Antiques & Design with Mrs. Howard

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The old adage, “Behind every great man is a great woman”, certainly rings true for James Michael Howard.  Last week I talked antiques with Mr. Howard and this week I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Mrs. Howard.  A chat with Phoebe is a memorable experience.  Warm and effervescent, Phoebe clearly loves her work. You get the feeling that she tackles life like she does decorating projects – with sincerity, diligence, and practicality, peppered with laughter, stories, and inimitable Southern charm and elegance. Here’s an excerpt from her bio:

“In 1996, Phoebe and Jim Howard opened the doors to their first store, Mrs. Howard, in Jacksonville, Florida, hoping to demystify the decorating process for their customers. The goal was simple: to create a retail space that showcased Jim’s architectural and decorating talent, and Phoebe’s natural skills for buying, decorating and merchandising. With equal parts of exceptional customer service and a well-rounded mix of furniture, antiques and accessories, the store was an instant success. Five years later, they added another store, Max & Company, which features a younger, more modern appeal. Now, the Howards have Mrs. Howard and Max & Company stores in Jacksonville, Jacksonville Beach, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Over the years, Phoebe’s penchant for creating stylish spaces has evolved into her own brand of decorating, which has garnered praise from national media as well as her clients. Known for her fresh take on traditional style, Phoebe’s work can only be characterized by its timelessness and her mantra to ‘keep it pretty.’  ”

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Phoebe is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on Southern style, and her work is encapsulated in her first book, The Joy of Decorating. (If you order it here you can get a free copy of Phoebe’s paint chart, a beautiful chart of her favorite wall, ceiling and trim paint colors.) Her book has certainly been a huge help to me and I cannot recommend it more. Without further ado, I give you…..Phoebe Howard.

Phoebe, you are known as one of the nation’s leading designers, and you are not afraid to use and embrace antiques. You blend the old and the new….the contemporary and the traditional.  Where did you first get your love or interest in antiques?

I don’t know… I mean, I remember when I was twelve years old, wanting to start collecting china. I was always interested in going into antiques stores, always interested in the past. You know, my grandparents were from Alabama. I always loved looking at old quilts…anything old in the house. I was always interested in history. I was always intrigued by past life and how people used to live and how those objects were used.  It always just fascinated me.  And then when I met Jim and we got married, one of our first mutual things that we had in common was that we both loved to go antiquing and I was like, ‘Perfect!’ So long before we had the shop and we were furnishing our houses, we used to spend as many weekends as we could antiquing and scouring around for special little things. We would collect certain things and that would turn into something else. But, we’re both kind of collectors and love assembling a collection of interesting things that tell a story, and then that naturally evolved into a bigger scale later.

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What do you think are some of the biggest challenges when using and mixing antiques in your rooms? What are some of the greatest benefits?

Antiques, just like modern pieces, can be part of a trend. We’ve all seen English Country come and go. We’ve all seen Country French decorating come and go. We’re getting ready to see Belgian decorating come and go. So I think what I like to try to do is to be careful about what pieces I’m selecting and make sure that they are not something that is going to be thrown out later on. I just look for a timeless mix of objects. I know that’s kind of vague and hard to describe, but I just look for pieces that would work for a modern interior…that would work in a traditional interior…that’s not too much of one particular period.  And also, when I’m buying antiques or using antiques on my projects, I try to mix different periods because I don’t like a room to have a date associated with it or a stamp of time on it. So I like to use some period pieces, pieces from the 40’s, some mid-century, and some modern pieces and mix it all in together.

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Do you have a favorite piece that you love to use over and over for a client….or for yourself? That “go-to” piece that is always a must?

I’m always on the hunt for antique mirrors. I just think there is something beautiful about the patina of the old gold leaf….that old, old mirror. I’ve always liked using old mirrors. I just have tendency to look for antiques that have clean lines. I look for antiques that have a modern silhouette. That could apply to lots of different items. I don’t really think I have a “go-to” because each project is so unique and different. There are certain things that I think are better in the category of “new” and certain things that are better in the category of “old”. I usually don’t use old dining room tables. I usually don’t use old dining room chairs because I find that they are just not practical, but instead I will use an old sideboard and an old, antique console table. I like to use antiques that fit with the modern lifestyle.

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You are a master of wall arrangements with plates, prints, etc. So many people are intimidated by how to create a dynamic cluster or grouping on their walls. Do you have any tips for our readers? Is there any particular type of decorative arts, prints, or porcelain that you love to use when you are doing a large wallscape?

