If ever introduced to Jonathan Rachman, you will be drawn in like a magnet. Rachman is a beautiful spirit with a proclivity towards creating beautiful spaces that celebrate life and authenticity. Having scheduled a mere 20-minute interview, I sat down with Jonathan and had the privilege of sharing a full hour with him. Forget interview, this was two friends catching up, albeit for the first time. We went deeper than design.
From cozying up to the gorgeous Jon Hamm for a quick selfie, to sitting at a dinner with members of the royal family; from having a personal guided tour through his stunning portfolio to listening to fascinating stories about his exceptionally difficult upbringing, Rachman is the real deal.
I would dare say there may not be many who are more real, in fact. Having been severely abused as a child—physically, sexually, emotionally—Rachman talks about his memoir The Garlic Peanut Stories. Rachman explains that it is more than a testament to his life; it’s a celebration of the strong woman his sister was and it’s an image of forgiveness and reconciliation for those that brought him great harm. Rachman is a survivor, he sees beauty in the darkness, and he has got a story to tell.
If anyone watches you design, the spirit behind your design is incredible. What do you hope to accomplish for your clients in your design work?
Jonathan Rachman: For me, what to accomplish in any design work is to understand my client’s potential, and for them to learn about themselves. I don’t follow any trends. I’ve never gone to an interior design school. I know that I have a gift and I want to make them realize that their home should reflect them as a person, a personality, a family, a couple, whoever they are. If I design and not try to be somebody else or follow the trend, I create a space, a home, a property that’s truly enjoyable and gorgeous. I believe practicality and beauty can come hand in hand. One does not have to take over the other.
How has quarantine and COVID impacted your design work?
JR: Amazingly. I am fortunate. I have amazing clients. These clients who have the funds during the pandemic, real estate is good, and that’s when they actually buy and renovate and improve. People want to adapt to the pandemic now that they have to work from home. They don’t have a home office. So, you convert a room or create a bigger kitchen counter or a bigger space. Their formal entry now becomes the contamination room instead of a formal entry. So we actually gained more business during this pandemic. I cannot complain, I’m blessed. I’m happy to be able to make a family’s life more enjoyable during this time. I feel useful. I feel needed. My business, we’re surviving.
And so, what makes a designer?
JR: We get hired because of us. Everybody can do design if they want to. Half of it is chemistry with our clients.
Your memoir, The Garlic Peanut Stories, has just been released. Tell us about this project.
JR: I’ll tell you as raw as it gets. My sister passed away over 14 years ago. She was like my second mom, 10 years older. When she died, she was 46 years old and left a 4-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. Two little ones became motherless. They are now 18 and 20. My sister died of breast cancer. By the time I was born, she was already my sister, but she was actually the daughter of our driver that had been adopted by my mom and dad. I grew up on the Island of Sumatra, Indonesia; but by the time I was born, she was my sister. Period.
The original intention [of the memoir] was to write letters to my nephew and niece so they would remember their mom. Though as I was writing it, I knew it was bigger than myself, my sister, my nephew, and niece. I wanted the story for my nephew and niece to remember their mom because they’re so young, but as I was writing it, everything else, of course, came out. My childhood, how I grew up. Without divulging details, I was essentially bullied, physically molested, abused, and sexually raped by multiple people from the age of maybe four until I was maybe 13.
My sister was the one person who protected me physically. She would cover me when I was beaten up. And when I say beat up, it’s not a little spank or a little whip, I’m talking about serious, massive, physical abuse. That’s only the physical part. The emotional abuse was to the point where I had out of body experiences, where I could see myself being injured. Later on, I was sexually molested by several adults. So, I was raised as a big believer in a strong women. All the women in my life have always been amazing.
How did you move past those experiences?
JR: This story is a story of forgiveness and love. I wouldn’t know how to sustain my life if it wasn’t for my sister’s love and so many others, but she was the main character. There’s a message of unconditional love from her to me and vice versa as well as for me to forgive those who have harmed me—for us to be able to discuss and talk about it, because what people see is who I am. What you see is what you get. I’m a very positive, loving person. I have an amazing life. People will call me the celebrity designer. I have a persona people perceive, yes. And as true as it is, I’m not faking that part. I’ve grown out of the misery, the portrait of the pain and harm that’s been done to me. For me, my accomplishment in life is to have survived that.
As I was writing the book, I couldn’t believe that this child was me. I questioned, “how did this child survive this horrendous life?” I could have been in an asylum. I could have been a drug addict. I could have committed suicide. The fact is that I’m fairly well adjusted and I have a good business.
I have an amazing life. I’ve been married to my husband for 27 years. We have 15 fairy godchildren. They’re not adopted formally but they’re like our kids, 15 of them from eight different countries. I have an amazing, blessed life, but what people don’t see is how I became this person. The answer is truly the love that I received from my sister, as well as from a few other individuals in the book that I discussed. I want to share that, I want to share the love, I want to spread the love. I want to send a message of forgiveness to the people who physically and emotionally and sexually abused me—for them to forgive themselves and to stop doing it to other people and to other children. That’s my message. I want people to read it and to be able to discuss it maturely, professionally, appropriately, to send the message that it’s not okay to do this to any child or any adult or any human.
In 2020, people are struggling with their mental health, staying motivated, encouraged, collected. What is something simple that someone might change in their environment to feel comfortable in their home?
JR: Pictures from the past. I love family and family pictures. Pick an old picture of someone you love, that you miss, that you wish you could visit. Put them in an important frame, an antique frame, something you splurge on. I’m crazy for wallpaper. Wallpaper a room from top to bottom. Put up wallpaper that makes a room just instantly pop. Any pattern you want, anything that speaks to you. It could be a wallpaper of old bugs if that’s what you’re into, a scenery of an old world. That’s my thing.
A lot of people now work from home, please be practical but get a desk with a personality. I’m sick and tired of minimalistic sleek modern. Love your desk with memorabilia, buy an antique desk, something with prominence. You sit so much at your desk, I think your desk should be as comfy and cozy as a sofa.
You and your partner say, quote, “Eternity is too short. Eternity is not long enough.” Some couples might be reassessing eternity during this year. What is something you both do to stay centered during this time?
JR: Number one, he’s a psychologist, he’s the only one that could handle me. This December will be our 27th anniversary. We celebrate every month by the way. During this month, pandemic or not, we keep tabs on how long we’ve been separated physically. We’ve only been separated literally 22.5 trips in 27 years, for a total of 27-28 days. Which is not a lot. We’re always together. We’re attached to the hip, pandemic or not. So, the way we do it, the love has to be there, we have to sometimes acknowledge with how angry or frustrated or annoyed we are with each other, we have to remember that we love each other. So remembering that, the outside world is already challenging, with or without a pandemic.
When we come home, the first thing we do is kiss. Mortality is a second away, we are mortals, we can leave and one of us could be hit or have a heart attack. We never know when that time comes. We center ourselves by remembering that the bottom line is that we love each other, and we always want to be together. I always tell people that my heart is so huge it hurts because it touches my rib cage. It’s very simple, love prevails, it’s all about love. Period.
Thanks so much to Jonathan Rachman for giving us a glimpse into his new memoir.