Birmingham designer keeps Detroit close at home, around the world

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

There's a running joke in Birmingham interior designer Corey Damen Jenkins' office that in between his next big project there will be a "lull" in his nonstop schedule. 

"I'm always saying, 'Pretty soon, there should be a lull,'" laughs Jenkins.

But when you're juggling offices in Michigan and New York while also writing your first design book and getting calls from prospective clients all over the world, there's no such thing as a "lull." But it's a good problem to have.

"I feel so incredibly blessed and privileged for it to come the way it’s arrived," says Jenkins, sitting in his chic office in downtown Birmingham.

And given where his career was less than a decade ago -- after getting laid off from his job as a purchaser in the auto industry, he had to rely on unemployment and knock on hundreds of doors to get his first interior design client -- it makes Jenkins, 42, even more grateful for all the opportunities that have come his way.

Earlier this year Jenkins became the first Michigan designer to be invited to be a part of the iconic Kips Bay Decorator Show House, arguably the most renowned show house in the country.

Famed designer Jamie Drake called Jenkins and asked him to be a part of the 47th annual show house, which raises money for the Boys & Girls Club. It came five years after Jenkins contemplated applying to be a part of the show house himself but then deciding against it because he didn't think he was ready. 

Drake's call "literally brought tears to my eyes," said Jenkins. "I said ‘Can I call you back?’ My eyes started to well up, my heart was in my throat."

Drake, for his part, says Jenkins' invitation to be a part of the show house was well-deserved. He said the show house strives to bring the "best of design" from geographic areas all over the country.

Corey Damon Jenkins, 42, sits in the home he decorated for a Birmingham client. He recently opened a second office in New York. Ten years after losing his job in the automotive industry and being forced to rely on unemployment, he says he's so grateful for all the opportunities that have come along in his design career.

"Corey brought his signature exuberance – a bold color palette, a garden installed on the ceiling – to his space," said Drake in an email.

Jenkins designed what was once a gentleman's study, converting it into a woman's command center with blush-hued walls, a kidney-shaped sofa and upholstery by Kravet. Jenkins said he was inspired by his own clients and wanted to create a space that pays homage to women, the "backbone of our society."

"Today, women are running the world from the household all the way to Capitol Hill," said Jenkins.

But like much of Jenkins' work, his lady's lounge also had a distinct Detroit flair. Throughout the monthlong show house, Jenkins had a running soundtrack, playing Motown hits from Stevie Wonder, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye. Guests would stop to visit his space and dance and then come back again to dance some more.

"I wanted to make sure that I brought Detroit with me," said Jenkins.

The Motor City is home

And Detroit is part of Jenkins' DNA.

No matter how his career expands and evolves, the Pontiac Northern High School grad says home will always be Detroit. And his home these days is a modest a 1,400 square foot Bloomfield Hills condo just minutes from his office in Birmingham.

Purchased two years ago and completely updated, it has a surprisingly muted color palette for a designer known for embracing bold colors -- he has clients on the East Coast where he painted the doors purple. But there's a reason for that, said Jenkins, who had the walls painted Benjamin Moore's Glass Slipper.

"I think I need less color at home – even in my office it’s neutral -- because I like being able to come home and wash my brain," he said. "I’m looking at so many different client projects, so many different color palettes.  I just love to come home to a neutral palette to reset."

But even with a subdued color palette, Jenkins deftly mixes textiles, antiques and even some of his own pieces to bring his space to life. The light fixture above his dining room table, for example, is from his Hudson Valley Lighting collection.

Many of the furnishings are antiques. He relied on good friend Judy Frankel of Judy Frankel Antiques to help him find just the right coffee table, which she found in Europe. She also found the dining room table in Belgium. 

It's Jenkins' artwork, though, that really brings his condo to life. He has a wide variety of photographs, prints and original art, including a painting by Detroit artist Tony Roko.

Jenkins, who has a stunning gallery wall right in his foyer, says don't be afraid to mix things up when it comes to art.

"I don't think artwork should be governed by the color palette," he said. "It should just flow."

And Jenkins -- who also has homes in Vermont and Puetro Vallarta, Mexico -- likes that his space is compact. He says he lives vicariously through his clients and doesn't need much more as a single bachelor.

"There’s just something very cozy about living the American dream through a smaller lens," he said.

779 doors

Growing up, Jenkins was always fascinated with design. As a child, Jenkins, the oldest of three boys, used to take apart chairs to see how they were made.

Still, he never considered a career in interior design. His father, who has a business background, discouraged him from it. And at the time, there were no designers who looked him in the pages of magazines such as Traditional Home or Architectural Digest.

But when the recession hit hard in 2008, Jenkins found himself laid off from his job and forced to scale back his lifestyle dramatically. He had to come up with a Plan B.

So he started going door to door in neighborhoods in Oakland County, trying to get his first interior design client. Carrying vision boards for what he could create, he knocked on more than 700 doors.

"I told myself if I got to 800 doors I’d hang it up and get a job at Starbucks because at least they had benefits and I’d wait the storm out," he remembers.

Luckily, it never came to that. At house 779, he landed his first residential clients, a doctor and his wife in Davisburg. When he finished designing their space, he had the rooms professional photographed and put the five images that came out of it on his website. From those five images, HGTV contacted him about being on a design show.

"That's the power of the internet," he says.

Nearly 10 years later, Jenkins will never forget his humble beginnings. As he works on his first book for Rizzoli -- the publication date is still being determined -- he already knows what one chapter will be called: 779.

"It's not something I ever thought would happen," he says.