Southern designer, James Farmer says it’s the small changes that keep a home fresh and new.
James Farmer has been in interior design for 20 years, known for his ability to create beautifully familiar and welcoming homes; he’s also an author and speaker. To James, a home engages all of the senses—the pleasantries of colors and materials, the feel of the doorknob warmed by the sun, the smell of fresh laundry, the sound of the closing door, and the taste of supper on the table. As Farmer says, “Classic, traditional, comfortable design is always in style.”
He will be the guest speaker at the 4th Words & Wisdom event organized by the Senior Board of Children’s Hospital of Richmond to benefit the hospital. It’s slated for September 15 at the Tuckahoe Women’s Club.
His new book Celebrating Home: A time for Every Season is out now as well. In it, you see his design is about appreciating old objects that have a heritage but also integrating new things into the environment But it’s also about allowing that environment to be friendly and communicating a sense of companionship and togetherness.
Konstantin Rega: How did you get into interior designing?
James Farmer: Well, I did it the old-fashioned way and went to college and majored in design. But I’ve always had an interest in architecture, interior design, and gardening—especially since childhood—and that interest blossomed into a major and then into a career.
And even before I graduated, I always like to joke about it as a career. When I was growing up, I had a little business called “Leaf It To Me.” And I would help my mother’s friends pot ferns and geraniums for their porches and even suggest what color to paint their doors. And it kind of bloomed into what I do today.
What do you remember best about those moments?
I remember thinking how easy it was for me to make a decision about this neighbor’s door. But still she had fretted over it for months. And here I was, you know, 13 or 14 and could say your door needs to be red or geraniums look right at Christmas with holly berries. And that’s when I realized that, you can have a career helping people with their homes. But in particular, when I was in college, one of my favorite professors said that interior design is 90% psychology, the rest logistics. Creativity finds its place somewhere.
And I still feel that gut instinct—that third eye of how it feels from within—when I see a potential finished product. It’s just in my mind’s eye and then it’s reconstructing. So my design team and I take that and we dissect it to discover the layers and the phases, then put it back together.
What are your favorite spaces to work in/with?
It doesn’t matter the size of the project. I love a formulaic space, like a dining room, where you have to have a table and chairs and a serving piece or china cabinet or something, but then I love to break the formula somehow. The chairs don’t all have to be the same chair. Same thing with a living room: you have a sofa and chairs, but you could also have a game table in there. It’s about taking a formula and then giving it a twist. It’s like salt on a chocolate chip cookie; I can’t really explain it, but it’s so good.
I often start with some type of inspiration, whether it’s the color of fabric, an antique rug, a painting, or even the view out the window. And then from that inspiration, I run all the threads through for the finished product.
I love to see that a chair has been lived and sat in and used and celebrated and has a story to tell. And if we need to recover it a few years later. Great. It’s always a design, it’s always an evolution.
Yyou’re also an author. What inspires your books?
The seasons are a major part of each book. And I think in that seasonal calendar, so even though it’s summer right now. I’m planting things that will bloom in the fall. It’s never trying to catch up with a season. It’s trying to anticipate a season. And that runs its course in my design work as well. We southerners also have a wonderful hallmark of being associated with hospitality. So I like to live that up.
And so what is your version of Southern Style?
There is an inherent, unapologetic nature to Southern Style. If you look at how Spanish moss grows down as a tree grows up, or how a marsh and a river intersect with the ocean, or how a horizon line in a field of crops meets the sky with the amazing sunsets. There’s always a dichotomy of delightful juxtapositions, and that is also seen in our style. We grow flowers in the yard, but we arrange them in silver and porcelain, we fry chicken and eat it at tailgates while we’re dressed up to go to a football game. There are so many highs and lows, old and new, lost and found. And to me, that’s a part of that Southern hallmark of hospitality.
As for more recently, I’m happy that color, wallpaper, and mixing patterns are once again celebrated in magazines, blogs, and social media. It was boring to live through everything being gray and beige.
What’s the first thing you kind of tell people about designing a space to call their own?
Don’t ever decorate for the moment. You want to design for your life. So if you need a chest of drawers at a good antique, there’s a reason why it’s 150 years old versus something brand new—that probably won’t last. Get the bone structure of older pieces. there’s some versatility to antiques that some new furniture doesn’t possess.
It’s the layers that are so fun to incorporate with artwork and accessories if the bone structure, the foundation, is there. Then it can simply be the changing of a flower arrangement or switching all the fruit on a table or new throw pillows that can easily change the look and feel of the room. So first find the foundations, and then art and accessories can really show off some personality.
Our lives aren’t meant to be complete suits, never removed or reworked. You don’t wear a business suit to go duck hunting, and vice versa. So make your homework for you.
How have you grown in the last 20 years?
I think one way that I have grown as a designer is to be reinforced by how classic comfortable traditional style stands the test of time. Keeping it classic, just always works. But if I’m tempted to try something that may stray away from that tradition, there are chairs that we re-upholster or lampshades traded out to make the old lamp feel new.
Buy a copy of his new book at: JamesFarmer.com