Antiques and Design with Stephanie Jarvis

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I get to work with a lot of designers in my business.  Many might use an antique here or there if a client really presses them. But, by and large, most tend to find a “formula” and stick with it. Not Stephanie Jarvis. Rarely in my career have I seen a designer so willing to not only use antiques in her interiors, but who has the knowledge to go out and hunt them down for clients.  Maybe it’s because it’s in her blood, maybe it’s because she holds degrees in both Art History and Architectural History from the University of Virginia, but I suspect it’s something much more than that.

Stephanie has a unique and deep sense of what makes a home a home. She knows about kids and dogs. She knows about formal and gracious entertaining. Her homes are always comfortable and yet always beautiful. Born and raised in Jacksonville, with deep Southern roots, Stephanie is the daughter of well-known designer, Cynthia Athey, and apprenticed under the one-and-only Bunny Williams for many years.  She loves the hunt and isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and crawl around my workshop until we find that perfect piece of antique hardware or get just the right stain color.

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I felt very fortunate to get to sit down and “talk shop” with someone who is not just a mentor, but one of my very best friends. Whether you want super traditional and formal, ultra modern, casual and kid-friendly,  or something in between, Stephanie is someone who listens to what you want, will use what you have, and be willing to go out into the trenches and find what you need. You’ll be sure to find her on the hunt at this year’s Show. Without further ado, I give you Stephanie Jarvis…….

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Stephanie, obviously you grew up with art and antiques and your mother was a huge influence I’m sure, but when did you first know you wanted to be a designer? Was it there from the beginning or was there a point when you realized your calling?

Growing up around antique dealers, my grandmother’s antique shop and my mother’s business, I knew I wanted to do something with houses.  I realized during my second year of Architecture school that I was different than my peers.  I was truly more interested in the interiors, the details, the way one might live in a space than the actual construction of a building.  I stayed in Architecture school but focused on the History of Architecture and through archaeology classes loved to learn about how history and the styles of art and furniture and houses all share a certain connectivity.  I think there were two breakthrough moments when I knew design was what I really wanted.  First, sitting at a table in one of the archaeology sheds during an internship at Monticello, I was finishing up finding the last piece to a shell edge dish I had been piecing back together for about a month, and realized I really liked “stuff”.  I loved “stuff” in fact.  I loved being in that shed digging through porcelain shards and thinking about all the ways this dish had been used and loved by that family.

The second major moment was decorator, Dan Carithers’ influence.  He was my college roommate’s step-father, and really took time to show me what his world was all about.  When I would be in Atlanta visiting friends, sometimes staying in their house, he would encourage me to come with him on appointments, come see how his office worked, he even took me to High Point for market with him when he introduced a line of furniture for Baker.  We went to his workrooms, he toured me through some of his favorite finished projects, spent time on his patio talking about how much he loved his job and then he would tell me about what a gift it is to be able to do this for people.  I was hooked.

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So many designers today are abandoning antiques and good vintage for the catalog and on-line furniture and you still embrace them. Why?

Antiques and good vintage add instant patina and history.  It is a layering of items that give a home its soul.  I think especially today, when there is so much access, especially to new items, that people are scared to create something unique for themselves, and instead they re-create what they can see in a catalog or showroom.  We are always looking to create something that is unique to each house and client.  That requires that we find things that are different and special and can add a certain quantity of personality that so much new is lacking.  This is where I find that antiques and good vintage is required in a project.  The uniqueness of old Italian paint can’t be replicated, the combinations of colors and form in old pieces can be an inspiration point for an entire project.  I also must say that antiques are a great value as well.  Often they are much less than the new furniture equivalent.

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Do you have a favorite period that you love to use pieces from? I know you use everything from ancient to modern, but surely you have one or two favorite periods?