I will say that’s a little tricky. What I generally do when I’m getting ready to hang a big collection on a wall is I draw it. And if you draw it to scale…there’s all these websites now, like Google Sketch and that kind of stuff where you can just put your wall in and draw it and see if the proportion works before you just start banging holes in the wall. I mean I think as long as you have a good collection, whether it’s a collection of plates, or a collection of photographs, or a collection of prints, or a collection mirrors….if you have a good, strong assortment of things. It’s hard to be general about that though, William, I’ve got to tell you…..it’s kind of tricky. What I would say is that there is a lot more thought that goes into it in advance than you might think. When I’m assembling a collection of plates, for instance… I know how many I need before I’m going to start putting them up and I’ll wait until I have a complete collection. It’s drawn and planned. Right now we draw it in CAD on the computer, but before that we used to draw it by hand, but it’s always planned.

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Do you have something that you love to collect, personally…. for your home?

I have been through so many phases and it’s funny….I’ve been collecting brown and white transferware for years. I’ve been collecting creamware for years. I’ve been collecting tortoise shell boxes for years. I’ve been collecting antique textiles for years….and, oddly enough, I don’t seem to have any real attachment to anything at the moment. We’re moving to the beach right now and I’m just kind of waiting to see what my next new collection is because my collections evolve and sometimes I just get tired of something and quit and move on to the next thing that I like.

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What do you see happening with antiques and interior design in the next ten years? Do you think we will see more or less use of antiques with the younger generations? 

Well, I think it’s really sad that the young people don’t seem to have the interest in antiques that they did twenty years ago. Most of the young people that I’m helping today want modern and if they do want antiques they consider it just to be mid-century. And I do like some mid-century, but let’s face it….if it’s been thrown out once, it’s going to get thrown out again. I would just like to see more of an interest in young people getting pieces that are timeless collectibles. I also don’t see that many young people like you coming up into the business and I have a little bit of a worry about the future of antiques. As a Southerner, we have a special pride for our houses, and we love history, and family, and passing things down from generation to generation. I just hope that some of that gets resurrected somehow. I’m not quite sure how to go about it but I always encourage any young people to not buy only new pieces and make sure that they have a few great old pieces that will last a lifetime. I mean, nobody’s doing it. There are not that many young antiques dealers coming up…and in restoration…. and craftspeople…..and all those kinds of things that are so important. It’s kind of a dying trade in ways, and I just don’t know what to do about it, but I want to try and do what I can to promote it and instill that in as many young collectors as I can.

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It can be overwhelming to buy for and decorate a whole house when you are starting from scratch. What advice do you have for a collector just starting out? What staples should they buy first?

What you want to do is make sure that your first piece starting out is A.) multi-purpose, like it can work in multiple rooms, and B.) if you move to another house, that you can take it with you easily. I think something that always falls into that category is a good, English chest. You know you can use that in a dining room. You can use it in a bedroom, in a hallway. You can put it in a living room. That is a piece that you can use in a lot of different kinds of ways. They are always pretty. That is a timeless piece to me. So, I would say an English chest. I would say also some pretty end tables….a Pembroke table or a tripod table. Those are pieces that are flexible and easily moveable. Just basics…start with basics.

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 You and Jim are famous team, each complementing and helping each other. How has Mr. Howard influenced your style?  How are y’all different and the same in your interiors?

Okay, Mr. Howard…..he is much more methodical than I am. He is much more orderly…more organized. He plans every detail out meticulously to the nth degree. He went to Parsons so he has training. He knows more about antiques than I do, actually. He does have more of an education and more practice. I, on the other hand…..being un-trained, being sort of a natural who just burst into this business and taught it to myself basically….. I have just natural instincts that I don’t think you can learn in school. I just learned how to arrange rooms by working in my stores and arranging them over and over and over and then finally I decided I was going to start decorating and “boom” my first job got published and was on the cover of House Beautiful and I was like, “hmmm, I guess I have something here”. So I tell Jim he’s got to leave a little of it to magic. You’ve got to sprinkle a little fairy dust around. You can’t organize and plan every single detail because you’ve got to have something that’s unexpected that came up last minute…something that’s just really pulled out of a hat, like that rabbit out of the hat…right on the job. That’s how we’re different…I’m more natural. Not that I’m not organized, because I am, but I don’t take it to the degree that he does. The way that we are the same is that we are both very, very passionate about doing a good job for our clients. We feel that we are in a service business and we are here to serve our clients and we want to offer them the best, most exceptional service in every way. We take it very, very seriously. So both of us very committed to doing a good job. We never think….both of us are alike in our jobs in that we never think about making money. That’s not our goal. We never think, ‘How much money can I make on this project?’ We think ‘What can I do to make this the best project I’ve ever done? What’s different? What’s exceptional? I want to do a really great job here.’ Somehow when you think like that everything just falls into place….when you are really digging in and wanting that.

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