design competition and wanted Corey to participate. For a week, he ignored the call. “I just didn’t have the confidence that I could compete on a stage like that,” he says. Fortunately, the producer persisted, and Corey agreed to compete. He ended up winning.

“I tell my students, if you’re ever blessed to get to the top of the wall, leave the ladder down for others to follow.”— Corey Damen Jenkins, Interior Designer
kitchen with navy cabinets and white, green, and aqua accents by interior designer Corey Damen Jenkins
The Moroccan tile on the island adds an element of surprise and energy to this kitchen.
From left: To make this stairwell feel grounded but airy, Corey chose a medley of antique and contemporary mirrors. • A bedroom with bold elements is anchored by a focused palette.

From then on, opportunities began pouring in from around the country. Soon Corey opened a second studio in New York. Known for designs that reflect his love of haute couture and music, Corey creates rooms that are bold but grounded in the classics, grand but generous. Paging through Design Remix is like listening to a great playlist, with rooms standing in for songs—some chill, some romantic, some that make you want to stand on the table and dance. In recent years Corey has been inducted into Architectural Digest’s AD100 and Elle Decor’s A-List and has seen his work grace the covers of magazines.

dining room by interior designer Corey Damen Jenkins
Ceilings are a room’s “fifth wall,” says Corey, who covered this dining room ceiling in Schumacher wallpaper from Martyn Lawrence Bullard.

Though magazine covers never cease to thrill, there is still something in the heft of a book, with one’s name on the spine and creativity between the covers, that feels like the gratifying culmination of Corey’s efforts. The book’s dedication reads, “I dedicate this first book to every hopeful child of color who dreams of designing the world. The doors have been opened to you, and we are eagerly awaiting your arrival.”

Corey hopes to open doors that were once closed to him, to be an encourager in an industry that can often be cutthroat. “I’m honored to speak at Parsons on occasion,” he says. “When I do, I tell my students, if you’re ever blessed to get to the top of the wall, leave the ladder down for others to follow. I can tell you which rungs are weak. I’m going to help people get ahead.”

left: green bedroom; right: book cover for Design Remix: A New Spin on Traditional Rooms by Corey Damen Jenkins (Rizzoli New York, 2021)
From left: The designer’s affinity for playing with pattern is on display in a vibrant guest bedroom. • Paging through DESIGN REMIX is like listening to a great playlist, with Corey’s rooms standing in for songs.

By Kirk Reed Forrester | Interiors by Corey Damen Jenkins, coreydamenjenkins.com | Photography by Werner Straube Photography © Design Remix: A New Spin on Traditional Rooms by Corey Damen Jenkins (Rizzoli New York, 2021)

This story originally appeared in Flower magazine’s March/April 2021 issue. Find Flower in a store near you or subscribe.

cover for Flower magazine March/April 2021