A Breath of Fresh Air

Interior designer James Farmer gives a young family’s historic home a new lease on life and proves elegance and exuberance go hand in hand
Photo the screened porch at McCurdy Plantation. Designer James Farmer chose a gray floor and light blue ceiling, and furnished it with two rocking chairs and a bed swing covered in blue pillows.

“The best designs aren’t always born from what’s new or next but are often built on ideas we borrow from history.” In the era of modern and minimal, that’s an enlightening sentiment, particularly when it comes from a 30-something interior designer. In recent years, small-town boy James Farmer has made a big name for himself in the design world thanks to his fresh perspective on the traditional Southern aesthetic. So when his college friends Brandy and Mitchell Martin purchased a tired antebellum house for their young family of four, they knew exactly who to call on to revive it.

Photo of the Martin family's study designed by James Farmer. Red leather chairs, a plaid armchair and a painting featuring blues and greens bring color to the room, which features a neutral grass wallcovering, natural heart pine paneling and a brick fireplace with antique natural-wood wood mantel. A threadbare Oriental rug ties the room together.
Layers of luxe fabrics soften the paneled walls and millwork and the brick fireplace surround in the study.

Built in 1845, McCurdy Plantation is among the last few working farms in the sleepy town of Oak Bowery, Alabama. Although its stately façade showcases many of the hallmarks of Greek Revival architecture, early records indicate that it was originally designed in the Federal style with a two-column portico and Juliet balcony.

Farmer believes that the addition of the deep porch and colonnade may be due to the influence of John Wind, a renowned British architect who traveled extensively throughout the South around that time, leaving his mark on the area. Later, at the turn of the century, the interior of the home was remodeled to meet the styles and standards of the day but remained untouched until the Mitchells took ownership in 2017.

Photo of kitchen designed by James Farmer for the McCurdy Plantation
The shiplap-wrapped range hood ties together the home’s original and updated spaces. The subway tile backsplash, copper lantern, and furniturelike cabinetry imbue the contemporary kitchen with a classic feel.

“The condition was both a blessing and a curse,” Farmer says. “A blessing because so many of the authentic architectural elements were still intact, just begging to be revealed and restored. A curse because it lacked a functional kitchen and pantry, garage, modern bathrooms, and other amenities that we expect today.”

Working with Atlanta-based architect Norman Askins, Farmer unearthed design surprises throughout the house and righted more than two centuries’ worth of wrongs. Dated paint colors and dingy wallcoverings were peeled back to expose layers of plaster and shiplap that stretched up to 12 feet above the wide-plank heart pine floors.

“A museum is a nice place to visit but certainly no place to live—especially for a family with young kids. So while we worked diligently to honor the home’s rich past with a historically accurate design, we made comfort a priority, along with color and pattern.”—James Farmer
Photo of the Martin family's foyer designed by James Farmer.
The foyer is flooded with natural light from the transom and sidelights that encase the original double doors.
Photo of the green and white climbing hydrangea chosen by designer James Farmer in the restored McCurdy Plantation in Oak Bowery, Alabama
“Every time I see Gone with the Wind, I fall in love all over again with the climbing hydrangea wallpaper in Scarlett and Rhett Butler’s house,” says Farmer. “For the upstairs foyer, we used Quadrille’s version.”

“Brandy was a dream to work with because she was fearless when it came to using bold colors and big prints,” he said. “She trusted me and recognized that our choices—as daring as they might have seemed to some—were classically rooted and would therefore stand the test of time.”

The color story began in the dining room. Walls swathed in warm apricot, a go-to hue for English dining rooms for centuries, gave way to the rust-colored grass cloth walls in the study and the natural-finish heart pine shiplap in the family room. Initially, Farmer had selected an animal-print wallpaper for the space but changed course after stumbling upon the exquisite woodwork when opening up a wall.

