James Farmer proudly wears his born-and-bred Southernness on his sleeve. If you happen to miss the more nuanced signs—perhaps a crisply embroidered monogram on the plaid or gingham shirt that has become his sartorial signature—you’ll immediately detect it in his affable Perry, Georgia, drawl and see it in the sure hand with which he decorates. Consider him a young man with an old soul, one who embraces brown furniture, antique rose medallion porcelain, and classic chintz as enthusiastically as a gracious host welcomes in guests with a pitcher of sweet tea and a platter (blue-and-white, of course) of homemade cheese straws.
It may seem surprising, then, that as James pulled in the driveway of a rambling stone-and-wood house in Litchfield County, Connecticut, for a meeting with prospective clients, he felt like he was arriving home.
“The terrain reminded me of Cashiers, North Carolina, where I have a vacation house, and it’s probably the first place outside the South where I’ve thought, Hold up, I could live here,” he says. Sited to take advantage of views of a mountain in front and a nature preserve in back, “The architecture of the house was strong but not demanding, and would give us a great canvas to paint a beautiful picture,” he adds.
Inside, he found kindred spirits in the owners, a New York couple with three young children who were looking to create a weekend getaway with the sophistication and livability of a primary residence, and also one that reminded them of the wife’s North Carolina roots.
“The only directive she gave me was, ‘My husband is French, and his family owns several international residences, but his favorite house is my mother’s in Winston-Salem. That’s the feeling we want,’ ” recalls James. “The husband explained that he loved objects in his mother-in-law’s home such as family photos in silver picture frames on her piano, and one-of-a-kind lamps made from antique vases—basically the layers and details that give a house personality and evoke memories. I looked at them and said, ‘I can give you that all day long.’ I strive to make every house I decorate feel like it was inherited versus purchased.”
The owners brought a few cherished family furnishings to the table, among them an Oushak rug from the husband’s side that would become the foundation and color inspiration for the living room scheme, and a breakfast table and chairs from the wife’s childhood home that ultimately nestled into the kitchen bay. Although the large house quickly absorbed the pieces that had been genuinely inherited, that proved no obstacle for a designer who considers antiquing both a sport and the optimal way to create a sense of history and patina.
“Some Southern men get up early in the morning to hunt; my idea of hunting is to hit Scott Market in Atlanta or any back-roads antiques shop or estate sale,” he says.
His search for furnishings, fabrics, and accessories took him from Palm Beach, Florida, to Connecticut and points in between, but there was always a method to the madness, he says. An oil painting of the Venetian harbor hanging over the living room mantel speaks to the husband’s family business in shipping. A set of Victorian-style wicker barstools in the kitchen may be new but “look like ones your eccentric aunt from Grey Gardens left you in the will, painted white to make them current,” James continues.
He chose an unexpected floral fabric for the gentleman’s study because the Connecticut climate makes growing actual camellias too challenging, but they serve as cheerful reminders of North Carolina. A coromandel screen found on St. Simons Island, Georgia, depicts everyday scenes such as a Chinese villager playing with a kitten, balancing formality with levity in a way that seemed particularly appropriate. Conscious that the couple’s children would have full run of the house, the designer knew to avoid any velvet ropes of the metaphorical sort, “though we would have a velvet sofa or two,” he says, with a laugh.
In James’s recently published book, Arriving Home (his ninth, and in which this project appears), he writes, “As Southerners, our style does not warrant an apology for blending the old with the new, the common with the fine or the familial with the found … after all, that’s the way mama did it too.” A sentiment and sensibility that transcends time and place and that one hopes will carry on in this family for generations.
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In the kitchen, a trellis wallpaper by Anna French complements a Sanderson pattern of greenhouses, vegetables, and beehives.
By Karen Carroll | Photography by Jeff Herr | Interior design by James Farmer