My personal favorite period is English Regency, or actually just about any continental piece from this early 19th c. period, Biedermeier, French, Russian and Italian Empire, Karl Johan. I love the straightforward architectural feel to the pieces. They are very versatile in both classic and modern interiors.  I also have a total obsession with anything 18th century Chinoiserie or painted.  I love a crazy unexpected piece like this.  Black chinoiserie really grounds a room, especially today with so many clients requesting that things be kept very pale.  And last, but certainly not least, I adore just about anything French mid-century, especially Jean Michel Frank, Maison Jansen, Poillerat, etc.  There is nothing more wonderful than adding one of these pieces to a room. They are so clean and modern but have that softness and patina and quality of construction that cannot be reproduced.

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What is your best advice to our readers who want to start to collect antiques but are afraid to brave the waters?

My best advice is to educate yourself.  Learn as much as you can, ask lots of questions, start small if that makes you feel more comfortable.  Go to antique shows like the Wolfson Show.  These dealers are a wealth of knowledge and want you to be able to appreciate their pieces.  I still ask 10,000 questions when I see something I don’t recognize or don’t know.  Above all, don’t over-think it.  If you truly love a piece you see at a show, get it, love it, live with it and above all enjoy it.  This is what truly matters, it’s not a test, its about creating a home you love and enjoy.

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Do you have a favorite piece in your house?

I can’t say I have a favorite piece, I think sometimes I love the story behind the pieces more than the pieces themselves.  There is the ultimate crazy good deal – a Gillows concertina action dining table I found at a junk store for $500 and stood there for 2 hours with it until my mother could arrive with a van to load it….Then there is the sentimental family piece – a very unfashionable and over- altered Victorian bed that every woman in my family since 1870 has slept in as a childhood bed and my great grandfather’s notes about its history are written on the slats… Then the great provenance – a huge bulls-eye mirror that was a wedding present to me from Bunny Williams because Sister Parish had also given her a mirror for her wedding and she wanted to do the same for me…And of course the required “husband involved” item – an ancient gilt wood temple Lion that weighs about 45 lbs that my sweet husband had to carry over a mile for me in downtown Tokyo to get it to a taxi stand to take home…..Most importantly, all this “stuff” is what makes up my family and our stories, having them is what makes my house my home.

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Is there something you are still on the hunt for? I mean you scour the country for clients, but is there anything for you personally that you still haven’t found?

Ha! Yes, of course.  There are a few things still on my list, but I would never tell what they are! That would mean that maybe more than one of us would be on the hunt for them.  I will say though that one of the items that had been on my list forever was an 18th century Northern Italian or Venetian walnut sofa.  Though I had seen a few, I did not find one in my price-range until last year at this Show.  The Wolfson Show is a great resource.  I loved having the opportunity to get something for myself with my husband being there also.  The Show is a wonderful way to have some time to sit and have lunch or a night out and shop together for something special.

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You worked for Bunny Williams for a while in New York and so many of our readers love her. Can you talk about that experience for a minute? How do you think that time under Bunny and John Rosselli influenced your style?

Yes, Bunny (and John too) were a huge influence.  She was an unbelievable teacher.  She really impressed on me the importance of having a well organized plan for a home while still leaving room for adding that incredibly unexpected fabulous find.  Likewise she taught me that sometimes a really inexpensive but interesting vintage piece can be just as effective as a $10,000 piece from somewhere like Kentshire.  I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to design at the very highest level in an office that was actually quite small in number.  The projects were varied from classic Connecticut houses, to huge 5th Ave. duplexes, Main Line Philadelphia, Charlottesville horse farms, Aspen retreats, Hampton’s beach houses and Palm Beach mansions.  Across every project the focus was on beautiful and spaces that lived well.  Adding charm and unique finds was a monumental undertaking when working on that scale. Both Bunny and John have an incredible stylishness to their buying and collecting.  Walking through shows with them and seeing what they chose out of all the thousands of things taught me so much about what to look for, how to find that unusual item that would just make a room.  Above all she taught me to do what you love, love what you do,  have pride in your work and believe in yourself.  At the end of the day, a house is for living and loving.  Feeling confident in being unique and being true to the client and the project is perhaps the ultimate gift she taught me.  Doing this work is not a formula, it is a passion and a love.

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