Phoebe Howard was a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother when she decided to start decorating. Years later, she began taking private clients, and her first project landed on the September 2006 cover of House Beautiful magazine.
Today, Howard's name is widely recognized in the design world, and her work has become synonymous with Southern style: rooms so comfortable and inviting they make you want to sit down and stay awhile. She has been featured in countless home furnishing publications, including Elle Decor, Southern Accents and Traditional Home, and images of her soft, pretty spaces turn up almost weekly on design blogs. She and her husband, Jim, also an interior decorator, own eight home furnishings stores in four cities: Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach, Atlanta and, opening this month, Charlotte, N.C.
It all started when Howard, now 51, suggested to her husband that they open a store. Her idea was a place to showcase Jim's design work (he designs the spaces, lays out the rooms and selects the flooring and lighting) and to show customers how to properly place furniture (the shops are arranged in a series of room vignettes).
"It's all about helping customers figure out the mysteries of scale, proportion and balance," Howard says. The result was a high-end home furnishings shop that opened in 1996 in their hometown, Jacksonville. They named the store Mrs. Howard (www.phoebehoward.net). "It was an instant hit," she says.
Five years later they opened a more modern and moderately priced shop, Max & Company (named after Phoebe's son). Whereas Mrs. Howard is more classic and traditional, with upscale furniture, upholstery, rugs and antiques, the offerings at Max & Company are more casual and affordable to appeal to a younger crowd. "Max & Company is like walking through a beach house," says Howard, who is the buyer, decorator, stylist and manager for the stores. "Mrs. Howard is like walking through a grand Southern home."
For nine years the self-taught decorator used the stores as a training ground, and the experience eventually led to her taking on clients of her own. "That's how I taught myself how to decorate," Howard says. "When you sell off the floor, you have to fill that space fast."
Howard spoke to us by phone from Jacksonville about decorating and her favorite paint colors, palettes and furniture pieces.
How would you describe your style?
It has a timeless quality, because I mix antiques with modern pieces. A hallmark of my style is that I use color in a monochromatic way. When you limit color contrast, it brings a sense of calm, order and serenity to a room, even if the colors are vibrant.
What is your decorating philosophy?
Keep it pretty. I want people to love the way they feel when they walk into a room, rather than have their eye drawn to one thing in a room. If someone walks in a room as says, "Oh, I love that painting," I think I've failed. I'd rather they say, "I love that room. I love being in there."
What is the simplest way to update a space?
Paint. That's the easiest. It's inexpensive, it only takes a day, and it's guaranteed to bring about a big impact.
What colors are you most drawn to when decorating?
I'm personally drawn to a soft, neutral palette of blues, greens and sands. This kind of palette is something that's soothing and calming to me, I think because I grew up on the beach and those colors always make me feel at home. I like to say: I'm married to beige, but I have affairs with color.
Do you have favorite paint colors?
Glass Slipper, Healing Aloe, Vale Mist, Cream Fleece, Winter Wheat — all Benjamin Moore.
What are some easy ways to freshen up a home?
The first thing you should do every summer is give your house a really good cleaning. The second thing is to add fresh, live greenery, like pots of ivy, orchids — they last forever and are easy to maintain. In the bedroom, you could update your bedding. In the dining room, take a look at your chairs and make sure they're comfortable. Do you need new ones? Can your existing ones be slipcovered? In the living room, add pillows or lamps. A new coffee table can usually greatly improve a living room.
Are there furniture pieces and accessories you turn to again and again?
My signature favorites are starburst mirrors (I dig around for antiques), Bridgewater club chairs (English arms, delicately turned legs and a high, tight back), modern coffee tables, painted beds, upholstered dining room chairs, antiques that have a modern silhouette. For accessories: glass hurricanes (they're very versatile; you can use them on a dining table, a coffee table, a mantel), glass lamps with colored shades, brass accessories, and I always love antique boxes and books. With accessories, it's important that they aren't cluttered. I like collections, but collections need to be controlled. Most people buy too many picture frames.
Is there a design trend you dislike?
People are too caught up in mid century furniture. I like it in small doses, but I don't know if it has staying power. People randomly make purchases without careful consideration and thought, then call the look "eclectic." Furniture and decorating is an expensive investment, and I think it should be treated with a great deal of importance. I think people should do as much research when they buy furniture as they do when they buy a car.
Do you have favorite design blogs?
Things That Inspire (fresh palette.blogspot.com), the Peak of Chic (thepeakofchic.blogspot.com), Eddie Ross (eddieross.com), Style Court (stylecourt.blogspot.com), All the Best (www.allthebest blog.com), Habitually Chic (habituallychic.blogspot.com) and Absolutely Beautiful Things (absolutely beautifulthings.blogspot.com).
Once we open the new store (in Charlotte), getting back on our feet will take a few months, but then we'll be keeping the stores up and keeping them going.