Photo of the dining room designed by James Farmer at McCurdy Plantation, featuring apricot walls, botanical-patterned curtains, a white-painted fireplace mantel and crown molding and a neutral area rug.
“This dining room is like an eccentric great-aunt,” says James Farmer. “Beautiful but a little bit off.” The designer created a harmonious hodgepodge by mixing linen curtains, a sisal rug, and a cane-and-bamboo sideboard with Chinese Chippendale chairs, a double pedestal table, a gilded mirror, and a crystal chandelier.

“Heart pine was everywhere in this house, from floor to ceiling,” Farmer says. “Back when the house was built, it was a very accessible material. It wasn’t considered a splurge or relegated to the floors, so when we found it on the walls, there was no way we could justify covering it back up. We used a whitewash in the foyer and linseed oil in the family room. The subtlety of these finishes allowed all those perfect imperfections to peek through for more depth and dimension.”

Photo of the family room designed by James Farmer at the McCurdy Plantation
From the artwork to the upholstery, a broad spectrum of cool blues tempers the warmth of the heart pine shiplap walls.

The simplicity of the woodwork also balances the mélange of motifs presented on the rugs, window treatments, upholstery, and wallcoverings. Floral, plaid, and chinoiserie prints—once considered traditional—read as anything but old-school because of their invigorated colorways and exaggerated scale.

“People often think of antebellum homes and envision serious, stodgy interiors,” Farmer says. “While we Southerners do love our antiques, heirlooms, and other fineries, a little lightheartedness sure goes a long way.”

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“I always joke that my favorite color is plaid and my second favorite color is trellis,” says Farmer, who chose Schumacher’s Zanzibar Trellis wallpaper for the breakfast room.
Bedroom in the McCurdy Plantation designed by James Farmer.
Hand-painted chests reminiscent of Chinese export porcelain were the starting point for the main bedroom’s blue-and-white palette. The Matouk custom scallop-edge linens are a crisp counterpoint to the knotty wood pencil-post bed and oversized inlaid mirror.
Photo of James Farmer interior design at McCurdy Plantation featuring two light blue armchairs and a round, tufted light blue leather ottoman. The walls, shiplap ceiling and mantel are all painted white.
The main bedroom's sitting room is well suited for resting and re-energizing.
A photo of a master bath designed by James Farmer featuring a clawfoot tub under a gilded chandelier, in front of a fireplace, and light gray herringbone-pattern tile floor.
The bath marries modern luxury and old-fashioned charm.
Another view of a master bath designed by James Farmer, featuring a furniture-like vanity painted white and a brown and white botanical-print Roman shade that complements the wallpaper.
The botanical-print wallpaper and shades echo the woodland views.
The wood-framed mirror above the sideboard was part of the original owners’ estate.
Photo the screened porch at McCurdy Plantation. Designer James Farmer chose a gray floor and light blue ceiling, and furnished it with two rocking chairs and a bed swing covered in blue pillows.
The screened porch epitomizes Southern style with a bed swing made in South Carolina and chairs from Georgia.
The fretwork design of the antique English secretary blends Edwardian, Queen Anne, and post-Victorian elements, making it a “stylistic mutt” that complements other pieces of varying provenances.
Photo of a transom-topped doorway leading to a powder room at the McCurdy Plantation
A custom transom recalls the relaxed elegance of caning.
Photo of the dining room designed by James Farmer at McCurdy Plantation in Oak Bowery, Alabama
A hand-painted Italian screen is a playful contrast to the primitive huntboard made in England from Southern pine.
Back view of McCurdy Plantation, owned today by the Martin in Oak Bowery, Alabama
The 800-square-foot addition was seamlessly integrated thanks to architect Norman Askins.
A blue pool leads to a covered brick patio of the pool house, which features wood columns across the front and an aged metal roof and brick chimney
“It’s like Southern style meets Hamptons style,” says Farmer of the pool house that was converted from a barn. See James Farmer's Top 5 Southern Plantings.

By Margaret Zainey Roux | Photography by Emily Followill

This story originally appeared in Flower magazine’s May/June 2019 issue. Find Flower in a store near you or subscribe.

See more interiors by James Farmer. 

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