From appearing on The Rachael Ray Show to getting his very own coffee-table book, how Detroit interior decorator Corey Damen Jenkins is putting the city’s design scene on the national map
By Nicole Frehsee Mazur
Featured photo by Brett Mountain
All interior photos provided by Corey Damen Jenkins
On a freezing January morning in Birmingham, Corey Damen Jenkins is feeling frazzled. “I apologize for the state of my desk,” says the 43-year-old, whose elegant, richly colored office, in a brick building overlooking a parking structure, is filled with holiday detritus: plaid wrapping paper, boxes of candy, greeting cards. “It’s a dumping ground for everything. I haven’t had time to process it.”
It may seem incongruous that one of Detroit’s premier interior designers spends any time at all in a less-than-Insta-worthy room, but ironically, Jenkins has been so busy perfecting other peoples’ spaces that he hasn’t had time to work on his own. So a month after Christmas, gifts from clients and business associates sit atop his desk, untouched.
“I’ve been everywhere the past few weeks,” says Jenkins, who lives in Bloomfield Hills when he’s not on the road. He rattles off a list of cities, including New York (where he has an office) and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (where he has a condo). Next, he’s off to Las Vegas. “I came home to get a change of clothes,” he laughs.
Jenkins’ whirlwind December capped off a year marked by career highlights. In April he became the first Michigan designer invited to decorate a room in New York’s Kips Bay Decorator Show House, a design-world honor. (He made over the formal library.) He also inked a deal with Rizzoli to produce a coffee-table book, won the “Stars on the Rise” award from New York’s esteemed Decoration & Design Building, filmed a spot for NBC’s Open House NYC and — oh, yeah — scored a cameo on the Rachael Ray Show, where he appears as a design expert. (2020 is shaping up to be big, too, with a partnership with an international fabric house in the works.)
“I worry that when people look at my Instagram and see all the glamour, they’re like, ‘He’s traveling here and there,’” says Jenkins, adding that in the midst of everything, he also wrapped up six projects for residential clients. “But my main bread and butter is the design. I’m up until three in the morning sketching rooms.”
Jenkins — who describes his design style as “classically traditional with a youthful, hip, sexy edge” — powers through his whirlwind schedule with a lofty goal in mind: putting Detroit’s design scene on the national map. “We’re the heart of everything, we’re the pulse,” he says, namechecking Motown and the auto industry. There’s no reason the city, which has a rich architectural history, can’t be a hub of fine design, too.
Jenkins believes he’s the perfect person to usher in that shift. First, because he’s born and raised here — he grew up in Auburn Hills and Pontiac and never left the area, even when the economy tanked and it was nearly impossible to find work as a designer. Second, because he’s singular in what he does. “Being a man of color that does traditional design is a bit of an oxymoron,” he says. “You don’t really see what I do [anywhere else] across the country.”
These days, Jenkins boasts clients everywhere from Texas to Toronto, but he hasn’t always been so in-demand. Just a decade ago, he was unemployed: He’d been laid off from his job as a purchasing buyer for an automotive company, and then from his stockroom gig at the Michigan Design Center. He was forced to downsize his apartment, sell his car and trade his Whole Foods dinners for ramen noodles and Spam. “I was hungry,” he says. “Both proverbially and literally.”
Despite the dire economic circumstances — it was the winter of 2009, smack in the middle of the biggest downturn since the Great Depression — Jenkins, a longtime design enthusiast, decided to launch his own interior-decorating firm. “I needed to be in control of my destiny,” he says.
So he hatched a plan: He’d knock on doors in upscale Metro Detroit neighborhoods, flash some of his sketches and ask homeowners to give him a chance. “There were more than a few occasions where a door got slammed in my face,” he recalls. “Or I’d get laughed off a construction site by workers who saw this guy who clearly had no business being there.”
He was cold, discouraged and considering giving up altogether and getting a job at Starbucks (“at least they have benefits”). But at the 779th house Jenkins visited, the young couple who answered the door invited him in. He ended up decorating two rooms in their house in Davisburg, outside of Clarkston. “I put my heart and soul into that project,” he says.
Jenkins posted photos of the finished spaces to his website, and not long after, HGTV called: The network had been scanning the Midwest for talent and wanted to feature him on Showcase Showdown, a design-competition program. “That catapulted me into a whole new level of emotional hysteria,” says Jenkins, who ended up winning. From there, calls from clients started pouring in. “I feel like Detroit and I fell at the same time and rose at the same time,” he says. “We always get back up. Those T-shirts that say ‘Detroit Hustles Harder’… we really mean that.”
Jenkins’ work ethic and talent have taken him far, but they’re not the only reasons people are clamoring to work with him. “Corey’s lively, warm spirit added a dynamic energy to the house,” says Bunny Williams, the Kips Bay Decorator Show House’s Honorary Show House Chair. (She also praised his “sharp design aesthetic.”)
Indeed, working with Jenkins “is like a party,” says Plymouth resident Sabrina Livermore, who’s enlisted Jenkins to decorate two homes since 2014 (the most recent scored a feature in Traditional Home magazine). The pair initially bonded over fabric samples and paint swatches, but their connection soon grew into a real friendship. Livermore, 42, would ring up Jenkins whenever she felt unsure about her design choices — “one time I called him from the grocery store, bawling over the color on the wall,” she recalls — while Jenkins still consults her for fashion advice. “Nothing throws him off,” Livermore says. “I could call him and say ‘I hate my house’ and instead of getting aggravated or annoyed, he makes you feel like you can take a deep breath and know it will all come together.”
True to Livermore’s assessment, Jenkins is warm, unguarded and funny, cracking jokes about his recession-era car — a Honda with “orange accoutrements, a.k.a. rust” — and commiserating about family relationship struggles. He’s also sentimental and quick to tear up, like when he shares that his 99-year-old grandfather passed away the night before our interview. (Jenkins didn’t want to cancel out of respect for my deadline.)
When Jenkins isn’t working or racking up friends, you can probably find him at Lifetime Fitness, where he tries to work out five days a week, or hanging out in Detroit. He counts Campus Martius, Prime + Proper and Belle Isle as his favorite spots. “I love to pack myself a picnic lunch and sit on the lawn there and just draw and create,” he says, proffering a notebook filled with intricate, pencil-drawn sketches. (He shows the designs to his clients, and if they see something they like, Jenkins has the piece made.)
Jenkins, who says he hopes to have kids someday, also makes time to mentor aspiring designers, whom he meets via his gig as a guest instructor at Parson’s School of Design in New York. He realized he was making an actual impact during a recent trip to the city, when he met a college student visiting from Johannesburg, South Africa. “He came up to me and said, ‘I changed my major in college because of you,’” recalls Jenkins. “‘I was going to be a nurse, and now I’m going to be an architect.’ He said he’d never seen a man who looked like him doing [design] on this level.” Jenkins chokes up remembering the scene, dabbing at his eyes. “Girl, I had tears dripping off my chin into my coffee.”