In his prologue to the monograph featuring the lux interiors that sprang from the mind of James Boyd Niven, Diego A. Flores says about the Buenos Aires-born designer, “His laughter is contagious and his hands draw in the air what he expresses when speaking.” Flores titled this first chapter in the book “Design Tells Stories,” a remarkably apt statement for Niven’s work. “His British genes set him apart,” Flores adds. “James is a man of the world and that comes as no surprise.” The book, which was recently published by Rizzoli, has a decidedly urbane feel to it that bears this out.
It’s Flores’ voice that maintains the dialogue accompanying the beautifully lit images in the book photographed by Mercedes Fahsbender and Alejandro Lipszyc. “The foundations upon which James Boyd Niven operates and builds stem from a passion for storytelling, cultural movements, and art.” The projects in the book, which are located in Argentina and Uruguay, meld a timelessness that is woven into the fabric of life in the two countries with a contemporary edginess for which the young and restless members of both societies are known.
“When we look at his works and projects, we find that he has taken everything into account,” Flores goes on to say. “Each structural element, like each light fixture or piece of furniture, contributes phrases to the narration of a story that accounts for its inhabitants and their cultural concerns. In James’ universe, form and content are related in such a way that they are the result of a process that must be addressed, understood, and respected. There is no room for frivolity there; everything must contribute to the great idea that commits him to building his clients a place in the world.”
The book includes projects in Buenos Aires and, perhaps less known to the world at large, Montevideo—Uruguay’s capital; sprawling residences on La Pampa, the plains to the west of Buenos Aires renowned for horse and cattle breeding; and the East Coast of Argentina. Having traveled to and through both Argentina and Uruguay, I immediately recognized the romantic sensibilities Niven captures within the more traditional milieus and the avant-garde vibe with which he infuses the spaces for the city-dwellers among his clients.
“Everything is in the DNA” declares one heading after which Flores notes, “Like every process, James Boyd Niven’s education is a product of academia as well as experience. And, as is usually the case, every journey of this nature begins in the home, where, as the youngest of five siblings, his character was tempered. James was born at the British hospital in Buenos Aires in February 1982 to a British family of Scottish and English ancestry. His ancestors have been in the Argentine Republic since 1847. James’ cultural background is the product of this intense mix.”
Under “The World as a Stage” designation, Flores says, “Talking to James means entering the eye of the hurricane. His analytical capacity is only superseded by his work ethic. Each project demands an exhausting amount of attention, and he is able to process, at the same time, both the detail of skirting boards for an eight-room hotel and pick out the restaurant’s water pitchers or the pencil that will be placed in each room.” Flores speaks of Niven’s itch to know the world and his quest as a tireless traveler, one that began with he turned eighteen years old. He lived in New York City, where he worked as a model, then had stints in Madrid, London, Paris, and Milan.
These details about his life are flanked by images of a parquet floor grounding a circular space with finely-crafted carpentry and a winding stairwell in the center of which is an ornate metal cage that surrounds the building’s lift, both of which illustrate why Buenos Aires has long been known as the Paris of the South. Ornate wrought iron doors to the city’s most luxurious buildings, which speak a design language what was uttered in Argentina’s elegant past, are juxtaposed against balconies clinging to ornate façades that mimic the French attitudes taken up by architects during the city’s golden age.
The book traipses through the city’s neighborhoods that hold a mix of hip enclaves and historical barrios. Contemporary art, mid-century-modern furnishings, and an array of neutrals inform the prior; while floral motifs, antiques, and intricately curved glass and metal chandeliers express the latter. In the final chapter of the book titled “The Hero’s Journey,” Flores states that “Buenos Aires and Montevideo were, at some point, part of the same story. And if the vicissitudes of the human condition later established them as two countries, this distance does not occur in either the landscape or the people who inhabit them.”
I can speak to this first-hand, having been in a relationship with an Argentine for a number of years and having experienced the sensibilities that the country’s proud people express as naturally as they breathe. The physical distance between the two cities is short—the less than three-hour ride on the ferry is a picturesque way to travel between them. The closing chapter of the book not only describes the ties that bind the cities, it presents the designer as the writer of the book sees him. “It just so happens that the adventures in James Boyd Niven’s life—the man who, many times throughout this text, we have simply called ‘James’ in order to refer to the man behind his celebrity—come to us in a sequence from where everything stems from an overwhelming desire, from the principles that govern his life’s conduct and place us within the world of storytelling.”
If you’d like to read essays of mine about several experiences I had in Argentina, you can click through to Tatty Wreckage in Buenos Aires and The Architecture of Tango. I received a review copy of this book from the publisher but my comments were in no way swayed by this fact and are authentically true. You can find the book on bookshop.org, which supports Indy bookstores. James Boyd Niven © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, Four Florida Moderns, and Collaborations: A Houston Penthouse.