21 questions

Design Gallerist Jean Lin Used to Bedazzle Skullcaps for J.Lo

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Christie Blickley

New York’s “21 Questions” is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Jean Lin is the founder of Colony, a cooperative design gallery and interiors-strategy firm in Tribeca. Lin and her team have collaborated with designers and developers such as Worrell Yeung, DeMuro Das, and Douglas Elliman on interior design and styling projects.

Name: Jean Lin
Age: 40
Neighborhood: Woodside, Queens
Occupation: Design entrepreneur

What’s hanging above your couch?
A big, round mirror from Blu Dot with an oxblood frame. It makes the room feel bigger and more luxurious, and the round shape feels less obvious.

What’s the first job you had in New York? 
My first paying job was for J.Lo’s fashion brand. I was straight out of Parsons and lasted only a few months. All those stereotypes you hear about being a fashion assistant are based in reality. Jennifer Lopez was always professional and perfectly nice, but the culture of the company was sort of unfortunate. One time, we were working well past midnight bedazzling these nude skullcaps on styrofoam mannequin heads with Swarovski crystals. Another time, I was asked to dye a white cashmere sweater red. I was given a small bottle of dye and a trash bag and shown to a bathroom sink. It came out badly. To dye fabric, you need heat, which would have ruined the cashmere. At this job, I learned that you can work really, really, really hard and not be rewarded for it. And in fact, your success at a job doesn’t always correlate with how good you are at something.

What color are you always drawn to? 
My entire apartment is painted mauve — walls, trim, doors, ceiling. The color is masculine and feminine at the same time.

What art or artifact are you most surprised you own?
I had a baby in January, and I have his umbilical-cord stump in a glass terrarium that I 100 percent originally bought for a plant. When you cut the umbilical cord and it dries up, it’s like this crusty thing on his stomach. It’s gross, and I did not think I would be the kind of person who would hang on to my baby’s umbilical cord. But when it fell off, it felt like a momentous occasion. And I was like, What do I do with this thing? Throw it away? That seems weird. It didn’t feel like trash, and I had this terrarium sitting there empty, so I plopped it in.

Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She represents my district. I would just talk to her about the city and crappy politics and complain about things. She’s inspiring, and I would definitely be looking for some sort of words of inspiration to gain some hope about the future of our country. She also seems like a normal person who happens to be in Congress, so I want to ask about her dog and skin-care routine.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?
During lockdown, I started to make a top using vintage kimono fabric that I used to collect. I didn’t finish it, and it’s still on my dress form.

Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?
I’m the type of person who will buy a really comfortable gym sneaker in multiple colors. I have Stella McCartney Ultraboosts from Adidas in white, yellow, and orange pink.

What New York City museum do you always go back to? 
The Noguchi Museum is a complete retreat and getaway from the city. Noguchi’s sculptures are so textured and layered that even if you see the same piece more than once, you discover something new about it.

What do you always have next to your computer?
Boxes. I don’t really consider myself a collector, but I have a lot of them, and people give them to me now. I have maybe 40 all together. They’re decorative, functional little gems, and I can keep anything inside of them: rocks, lipstick, change.

Where is the best view of the city?
Gantry Plaza State Park, which is a really lovely place to slow down and chill. The park is somewhere you can go and put down a blanket, have lunch, bubble tea, and hang out with your dog or your baby or whoever and just take in the city.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?
There are a number of tallish buildings in downtown Manhattan and on the Brooklyn waterfront that feel self-indulgent. They’re eyesores. They have “poor doors” and are very incongruous with everything else going on in that neighborhood.

What’s one thing you would change about your field? 
While I love design, it’s not as inclusive as I would like it to be. Design is supposed to be about diversity of thought and problem-solving. It just makes sense that hearing from more voices will make design better. Sadly, it’s very novel to go outside the 100 or 200 people who usually contribute to the conversation.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?
I love where I live now, but if money were no object, I would move to Tribeca. The area around N. Moore, Beach, and Franklin feels like a small town. Right now, we have clients out there, and I would take their apartment in a minute! It’s got a rooftop, a loft-style top floor, and bedrooms downstairs.

What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?
Beauty products. Growing up as an Asian girl, the products and tutorials in magazines never made sense for my face. So when I find something that works for me, I’m very loyal. I’m going to be 70 and so outdated! I’ve been using the same Waterproof Maybelline Great Lash mascara since I started wearing mascara. I like this Givenchy lipstick that looks black but comes off like a berry color. I use Niod’s Photography Fluid every day.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut? 
Increase my self-care: I’ll work out longer, stay in a steam room longer, get a massage. I’m letting myself be physically relaxed so I can undo any creative blockages.

Where was your first NYC apartment, and how much was the rent? 
It was on 96th Street and Third Avenue in Normandie Court, which we knew as “Dormandy Court” because it was inexpensive and big. I lived with my boyfriend at the time and a roommate in a one-bedroom, and the rent was $1,400 split three ways.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
I take a walk to the piers on the Hudson River. They’re really close to my gallery, so it’s a convenient escape.

What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten? 
I don’t want to throw my dad under the bus because he’s been the most supportive person in the world to me. But out of love and worry, my parents told me to study business and finance and get a job that has health insurance and a good salary. I think it’s good advice for a lot of people, but it never really clicked for me.

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back? 
I don’t give things away unless I really know I’m ready to let them go. I’ve never wanted anything back.

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order? 
There’s a restaurant in Flushing called Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. It’s known for soup dumplings, but in the morning it has Fan Tuan, which is a fried-dough stick with mustard greens and pork floss wrapped in sticky rice. When I was pregnant, I would order it every weekend. Some days, I’d get two, in case I wanted some later.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?
“Brave and caring.”

Jean Lin’s First Job Was Bedazzling Skullcaps for J. Lo