Text: Karen Carroll
Photos: Images courtesy of James Michael Howard
Southern Home (SH): What was your aha moment when you knew you were destined to design?
James Michael Howard (JMH): I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and always dreamed of moving to New York. I didn’t have a particular agenda, but I did have an interest in things related to architecture, furniture, and art. Despite my not-so-wonderful grades, I ended up in school at Parsons. I can remember my aha moment clearly. One of my professors, who was young but very wise, was explaining the difference between the English, French, and Italian Rococo periods, how the furniture shapes and legs, while related, were in fact quite different. It was in that moment when I thought, wow, this is pretty darn cool. From then on, the design bug had bitten me, and I was all in.
SH: How do you describe your decorating style?
JMH: I don’t really have one. While I’ve never loathed when a decorator has a signature look, I’ve always wanted to be academic in all styles and fluent in different languages of design. I like to say I can do anything from Betsy Ross to Darth Vader and everything in between. If I dive in headfirst and do the work and research, I find inspiration and satisfaction in any project.
SH: What has been your biggest design influence?
JMH: Books. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I have an appetite to learn everything I can about the decorative and fine arts world, from architecture and paintings to woodcarving and textile making. It’s a bit nerdy and probably not what you’d expect a good ol’ Southern boy like me to be chasing.
SH: We’d love to know some of your favorite books and how they’ve shaped your perspective.
JMH: Oh, there are more than I can name. But off the top of my head, World Furniture, an old, old book from college that takes you through the history of furniture design. Anything about Palladio, Vitruvius, or Serlio—I’m endlessly fascinated by the mathematical reasoning behind great architecture.
A few years ago, I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and what interested me most was Leonardo’s observance of people and his belief that motion reveals emotion. Now, when I’m working with clients, I carefully observe their body language, gestures, and expressions when I’m showing them things. Sometimes a client will say they like a particular look or that they live a certain way, when they actually mean or want something entirely different. I’ve got to dig deep into who they really are so that the design improves their lives, not changes it completely.
SH: It’s so apparent how masterful you are at designing interior architectural details. Your rooms would be extraordinary even if they were completely bare of furnishings and accessories, although we know how thoughtfully you consider those elements, too.
JMH: When people ask me what is the most important thing in building or decorating a house, I say architecture is number one, art comes second, and furnishings, last. The envelope creates the atmosphere. You can put a very expensive curtain fabric or sofa in a room that’s ugly, and it will not have the effect that a profound room will have when empty.
SH: When you have space without inherent architectural interest, what are some ways you work with or around that?
JMH: Most of the projects I’m involved with are new-build, and I’m fortunate to collaborate with talented architects and can plan and design the interior architecture from the outset. However, in an existing house, if the details aren’t present, I need to create them. But I don’t want to be the guy who only adds a lot of elaborate moldings, or whatever. I have a lot of rules that I follow, and one of them is the rule of advancing and receding. Everything in a room should not command your attention. If it all advances, then it’s just a collage of stuff that can appear almost combative. There shouldn’t be more than two main focal points in a room, and then from there, everything else becomes secondary or tertiary. If I begin with a space that has no architectural details, and the client doesn’t have the budget for it, I need to create that primary focal point with a cool finish, or a wallpaper, or a great large-scale painting.
SH: Your interiors always have a sense of timelessness. Is there any decorating trend you avoid at all costs?
JMH: The trend I avoid is not trying to understand, embrace, or use a trend, because when you stop growing, you’re dead. Trends are about moving forward, although they also have roots—they may not be deep, but there’s usually some significance. It’s my job to figure out what that might be.
SH: What intangible takes a room from good to wow?
JMH: Atmosphere. When your friends come over, you want them to be awestruck by a room, but when asked to describe it to someone else, not be able to answer a specific question such as what was the color of the walls, were the curtains in a printed or woven fabric, or whether there was a fabulous antique rug. Hopefully they were too immersed in taking in the overall effect, and it touched all the senses.
SH: That certainly explains why you authored a book titled Atmosphere: The Seven Elements of Great Design [Harry N. Abrams]. We’ll let our readers read the book to discover all the elements, but one that particularly intrigued us was sound. Are you talking about the calming effect of a water feature or something else entirely?
JMH: It’s more about an awareness of materials. For instance, drywall is known as an active material—it resonates sound and bounces it around. A dining room, bathroom, kitchen—each of those rooms has a certain benefit from sound being bounced around or not. I believe the dining room should be fun and raucous with conversation; the bedroom needs to be quiet, of course. Maybe those walls get upholstered. Or we’ll add a vestibule, so before you even get to the bedroom door, you’ve got that sound break. So it’s not just acoustic materials, it can also be about how you arrange spaces for quiet and privacy. You asked me earlier about intangibles that elevate a room— the seven principles I highlight in the book are the intangibles of design. Some are rarely talked about, but they are things we all want, whether consciously or subconsciously, because they impact the way we live in and feel about our houses.
SH: What else should no Southern home be without?
JMH: Beauty. We all define it differently, but we need it, because beauty makes us happy.
SH: When or where are you happiest?
JMH: Either at the dinner table with my family or on a plane getting ready to go on my next vacation.
SH: Speaking of family, yours has become a design dynasty. You and your wife Phoebe both have illustrious careers, and now two of your children, Andrew and Nellie, have followed in your decorating footsteps. When all are gathered around your raucous dining table, what’s the most hotly debated design topic?
JMH: Well, as the patriarch, I have sort of laid down the law that I don’t want to talk about our respective work around the table. That time is about family. We’ll decorate all day long and love it, but when we come together at home, we’d much rather focus on the grandkids and other fun stuff.