Interior designer John Harrison offers a book of visual conversations

The Cincinnati designer’s clients share their homes in words and photographs

By Brent Coleman

When longtime client Joyce Elkus proposed a book highlighting his five-decade career, “I just laughed,” said interior decorator John Harrison.

“You’ve got to be out of your mind,” he recalls saying.

Well, Elkus wasn’t. And the idea, planted at the 2015 christening of Carol Ann’s Carousel in Smale Park, germinated.

Shortly after that, she returned to Harrison with news. Tim Maloney, CEO of one of the city’s largest philanthropic foundations – established by carousel namesake Carol Ann Haile, her husband Ralph V. Haile Jr. and U.S. Bank – was prepared to underwrite a coffee table book.

And now it’s a done deal: “home. visual conversations” is 165 pages of text by writer John Faherty and images by photographer Robert Flischel, blended by designer Mikki Graff. The book’s stories are told through the words of 19 homeowners who are Harrison’s clients.

The book is beautiful and breezy, full of crisp images and first names, and it’s casual, just as Harrison wanted.

“When I actually got the book, I looked at it and said, ‘Wow,’ ” Harrison said.
Faherty’s writing – including an introductory history of Harrison’s journey from a tall, young New Zealander with stage design aspirations to a venerable Cincinnati interiors artist – sets just the tone he wanted, Harrison said. “It works well for the book. The whole visual conversation idea was mine. It’s about the people who live in the rooms, not me,” said Harrison.

“Working with John was a delight,” Harrison said of Faherty. “I said from the get-go, ‘I want you to interview people without me being there. I want the book to be a read about people living in spaces and what they like about them.’ The net result is each story is slightly different in style because the people involved are different.”

Faherty, who didn’t meet Harrison until 2015 when he accepted Maloney’s invitation to write the book, said Harrison was humble and let him be “a one-man band.”

“We had to fight him to get his name on the cover,” said Faherty. “We said, ‘John, nobody’s going to buy this book if your name isn’t on the cover.’ ”

Flischel photographed each home – one was in Palm Springs, California – with the decorator, who in effect served as the book’s photo editor.

“What made the project really easy for me is that John knew exactly what he wanted, so there was no ‘Let’s give 300 jpegs to a graphic designer and watch that meltdown’ or ‘Let’s give them to a committee and watch the train wreck,’ ” Flischel said.

Almost all of the featured abodes are in Cincinnati, the city Harrison made home after working nationally and abroad, then moving to Dayton to follow a relationship.

“In my mid-20s, I came to Cincinnati and knew not a single soul,” Harrison said. People were a little remote at first, he said, but the quality of his work and his attention to clients’ needs integrated him into the city’s rich theater, opera and classical music scene, particularly the one at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

“So many of my friends started as clients,” Harrison said.

The clients/friends who stepped up to be part of Harrison’s book are identified by first name only, a choice Harrison made to protect their privacy as well as imbue a casual feel in the text.

The volume is meant to be an homage to the Queen City and its people.

“The book is a love affair with Cincinnati as far as I’m concerned,” Harrison said. “The thing is, you can get involved in this city just because you came here. In Chicago and New York, it’s all about if you can write a big check.”

In addition to design clients, the book spotlights 17 musicians connected with the University of Cincinnati. Proceeds from the book will go to CCM’s Harmony Fund, which was co-founded by Harrison, Ginger Warner and Frank Caliguri.
Although Harrison has devoted thousands of hours to the arts in Cincinnati, the Harmony Fund was an obvious choice to be the book’s beneficiary.

Harrison’s longtime partner, Robert Jan Halenbeek, died of AIDS, and the fund spun off from Harrison’s desire to encourage CCM artists and musicians to do work that increases awareness of the disease as well as acceptance of all lifestyles.

Although he’s 77 now, Harrison still works for DIGS in Hyde Park. He’s not ready to slow down.

He has a 31-year-old assistant whose computer skills keep him in tune with what’s happening in the interior design world technologically. And Harrison embraces all the innovations in the field. “I have an obligation to see that my clients get the best products possible. … I have no desire to hide back in my own era.”

Interested in purchasing “home. visual conversations,” click here.

To see related story on the book’s release party, click here

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