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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.