Wearing perfectly polished black Gucci loafers, a black cashmere sweater, and gray corduroy trousers, designer Jay Jenkins strides across the Portuguese slate and French limestone foyer of his apartment to decant two bottles of Evian water into a pair of embossed Christian Lacroix carafes. Even when Jenkins is doing something mundane—such as offering a guest a glass of water—he is impossibly chic.
But what else would one expect of someone whose design decisions and sense of style are so highly prized that clients ask him for his advice in choosing the color of their toilet paper? ("I always tell them white," Jenkins says with a laugh.)
While the 50-year-old Jenkins has been making a name for himself in the design world for the past 18 years, he became an even hotter commodity nearly three-and-a-half years ago when he became heir to the empire of Alexander Baer Associates, one of Charm City's most venerable interior design firms. But despite his position among the top names in the Baltimore design world, Jenkins retains a down-to-earth, almost boyish charm as he marvels at his own success.
"It was October 1, 2006, and I remember it vividly," says Jenkins, of the day he took the reins as president of the newly renamed Jenkins Baer Associates. "I handed Alex the biggest check I've ever written in my life [to pay for his interest in the firm]. I remember signing the check, handing it to him, and walking down the stairs of the office where I waited for the next phone call to come in. Georgia, who has been with us forever, answered the phone, 'Jenkins Baer Associates. May I help you?' I almost fell over. I just couldn't believe what she was saying."
So how to explain that the man who is now president of a multimillion-dollar design firm and who has performed seemingly impossible acts of design derring-do (including hiring cranes to fit furniture through second-floor windows) can't seem to settle on a design for his own den?
"I can't do a good den for myself to save my life," says Jenkins of the den, his favorite room in an elegant 2,300-square-foot condominium formerly occupied by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Yuri Temirkanov. It boasts show-stopping pieces such as a pair of turquoise antique vases from Vietnam, stunning velvet Clarence House pillows, and a Mid-Century coffee table. "My friends are like, 'You're crazy,' but my den is a constant struggle. I spend a lot of time in there—more than anywhere else. It's the room I sit and contemplate more than anywhere else. I come home every night and start moving something or other. It's a running joke with my friends. They are like, 'How much can you torture one room?'"
For the record, the room looks pretty nice to us, but there's no question the other rooms of his spacious residence have proved less problematic. Overall, one of Jenkins's major design missions was to create a sense of "light" and "flow," he explains, "So I opened up the dining room to the foyer, and I started mirroring openings so I got that enfilade of windows that you see in the great Parisian architecture where all the doors are on the window wall. That way you get this constant sense of light as you are traveling through."
Indeed, light infuses the well-appointed, art-filled apartment, with its comfortable seating, puffy, oversized pillows, chairs upholstered in voided velvet, and one-of-a-kind items. They include a whimsical hand-blown Italian glass chandelier ("It makes me happy; it's sort of like being Lawrence Welk," he says), a French walnut 19th-century chest of drawers purchased at auction, a collection of sterling silver objects including an unusual antique English bottle used for smelling salts, and museum-quality artwork including lithographs by modern masters Robert Motherwell and Donald Sultan. "I like different ideas," explains Jenkins. "This apartment is not anything about being one genre of artwork or one style of upholstery or one color. I like to think of it as comfortable but elegant. It's a very simple palette."
"Torturing" rooms (as he puts it) has always come naturally to Jenkins, who grew up in Rockville. "There was a period of my life where I did house plans even though I didn't know what the hell I was doing," recalls Jenkins, "but I would just sit there and draw plans and figure out how rooms went together. And then we moved to a house that had an unfinished basement—it was like the furniture graveyard that became my playhouse where I could go and move stuff around and create worlds—whether it was recreating the living room from whatever show was popular that week or recreating the Brady Bunch kitchen with the pull-down light fixture."
Despite his love of playing designer in the family basement, Jenkins entered American University as a business major. Midway through his schooling, however, as he started to flounder academically, it was Jenkins father, Bill, who, though president of the left-brain Northrop Corporation, was instrumental in steering his oldest son toward pursuing his childhood passion. "One day, my Dad said to me, 'You have much more of a right-brain aesthetic,' recalls Jenkins. 'We should go talk to the people at the Maryland Institute College of Art [MICA].'"
By 1984, Jenkins graduated with a Bachelor of Science in interior design from MICA and had opened his own firm with a partner. Six years into the business, the firm floundered, but soon after, Jenkins was serendipitously introduced to Alexander Baer. "Alex had this beautiful house on St. Martins Road at the time," recalls Jenkins, "and I didn't even own a piece of property. It was so intimidating, but he was walking around in his socks, and we shared pizza at his kitchen table, and by the end of the night, I had made the decision that I was going to join him."
By 1998, with his professional life in full swing, Jenkins began to look for an alternative to his Roland Park home. While visiting a friend's apartment in a landmark Beaux Arts building in Guilford, Jenkins fell in love. "I was so blown away by the proportions and the elegance of it," he says. "There is just not another building like it out there." When Jenkins found out there was a two-bedroom apartment for sale in the building, he jumped at the chance to see it. "I met my Realtor, Jake Boone, here at 12," recalls Jenkins with a laugh, "and at 12:20, I had signed a contract, and was ready to move in." His colleagues and friends weren't so sure. "They were like, 'Why would you want to buy in an old building?' But four years later, Alex [Baer] bought the penthouse in the same building, and my good friend Robin Weiman followed suit." (Ironically, design doyennes Rita St. Clair and Mona Hajj are also neighbors.)
With the help of his office manager and four design assistants, Jenkins has also seamlessly moved into his role as head of a top design firm whose clients are a veritable "Who's Who" of Baltimore.
Though his client list is hush hush, Jenkins concedes that one of his biggest jobs to date is a $2 million project designing the interior of a 22,000-square-foot manse for one Baltimore County family—from window treatments to wastebaskets. At any given time, Jenkins juggles a dozen projects that span the East Coast and even once designed a Baltimore couple's apartment in Florence, Italy.
When Jenkins isn't working 60-plus hours a week, most weekdays he is content to come home and read on his Kindle or watch TV, though HGTV is something he avoids like a cheap bedspread. "Those kinds of shows have been so helpful to bring style to the general public," says Jenkins, "but, at the same time, it has given everyone such a vastly inappropriate impression as to what the process should be like—on these shows, they go to JC Penney on the commercial break, and create window treatments. But I'm sorry, two years from now when they actually dry-rot off the window, that probably wasn't your best solution."
On weekends, Jenkins can be found at his four-bedroom, Tidewater-style country home in Easton with his partner, T.J. Hindman. Cooking with locally grown ingredients from the farmer's markets and exploring the long, "secret driveways" of their environs are about as stressful as things get there. "Continually making up beds after the house guests leave is another weekly event," explains Jenkins. "T.J. laughs that I could give a class on the different ways of folding a duvet."
As the sun goes down beyond the magnificently draped windows of his apartment, Jenkins takes a sip of his Evian water and pauses to reflect. "Alex taught me to do what I know best and not try to copy from a magazine," says Jenkins. "He told me not to compete with anyone else. In my design work, I have learned to eliminate what's ridiculous and focus on what's valuable, appropriate, and beautiful."