We Should All Emulate John Derian’s Casual Approach to Entertaining
His trick: Look to nature for wabi-sabi inspiration.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:55 AM
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This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Domino, titled “Host of the Town.” Subscribe to be the first to receive each issue.
As a child, John Derian spent summers exploring the dunes of Provincetown, the coastal Massachusetts town a few hours’ drive from his boyhood home. The New York–based designer and shopkeeper continues to unearth the beauty of shells, stones, flora, and fauna through his coveted hand-decoupage designs—plates, paperweights, and small home goods featuring images pulled from his archive of 19th-century encyclopedic books. Today Derian’s empire includes collaborations with artisanal brands, such as Cisco Brothers and Pierre Frey, as well as four stores in Manhattan and an outpost tucked behind his Provincetown vacation home, which brought him back to his happy place.
Purchased just over a decade ago, the 18th-century sea captain’s house charmed Derian in part because of the “flow on the first floor, where you can walk in a circle”—and gatherings move easily from one room to the next. His laid-back hosting style revolves around help-yourself spreads, no-fuss cocktails, stacks of shawls (“for when it’s cool out”), and plenty of comfortable spots for guests to curl up. Everything is casual, yet nothing is careless: Morning coffee is served in whiteware cups and evenings are lit by extra-tall tapers, allowed to drip into wabi-sabi wax sculptures. This harmony is a testament to Derian’s skill as a designer who celebrates (and accentuates) imperfection. “I love to let things be as they are,” he explains.
The let-it-be approach is part of his process on- and off-duty. “When I design, I need to see everything in piles,” he says. While guests hang out in the kitchen on a sofa (key for communal meal prep), he collects the day’s farmers’ market haul, arranging produce on various dishes. “I love to have all the fruits and vegetables out when I get them,” he says. Every October, Derian and his partner, photographer Stephen Kent Johnson, forage for wild mushrooms in the woods, then sort and photograph them (careful not to eat anything potentially poisonous). Lunch and dinner spreads are similarly curated, with baked bread set on cutting boards and platters piled with chanterelles. Vases overflow with flowers—fragrant mock orange in summer, oak leaf hydrangea in the fall—clipped straight from the garden.
Derian often garnishes with greenery, twining together pots of gangly, overgrown geraniums on a sideboard to sculptural effect or trailing a clematis vine across a table set with botanical prints. Jasmine, chicory, and bellflower leaves appear on his most recent collection of hand-glazed terracotta plates, a collaboration with Astier de Villatte. “Each plate is a different plant,” he explains. “They inspire the table arrangements.” Derian favors personal place settings, with guests receiving an individual element (currently, napkins in a spectrum of rose-colored Lisa Corti prints, each unique). “Everyone remembers their pattern,” he explains, “so they can find them for the next meal.” Friends—artists and creatives “in the world of doing things”—pitch in on cooking, setting the table, and putting out platters buffet-style.
In a nearby room, low tables, a nine-foot upholstered bench piled with pillows, and a well-stocked cupboard function as a fluid space to stretch out in and serve drinks and dessert. “We play anagrams, Boggle, and cards,” says Derian, who created a deck based on an early-19th-century English design with colorful etched prints of nobles and knaves. When the house is full, the bench converts into an extra-long guest bed. With so much to do—from bike rides and hikes across the nearby dunes to hours spent cooking and sharing stories—everyone sleeps soundly, according to Derian: “Our friends are usually worn out by their first day here.”
Entertaining Ideas from John Derian: Follow Derian’s lead and let your fragrant bouquets dry out and extra-tall candles drip down to tell the story of past gatherings.
Show off raw ingredients, letting the beauty of nature speak for itself. The sculptural shapes of mushrooms, herbs, and flowers instantly elevate a table.
If you don’t have botanical-print plates, plain white dishes decorated with clipped leaves create a similar effect. Scatter a few wildflowers or a trailing vine down the table for a garden-worthy vignette.
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