“Farmer’s Dozen” with James Farmer

Last month I had the privilege of interviewing my friend, James Farmer, who we are honored to have back at the show. This year James will be conducting a wreath making workshop and cooking demonstration. It will surely be something you won’t want to miss and you can get more information here. James is Editor-At-Large for Southern Living and is the author of the Wall Street Journal’s bestselling garden book, A Time To Plant (2011), Sip & Savor (2012), Porch Living (2012), Wreaths For All Seasons (2012) and A Time To Cook (2013). He is has an incredible blog, All Things Farmer, and you can also learn more about him at his website. Many of us look forward to James’ “Farmer’s Dozen” posts on his blog. As James says, “Akin to a baker’s dozen, my Farmer’s Dozen is a quantity of a dozen or so questions – a series of questions with fellow designers, authors, tastemakers, friends and Southerners alike.” I had the idea to turn the tables on James a bit, and ask him my own version his “Farmer’s Dozen”. He graciously consented and we had a great time. So without further ado, here’s my very candid “Nash’s Dozen” with the one-and-only James Farmer.

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1.       I know your favorite room in your home is the dining room…..what’s your second favorite?

The foyer. Well….it’s a combo of the foyer/front door/ front porch. The reasons being because that is the first and last impression people have of our homes. It’s the first place they enter the home, feel the home, and smell the home. It’s also the last place they do those things. That is why I love older homes and older architecture…because they always have grand foyers. Of course our society and our use of them have changed, but I love it when a client wants to do a grand design in the foyer. It is the foyer, front door, front porch combo right there that is definitely my second favorite.  Most people think I would say the kitchen because I love to cook, and I do, but the thing about the kitchen is that as much fun as it is to cook…you’ve also got to clean it up!

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2.       I know that in my home, as eclectic as it is, my love of all things English is apparent in every room. You’re a collector like I am, but would you say that there is an underlying theme or style that permeates your home? If so, what is it?

I think it’s that English Hunt Country mixed with Southern Traditional. The thing is…they are basically the same style. They are gracious homes, family oriented homes-homes oriented around the land and how you are using it, hunting or farming. It was the English gentry that settled large pockets of the Deep South and I think it reflects. At the same time, as much of an anglophile as I am, I love the quirkiness of the French. If you really had to get down to it, I would be somewhere in the south of England, perhaps even Normandy, somewhere like that. My style definitely has that underlying theme of cherished traditions, whether it’s china or silver, or maybe your grandmother or aunt’s sideboard. It’s also that great stag, the great mount, that big deer, even an otter….I have a stuffed otter that I love. It’s all very Southern, but that’s also all so British. I also love blue and white, which transcends into every culture. Long-story short…it’s definitely English with a twist of French.

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3.       Who has been one of the biggest influences on your style?

There was an architect from south Georgia and his name was Frank McCall. He was from a little town called Moultrie and he died in the early 1990s. Mr. McCall had a great firm in Moultrie. They did everything! They did architecture. They did interiors. They had a landscape architect on staff. They had an interior designer on staff, and draftsman, and even had workrooms for their window treatments. He would team up with other designers, but when you worked with Mr. McCall you didn’t have to worry about anything because he just took care of it….down to setting your table for a dinner party that night. I feel like that is so me and what I get to do with clients because I can outfit their dining room, but it’s also sitting down with them at their dining table and bringing out the silver and the china too. Mr. McCall was a major influence. His firm did the renovations for our farmhouse that I grew up in, as well as the social hall at our church, and my father’s office. So, long-story-short, it was Mr. McCall and McCall, Turner and Associates that was most influential to me. He [McCall] was then influenced by the great Southern architects like Neel Reid and Philip Shutze and that whole genre. I am inspired by them and tickled to get to borrow some of their style.

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4.       I love that you opened a store in downtown Perry. Tell me a little about that. Of all the places you could have opened a store, you chose Perry. Why?

Alright, about an hour north of us is a town……Eatonton, Georgia. That is where the Uncle Remus stories were written about Brer Rabbit and the briar patch and the tar baby. Perry is my “tar baby”.  I can’t get away. I mean I get stuck. But at the same time it’s my briar patch. So Brer Rabbit got stuck on the tar baby and couldn’t get away, but he also was a little bit tongue-and-cheek when he would say ‘please don’t throw me in that briar patch’ because a rabbit loves to be thrown in the briar patch. I love to be thrown in my hometown where I know everyone and everyone knows me.  But it’s also so easy to just be James. Though the opportunity for places like Atlanta, Cashiers, and Savannah came about to open a store, I seriously thought ‘You know what, this is where I’m from. This is who raised me’. And it’s kind of my way of paying it forward in a way. They raised me and I can kind of say, ‘ Let me work for y’all and return the favor.’

