Text: Karen Carroll
Southern Home (SH): In your new book, Soul of the Home: Designing with Antiques (Harry N. Abrams), you describe yourself as a modernist at heart. That’s somewhat surprising, coming from an antiques dealer.
Tara Shaw (TS): As a teen I had a midcentury banquette covered in a leopard print and a black fur bedspread on a midcentury bed. Fortunately my family always allowed me to color outside the lines.
SH: When did you develop your passion for antiques?
TS: I had a pretty successful career in the fashion industry, and I had gotten to the point where I wanted to feather my New Orleans nest. At the time French Provincial furniture was prevalent, which wasn’t my cup of tea, so I started doing research, poring through auction catalogs and magazines, and learning all I could to start the journey of finding out about different periods of furniture and styles. I’m gleaning, trying to understand and connect to things that I want to surround me. So how can I make that happen? I decided I could collect one piece—a true investment item—a year. I had the idea to bring in a container from Europe, sell the furniture to the trade, and that way I could keep one item per container. It started with a 20-foot container that I shipped to a mini-storage on Tchoupitoulas Street, and I was petrified, because I had taken out all my savings, except for one house note. I’m praying, Lord, I hope people show up. I was inside the container, and I started hearing noise on the outside. When I rolled up the door, people ran in and everything sold in about 10 minutes.
SH: How did the decorating side of your business come about?
TS: I was unloading a container one day, and I got a call from a national magazine that they wanted to come over and visit the warehouse and my home. They arranged a photo shoot, and it made the cover. Then one Sunday, I got a phone call from Harry Connick, Jr. and Jill Goodacre; they’d seen the article, and they asked me to decorate their house in Connecticut. I was so surprised, I had to lie down on the floor in my galley kitchen. I’d been decorating for friends almost my whole life, although I had never considered actually getting paid for it. But it felt like a natural evolution. Before I even buy something, I can envision where and how a designer—or now I—will actually use the piece.
SH: Describe your decorating aesthetic.
TS: European roots incorporated into a timeless, effortless, casual elegance. It’s always about longevity.
SH: What do you do when a client already owns antiques that aren’t so great, perhaps Aunt Martha’s sideboard?
TS: Of course we will always incorporate things that have meaning to our clients, but often when they bring out that sideboard, they’re also saying what they don’t love. If that’s the case, I’ll suggest selling it through an auction or a consignment store, and let’s find what you do love. But I’ve worked with all manner of things that people have inherited and always make them current.
SH: Please share your secret for how you make a dowdy, but sentimental, antique current!
TS: Let’s consider a Victorian chest, because you often find that in a Southern home. It’s been inherited from the grandparents, and the knobs are made of wood, just like the mahogany chest. I’m going to put a striking contemporary painting or print above it, and then I would add a clean-lined lamp, whether it’s plaster or something else with interest and texture. I also always encourage the breaking up of sets or suites of furniture—the brown-upon-brown can be what feels so staid. Use that glorious 10-foot dining table, but put contemporary chairs around it, or even other antique chairs with some unexpected, colorful fabric or a fluffy hide that looks like a party skirt.
SH: What’s your position on modifying or painting an antique?
TS: Modifying to update, I’m totally fine with. Take that brown bench and put a crisp white cotton or linen on it, and it will change from night to day. Painting is another matter. I’ve seen so many terrible newly painted finishes on antiques that I shudder. That’s where I draw the line. Live with it…or not.
SH: Is there a universal period that works in any kind of interior?
TS: Louis XVI or its cousin, Directoire, will work anywhere. What I love about the lines of those two periods is they’re harmonious with contemporary or midcentury.
SH: As a dealer, beautiful things pass through your hands as a way of life, but what is the thing you most regret letting go?
TS: An Italian chandelier. Oh my gosh, it was rock crystal with gilded iron in the form of a basket. I sometimes hope that something won’t sell, and of course it’s the first thing that runs out the door. I’d give anything to know where that chandelier landed. If you’re reading this and happen to know, please contact me immediately!
SH: And what’s the piece you would never let go?
TS: A large-scale, 19th-century painting of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane that hangs in my dining room. I found it in a dark cubbyhole of a shop on a random street in Italy. What I love about what I call guerrilla antiquing is I never know what I’ll find, and sometimes I come up empty. But it’s those rare, pearl-in-the-field moments where I think, this is what I live for.
SH: In your design work, where do you opt to use reproduction or contemporary furniture rather than something old?
TS: While my hero in the room is going to be a one-of-a-kind find, I’m always working around it, because we want a practical, well thought-out lifestyle. I’ve never really seen a comfortable antique sofa. And although I adore antique beds—a Louis Philippe daybed is perfection in a child’s room—for most purposes, I’ll select a contemporary custom bed.
SH: You do love a good canopy bed.
TS: They’re an instant safe haven, and they also let the antiques in a room take the spotlight. I design my own line of furniture called Maison, and iron canopy beds are a big part of the collection. It all started after Hurricane Katrina, when an artisan called and asked for help because he was struggling for work. I wanted to design something we could make here and sell, so we didn’t lose all these fabulous artisans.
SH: Amid all the challenges of this year, you’ve recently opened a new showroom on Magazine Street. Tell us about it.
TS: It has been a two-year labor of love. We saved and renovated an old 11,000-square-foot building that had actually been a couple of Victorians joined together. Upstairs we have several apartments, and downstairs we unload our containers from Europe and have our design studio. We’ve come a long way since that first mini-storage unit.
SH: What’s your best advice for the person just starting to collect antiques?
TS: Listen to your inner voice. If you’re on the quest, you don’t want to miss something because it doesn’t fit in your box. When I first set out to buy that initial great piece, I was looking for a desk and then found an armoire that stopped me in my tracks. It has traveled around to various points in my house ever since. Connect to what you love.
SH: Finally, gaze into your crystal ball and tell us what you see being made today that you can imagine someone coveting a hundred years from now.
TS: Well, it’s got to check a lot of boxes for me. It needs to be timeless, elegant, and useful. Hand-crafted would be a huge element. I’d say a very clean-lined coffee table or hopefully, a Tara Shaw-designed canopy bed!