This is definitely staying!” says John Derian, gazing lovingly at an ancient wheezy radiator, whose miserable paint appears to have been flaking off, chip by chip, for decades. It’s November 2011, and Derian, who owns a pair of namesake stores up the street, has, by some combination of luck and wits, found himself in possession of a whole floor of an 1850s East Village building whose ambiance has only slightly changed in the ensuing century and a half. You might not know it from his quiet, unassuming manner, but Derian is fairly bursting with excitement at the prospect of remodeling the place — albeit in accordance with his own highly individualist standards. “I wish I had spray dust or spray dirt in a can,” he confesses. “I don’t want to lose the look of the place — I want that patina.”
He first set eyes on this defiantly dilapidated temple of bohemia about a decade ago, when a sculptor neighbor suggested he stop by and see if she had anything he might want to buy. The sculptor was one of a trio of female artists who had purchased the building in the early 1960s; before that, the space held a garment factory that purportedly specialized in shrouds (which, come to think of it, may be what some of the residents in the 19th-century graveyard visible from Derian’s wavy-glass back windows are wearing right now). A small chamber in the front of the apartment could well have been a birthing room for the families who lived here 100 years ago.
Derian has been on the block since 1994, selling his distinctive decoupaged glass plates and idiosyncratic home goods; when he first arrived, the neighborhood had a reputation of being pretty dicey, but he adored it from the start. (This perception still clings: in Season 3 of “Gossip Girl,” the social critic Blair Waldorf observes, “I’m not a huge advocate of the downtrodden, but I am a fan of not stepping on them when I’m at John Derian. If you turn these into lofts, then where are they going to live?”)
Derian is anxious to execute his nonrenovation renovation, a series of serious tweaks that will respect — revere, even exult! — the spirit of the artists, the garment workers and the other long-vanished New Yorkers who were his predecessors. Think of it as an exquisite, exceedingly subtle face-lift, only instead of jowls and droopy lids, Derian intends to preserve a plank floor that creaks with the wisdom of the ages and patch a tin ceiling contemporaneous with the Tin Woodsman.
by lynn-yaegerphoto by William Abranowicz