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5.) James, you’re an old soul like I am. We both grew up in the South, close to our families, loving tradition….will you share with me one of your favorite family traditions?

 This is a funny one. My grandfather and his family play cards. They play rook. They play spades. Depending on how late it gets, it might turn into poker. The thing that is so funny to me about when we play cards is it’s not like we go to the card room or a whole other room…. it’s at the same table where my grandmother would have set the table, set the meal. And it just goes back to the tradition that so much of what we do is at the table.  Whether we’re eating, talking, playing cards…it’s all around that same table. Take Spades.  I love to play Spades. When my cousins come into town it’s like who can eat the fastest so we can get the card deck out. But I love that the table stays the center of it. So, we’re eating there, we’re talking there, we’re fellowshipping there, our recreation is there. So, it’s not actually one of those traditions like “growing up we would go cut cedar trees off our farm for our Christmas tree.”  I have those kinds of traditions that I love as well, but just reflecting back…. it’s that time around the table, and that we would usually end up playing cards after the meal. I was talking to a buddy about this and he said ‘I thought you were going to say something about your Aunt Irene’s silver’ and I think that’s what people were expecting, but it’s really something about just being around your cousins, and your uncles, and aunts, and being at home, but being table-centered.

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6.) You spent some time this summer in my old stomping grounds of Athens. It has always inspired me. Because I’m a bulldog and I’m doing the interview…I have to ask, what is your impression of Athens? Did you get any new inspiration?

 Alright, now you’re talking…I have to preface this answer first. I have been named the 2013 Distinguished Young Alumni Award from Auburn. I was on the Auburn cover of our Spring issue. I’m a third generation Auburn alum. I have to say all that before I can answer your question. I love Athens! I think it’s a great town. Now, I got into school at Georgia and it really was a tough decision because I knew I wanted to go to Auburn. But Athens has always been some sort of siren for me. I think because it is so open-minded in the sense that it keeps tradition in check….it keeps tradition in focus, but it doesn’t mind twisting on that tradition a bit. To me it is also in a part of Georgia that is so pretty. Macon south has two seasons, kind of like Jacksonville, “hot and not-so-hot”, but Athens actually has seasons and something about that intrigues me. That, and I can be in Cashiers in two hours from Athens so that’s kind of nice too. But if I want to go and meet with my friend who is an incredible entertainment lawyer…he’s in Athens. If I want to go meet with my friend who is a phenomenal chef and cookbook author…he and she…are both in Athens. If I want to talk to friends who own a fantastic store downtown…..I go to Athens. I shop in Athens and Auburn over Atlanta. To me it keeps a grip on youth and vitality, but keeps tradition in check too. I’m always inspired by Athens. Also, I think it goes without saying, “Where else can you eat like you can eat in Athens?”

Farmer in Athens

7.) If you were an antique, what would you be and why?

 I would be a huntboard. I know that’s a quick answer, but that’s one of those silly questions that I have thought about and always wanted someone to ask me. I’m kind of tall and wide and I feel like huntboards are that similar build as me. I hate dinky things, like when chairs are too small in a room or a plate is too small…I mean dinky drives me nuts. I’m 6’4” so maybe that’s where that comes in. But huntboards are so awesome because no matter what Southern home or even English home you’re in…there’s going to be a huntboard. It might be the sideboard in the dining room. It may be the sideboard in the breakfast room. It might be a side piece in the den. It might be stuck way back in a barn. It may have antlers over it or it may have English ironstone and silver over it. I love it because it is so versatile. It can be completely primitive….just 4 legs, some pegs, and a board on top…or it could be exquisite handsome craftsmanship that was built from trees grown on the land. So to me,  huntboards are just one of those things…Oh, I feel so cursed and privileged at the same time because I saw my dream huntboard and I didn’t have the billion dollars that they were asking for it but it was one those things….it was from south Georgia, made of heart pine, from a county near me and it spoke to me. I ended up having a smaller version of it built from some trees that I had cut off the land. But huntboards just speak to me. Because they are so practical, so beautiful, so handsome. They are not dainty. They are work horses. So that’s what I would be, in a heartbeat. I’d be a huntboard.

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8.)  Well, that leads into my next question…..Is there a piece in particular that you are on the hunt for? Maybe for your own collection right now? That perfect piece that you can never seem to find?

