The evening, unlike the two men it celebrated, was a glitzy affair. Interior designers Jay Jenkins and Alexander Baer -- known for the understated elegance of their designs -- threw what may well be the Party of the Year to commemorate Jenkins' taking over the design firm Alexander Baer Associates from his old friend and mentor.
The event was held last month at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Baer is a trustee. There were almost 500 guests: past and present clients of the two designers, tradespeople they work with, friends and staff. Every detail was meticulously planned, down to the custom-made ties for the servers.
"From the decorations to the food, it was incredible," raves Baltimore society doyenne Carole Sibel. "Everyone was gorgeous. It was one of the prettiest, loveliest parties I've ever been to!"
Jenkins decked out areas of the museum to look like rooms in a large, elegant home. He brought in all-white furniture and shag rugs. Massive black-and-white photographs of the firm's 27 staff members were hung from the ceiling.
"The whole concept was playing with scale," explains Jenkins. "The space was so enormous I had to respect it or fight it."
To balance the grand statement furniture, Linwood's, which catered the event, provided endless edible delights in miniature: tiny lobster rolls, beef carpaccio, duck, crab, mini Caesar salads and much, much more. The food, everyone agreed, was fabulous. Guests sipped on litchi martinis and, of course, there was dancing.
At the end of the evening, those waiting outside for their cars could get something from the water bar, the coffee bar or the doughnut bar set up near the valet station.
The two designers had decided five years ago that Jenkins would take over the business this year, one of the reasons the transition, not to mention the party, went so smoothly.
"Jay had five years to plan not only taking over, but also the commemoration," says Baer. "It was completely Jay's vision to create an evening of design elegance."
"Alex has been a fixture in the design community for 25 or 30 years," says Baltimore designer Stiles Colwill, who is chair of the museum's board of trustees. "It was wonderful to see him with his protege. Jay brings in a younger clientele. He's the future of that company, and it's a big company."
If nothing else, the party demonstrated Jenkins' ability to transform difficult spaces into something wonderful, an ability that's served the designer well ever since Baer called him 14 years ago to ask him if he'd like to be an associate at Alexander Baer. At the time Jenkins had decided to dissolve his own small firm of two for what he will only say were "very ugly reasons. He took an enormous leap of faith allowing me to come here."
"Here" is now Jenkins Baer Associates, as of Oct. 1. Baer, 58, hasn't left the firm. He plans to remain as an associate. He's not ready, he says, "to wake up and have nothing to do."
"It's more of a change of name than anything else," Jenkins insists. "Alexander and I have similar tastes and design philosophy. We believe in creating beautiful rooms you can live in as well as admire." About the only sort of design he doesn't do, he says, is "the carefree, mix-it-up look. Not the funky coffee table, purple walls and what have you."
Jenkins is lounging back in a chair in the firm's conference room as he says this. Looking at him, you'd never guess he now owns one of the most prestigious interior design businesses in Baltimore. At 46, Jenkins is boyish and trim, casually dressed in a lavender and white checked shirt, khaki pants and loafers with no socks. His only jewelry is a wide silver ring and silver ball cuff links.
Jenkins Baer Associates designs homes, second homes and apartments all over the country, and even some in Europe. About half their work, Jenkins says, is out of town. Baer tells of the time the two of them were being wined and dined in a client's Gulfstream jet one day and the very next -- working on a different job -- they found themselves "waiting on the dirty floor of an airport for a Southwest flight that was three hours delayed. Jay turned to me and said, 'The most important thing in this business is you have to be flexible.'"
Jenkins, who was brought up in Rockville, knew early on what he wanted to do.
"I did sit around a lot drawing houses," he says. "I wanted to figure out the puzzle that I saw. The different rooms and how they went together was sort of fascinating to me. I really did want to be an architect, but as everyone knows, I thought math was the issue. Looking back, I think I just wanted to have more fun and enjoyment than architecture offered."
He's The Man
After he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a degree in interior design, Jenkins worked for an architectural firm in Washington before moving to Baltimore. "It was a great education in learning how to manage a project from the ground up," he says.
People often hire the designer to work on their houses from the beginning with their architect and builder. They pay a flat fee for the job, rather than his charging them by the hour.
"Jay has a great knowledge of the flow of a house," says a former client, Janet Livingston, who brought him in at the planning stage when she and her husband built their Owings Mills home. "I just love his taste. It's comfortable chic. When people came into our home they said, 'It looks like you've lived here forever' even though a lot of it was new."
"We're not his wealthiest clients," she adds. "We had a budget. But never once did I feel less important. To this day, if I have an event he will come and 'fluff it up.' Now he's The Man, but he hasn't changed."
For Jenkins, being The Man means working 70-hour weeks.
"I can't wait to get home at night," he says, but he doesn't see much of his North Baltimore condominium these days. He lives in the same building as many of Baltimore's best known designers, including Rita St. Clair, Mona Hajj and Baer.
"It's the closest thing Baltimore has to a grand old Fifth Avenue apartment building," says Jenkins. He bought the condo 10 years ago just as real estate prices were really taking off. "I probably couldn't afford it now."
Some of the other designers in the building gutted their apartments before they moved in and started from ground zero, but Jenkins worked with what he had, adding floor-to-ceiling built-in storage in one hall and closets and cabinets elsewhere.
Because there's a place for everything, there's no clutter. None. Each surface has a carefully arranged minimum of accessories for maximum impact.
"This apartment," Jenkins says, "exemplifies my ability to edit."
But the first thing you notice when you walk in is the color -- or rather, the lack of color. Everything is done in varying shades of brown. Call them mocha or chocolate or khaki and a dozen other synonyms. The whole apartment is startlingly, but soothingly, brown -- except for the master bedroom, which is cream.
"I love brown," he says. "It's just a beautiful neutral. And I like it because it's such a good background for white."
The decor Jenkins chooses to live with is neither traditional nor modern, but somewhere in between. But the original artwork on the walls is decidedly contemporary.
The designer also owns a beach house in Rehoboth, Del., where he spends his weekends. He plans to sell it, however, when things settle down and then build on the Eastern Shore.
"I need another project for myself," he says laughing. "The sadistic part of me wants to know what [people who build] go through, like selecting the right door knob. It's the worst job in your life, designing for yourself."
May 9, 1960, Washington, D.C.
Bachelor of fine arts in interior design, Maryland Institute College of Art, 1984
Alexander Baer Associates, 1993-2006, Jenkins Baer Associates, 2006
Father, retired, living in Charlottesville, Va., a younger brother and a younger sister
Favorite piece of furniture:
Worst design mistake:
Not checking to see if a piece of furniture could get into a house. A cabinet for a new plasma TV wouldn't fit into his apartment-house elevator. (It had to be cut in two.)
If you see a beautiful piece but think it's too big, buy it. The big gesture is often more effective than a dozen small ones.
Trust your judgment. Even if you make a mistake, it's only paint.