Jim Howard Talks Antiques

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This post was particularly fun for me because I got to interview one of the great masterminds of interior design, James Michael Howard. I have not only had the great privilege of growing up around Jim and his family, but of restoring and conserving the beautiful pieces that he is always bringing back for his projects and their stores. Jim Howard has been very influential on me and my career and I am ever grateful for his friendship. I remember being inspired by him and Phoebe as a young kid, and they still inspire me today. I feel very fortunate to get to work with Jim and proud that Jacksonville can boast of having grown one of the nation’s best designers.  Here’s an excerpt from his bio:

“Jim Howard opened his own interiors firm, James Michael Howard, Inc., in 1988, after 12 years of working with various design firms. Jim’s meticulous attention to architectural detailing and his lavish application of color, texture, and pattern are hallmarks of his style. Schooled in design at Parson’s in New York, Jim developed a passion for both classical and modern elements of design and decoration early in his career. Jim’s range is broad and ever expanding. From Florida beach houses, to Montana retreats, to Virginia country houses to urban apartments, Jim always manages to blend his creative aesthetic to complement the needs and taste of his clients.”

You can learn more about him at his website and he is sure to be seen at this year’s show. Without further ado, here’s a look inside one of the great minds of interior design……Jim Howard.

When did you first know that you wanted to be an interior designer? Tell me a little about that.

I was working for a furniture store in high school for date money and liked it.  The next thing I knew I was in design school at Parsons and the bug bit me.  We would visit the offices of some of the biggest names in design and would have guest lecturers like John Saladino, Mario Buatta, Denning and Fourcade etc.  It was a very heady experience and they were very influential on me at a time when the world was opening up to me.

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You have an incredible eye. What’s the first thing you look for in a piece when you are buying, particularly when it comes to antiques? 

Since there are so many things that I buy it’s really hard to pick just one thing, but at the same time it is so easy to see “it”.  Probably a lot like a jeweler evaluating a diamond.  When I see a commode, or a chest of drawers for example, I evaluate the form quickly, then if it catches my eye, I slow down and look very carefully… the front, sides and top, followed by the color and type of wood.  I am a very quick study.  George I furniture is typically always walnut, if it isn’t, then it’s probably a fraud.  George II and III is almost always mahogany.  In France, walnut, fruitwood, and oak are the prevailing woods.  Authenticity is critical for valuing the piece and determining if it is all original components or pieces and parts that are assembled by workshops that specialize in fakes.  The best pieces have either perfect proportions if from a city center…London, Paris, etc. or “quirky” if the piece was made in the country.  Country pieces have details that are simpler, more naive.  For every commode I buy, I pass on 200.

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Do you have a favorite period or style that you love the most? If so, what is it and why?

‘I am easily satisfied with best of anything’ is a very famous quote.  If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said just about anything Irish of the 18th century, George II, and 19th century Austrian.  Pieces that were unusual and strong.  But I have changed lately.  I have been fortunate to have a few clients that have extraordinary modern art from the early 20th century thru the early 1960’s.  When a house has great art it is transforming because of the immense power of the work.  Currently we are building a house at the beach and on Long Island for ourselves and we have been buying French and Italian furniture of the 1930’s and 40’s and are completely smitten by the elegance, color and designs of that period.  We will continue to be passionate about English and French furniture of the 18th and 19th century, however as it is so lovely and familiar.

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You and Phoebe have always embraced antiques in your rooms. So many designers today are afraid of them and you have always used them so well. Where did you first get your love of antiques?

I did not grow up with antiques and had very little exposure until my time in NY where I had a professor who also worked at Vernay and Jussel, a wonderful shop filled with the most beautiful 18th and 19th century furniture.   We would do field trips to the shop and wander around and hear the stories about his colorful patrons.  There would be discussions about gilding, French polishing, rare woods, and carving.  I was mesmerized by the history and provenance of those pieces and longed to own some of them one day.  You have to understand that antiques are unique…one of a kind pieces that are often less expensive than reproductions. Their color and detail are often unmatched.

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You have become an icon in the interior design world and known for your extensive knowledge of periods and styles. In terms of antiques, what’s hot right now? Any particular style or period you see coming in or going out? Anything our readers should be on the hunt for at this year’s show?

An icon?  I think that an old guy that has been poking around a long time is more like it.  Buying what’s hot is both exhilarating and satisfying, but potentially dangerous.  It’s like buying the hot stock.  If you see something you like and feel strongly about then buy it.  Buying a good antique piece of furniture, mirror or rug will add untold value to your home, and will hopefully bring years of lasting pleasure.

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If someone has more modern taste, in terms or art, fabrics, etc., but they also want to collect antiques, what kinds of pieces lend themselves to that? Any particular pieces or styles you look for when trying to mix the old and new?

Not really, but I tend to lean towards compositions that have a certain tension. Like a Regency library table and a strong modern picture.  That conformity is due to the clean almost architectural appearance of that pairing.  I prefer that the painting dominate the composition and let the antique recede in most settings.  If you own a modern print under glass, then I usually let the opposite occur.  Like doing a grouping of unusual modern pictures together over a stunning English chest is pleasing and lovely.

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You and Phoebe have always made such beautiful homes, both for yourselves and others. What advice do you have for the young collector out there…..that person who is young, on a budget, and doesn’t know much, but wants to start creating a beautiful home. What’s the first step?…..(aside from calling Mrs. Howard, of course)

When Mrs. H and I were first married we were REALLY on a tight budget and had very few nickels to put towards fine antiques.   What we did was focused on a disciplined pattern of collecting.  We placed value on having a stash available so that when we saw something we loved we bought it and found a home for it.  Never was the idea of need put ahead of buying something that we both really loved.  When you buy like this you are sure to have great success. In collecting this way every time you walk past your little find, then it will bring you great pleasure.

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Okay, I asked Phoebe this, so I have to ask you. You two are a famous pair. How have you influenced each other’s styles? How are your rooms different? How are they the same?

Okay, so we are currently the two most famous decorators on Herschel Street.   Believe it or not, we are in constant competition with each other to push ourselves to be better.  Phoebe has an innate source of creating beauty and a lovely environment in her clients’ home.  She can see solutions to her clients’ needs quickly because she is constantly re-styling the store environments and creating vignettes that are so beautiful.  I’m a bit more eclectic than her, and focus on the architectural envelope more diligently.  When we work together (rarely) I typically do all of the architectural work and she does the decorating as we both respect each other’s abilities to do the work that way.  I tend to be a bit more edgy and use pieces that are more bold and robust, where she likes a calm palette.  But at the end of the day, it’s just not that different.

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Stay tuned later in the week for our interview with Jim’s other half….Mrs. Howard

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