 That’s why I felt so privileged and cursed about that huntboard, because I saw it. But you know, it’s funny. I’m always on the hunt period. It’s not ever that I’m on the hunt for ‘X’. If I’m out looking for the perfect bow front chest for a client’s entry, I’m not going to find. I’m just not going to see it. But, I’m just on the hunt period. When I can’t find something, my eyes have to get a little more open. My brain gets a little more open to think about, ‘Well, maybe that bow front chest isn’t what’s supposed to be there. Maybe it really needs to be a demilune with a basket of pine cones underneath it. It’s just a whole different feel. But that one particular piece…I don’t’ know. I can’t not go into an antique store and buy…even if it’s a little piece of silver or cookbook. I don’t know that you can ever have too much silver. The last things I bought were some silver serving pieces. Some bread forks…really interesting.  I’m actually using them as meat forks because they are so sharp….. and I bought a little fish server with a fern engraved on it. But, not one particular thing right now. I’m just on the hunt period.

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9. Everybody wants to know, who or what are you most excited about at the Wolfson Antique Show this year?

 I know y’all have got some awesome people coming, but I’m just most excited about seeing my friends in Jacksonville. I adore Jacksonville. I think it’s the best kept Southern secret. It is like Charlotte and Birmingham with a little dose of Savannah. It’s got this cool vibe. People say Florida and they immediately think Miami and Palm Beach, but Jacksonville is not like those places. Jacksonville is still Southern. I’m most excited about seeing my friends. I’ve got a great group of friends in Jacksonville that are like family.

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10.) Is there a special project, recipe, or tradition that you are particularly excited about tackling this fall?

 Alright, this is a bitter-sweet one and I just wrote on this. You know, I do some work with Southern Living and this is the first Thanksgiving that we are going to have without my grandmother. She passed this spring and please excuse me if I choke up, it was just so sudden. She went into the hospital and died a couple of days later. It was completely unexpected. But, we’ve got to have Thanksgiving this year and how do we make Mimi’s dressing?  How do we roast the turkey like she did? She wrote down the recipe. I have it written down. It was actually her Aunt Irene’s recipe, and from what I have written, it looks like it’s going to taste alright, but I’m wondering…. ‘Did Mimi really follow that? Did she really use that much celery or that much stock?’ If I remember correctly, there was always more than one pan of dressing. There was always the grown-up dressing that had more of the stuff in it and there was always that dressing that was just plain and that had basically corn bread and chicken stock. That is something I’m really excited about, but very apprehensive about. Because I know that we’re going to eat it and it’s going to taste fine. We’re going to use the same roasting pans that she used. But, I just don’t know if we’re going to get it just exactly like hers. We can tackle all the other stuff, but then there is Mimi’s dressing. So that is what I am most looking forward to this holiday season, trying to replicate Mimi’s dressing.

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11.) James, you always say that you can learn a lot about a person from what’s on their coffee table. What’s on your coffee table right now?

 Okay, this is so selfish…but my own book. So I have a coffee table at the shop that is literally my coffee table but is not actually a coffee table. It’s an English, pine, drop leaf table. I bought it for sixty dollars at a thrift store on the side of the road. I had to reattach the drop leaves. It’s awful, but at the same time, it’s so fabulous! It’s taller than a coffee table but it works as a coffee table. I was rearranging the shop the other day and I thought, ‘you know what I need here in here in front this sofa? I need my coffee table .’ So I went and I literally set it up like I have mine at home. I have a couple of my books on there and I always have something seasonal. I have a candle on there that I love the scent of…it’s a honey tobacco scent. I have an aqua green gourd vase that a friend of mine made me when I was at Auburn in ceramics class. She loved what I made and I loved what she made so we always swapped stuff. I’ve got some succulents on there too. So that’s what is on there right now…on that old, pine, drop leaf table. Every now and then I think that I need to get it cut down to make it a true coffee table, but then it wouldn’t be versatile and I wouldn’t be able to also use it as a table with two chairs or a side piece.

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12.)  Because you’re in Cashiers right now, and so many of our readers love that place….will you share some of things you love about that special place and any new inspiration you have received?

 Well, to me what is so amazing about it is how lush and green everything is. Now Jacksonville can be lush and green with fig ivy and aspidistra, but Cashiers is a different kind of lush with all its rhododendron, mixed with hemlock, spruce and white pine. I love the natural flora and fauna. Ferns are probably my favorite native plant up here. Here’s what I am so enamored with right now…About a week ago my aunt asked me if I would replant her pots on the porch. I said, ‘Sure!’ Okay man, William, let’s say you’ve got a pot in Jacksonville. How many times a day do you have to water it for it to stay pretty? Four times a day? Yea, you have to drown it! So I planted these heucheras, sedums, and sweet potato vines and watered them before I left. That was a week ago. I just got here yesterday and they have doubled in size! They are so healthy and just had a little bit of rain. That is why I love this place. I love this place because humans, like plants, respond to a wonderful environment. I love being in an environment that nurtures you, not abuses you like the heat and humidity do to us all summer long where we both are. That’s what I’m so inspired by right now. I have just made some arrangements for the house with daisies and I’m reminded of why we have that phrase, “fresh as a daisy”. They are just so fresh and everything up here is.

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