If you’ve ever spent time in the South, you may have noticed that decorating seems to come naturally to those that live there. It’s a part of the lifestyle and the culture, and Southerners often inherit family heirlooms like hand-painted oyster plates, julep cups, and old oil paintings that make their homes all the more intriguing. Needless to say, there’s something about a Southern home that’s hard to emulate—they just have that je ne sais quoi. But we’ll try anyway… Today we’re talking to three interior designers about how to decorate like a true Southerner.
Read on for our conversations with New Orleans–based designer Melissa Miles Rufty of MMR Interiors, Atlanta-based designers Carter Kay and Nancy Hooff of Carter Kay Interiors, and L.A.-based designer Mark D. Sikes, who recently brought Southern spirit to the interiors of Reese Witherspoon’s Nashville store, Draper James.
When we asked the designers to describe the core tenets of Southern style, there were a couple themes that rose to the service. The first was this idea that décor is collected over time. As Melissa Miles Rufty explained, “My mom always had a saying, ‘You don’t want a room to look like it all arrived on the same day.’” Southern interiors “look collected over time and in most cases, a little imperfect,” she says, which gives them “an unmistakable soulful aura.” Mark D. Sikes points out that antiques and family heirlooms are common denominators in every Southern home.
Another tenet is that Southern interiors should be entertaining and playful. Carter Kay Interiors designers, Carter Kay and Nancy Hooff, tell us that Southern style requires a combination of comfort, humor, entertainment, and thought-provoking elements. Southern interiors should not only make guests laugh and smile, but also feel welcome. As Rufty describes it, “China, sterling silver, and monogrammed linens are used every day… nothing is too precious.” She adds: “And by all means, you must burn your wicks when putting out new candles. [Otherwise] you would seems as though you never entertain.”
The sentiment that Southern homes should be designed for entertaining was echoed when we asked the designers to share the number-one essential every Southern home should have. For Sikes, it’s “a big kitchen/room for gathering and hosting.” And Rufty votes for “fresh flowers and greenery from the yard (camellias, magnolias)—never store-bought.” And Carter Kay Interiors: “Liquid refreshments!”
Given that Southern interiors are rooted in tradition, we asked the designers to share their thoughts on how to make grandma’s settee and that antique oil painting feel fresh. For all three, the answer was simple: mixing the old with the new. Hooff and Kay tell us: “We love to mix old, quirky items with new ones. Fine art pieces with odd objects and heirlooms. And supporting clients’ contemporary art always feels fresh and new.” Rufty’s standby is to upholster antique furniture with newer textiles, “say, a cream pleather on a Queen Anne, or throwing a modern lamp on a Victorian sideboard.” Sikes adds that “details like trims, painted ceilings, and fabric on the walls,” are all great places to integrate modern elements.
As with every region, a few new trends are taking hold in the South. Sikes is excited about “shiplap walls, statement lighting (I’m loving white plaster chandeliers), eclectic art, and a mix of textures.” Rufty has seen a resurgence in the use of wallpaper and old-school prints. “Floral chintz is back, baby!” she says. Meanwhile, Carter Kay Interiors notes that midcentury furniture is still prevalent, and “those clean lines really appeal to our Southern sense of elegance, comfort, ease, and humor.”
The idea of layering seems to be gaining popularity as well. In New Orleans, “there seems to be a movement away from trendy decorating with graphic prints to a more layered, acquired look,” Rufty says. And in Atlanta, though Carter Kay Interiors finds that “the industrial look is losing its edge,” the designers “still love it softened with an antique rug or animal skin.”
Another new trend you might be seeing more of? Corner banquettes. “I like to use [them] in entrances when I can,” says Rufty. “It sort of sets the tone when you enter. It says, ‘Come on in, kick off your shoes, have a drink, and let’s talk about the neighbors.’ I call it my new Southern welcome mat.’’
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