Text: Karen Carroll
Photos courtesy of Barry Dixon
Southern Home (SH): When did you first become interested in decorating?
Barry Dixon (BD): I was born in Memphis, but we moved all over the world for my father’s job when I was growing up. I saw our home reinvented almost every year in places like South Africa, New Caledonia, India, and Korea. Through these moves, I discovered that there is a correct way to approach architecture and design in different climates and cultures. Subconsciously, I began learning about the appropriateness of design and how it affects our quality of life. I returned to the South to attend college at Ole Miss, and during my senior year, I moved out of the fraternity house and into an apartment in an antebellum house. I collected some American folk pieces, painted the clapboard walls an Hermès orange, and decorated with beautiful fabrics, wing chairs, and a farmhouse table that I painted off-white. A friend walked in and said, “Oh my gosh, who decorated this?” I replied that I had, and she said, “And you’re studying political science?” Then, when I began talking about law school, my dad told me to consider design because he could see I had a heart for the subject matter. After hearing my very practical father come to that realization, I decided to make a change. I switched over to the art school and rerouted my career path.
SH: Geographic boundaries aside, what makes a house feel Southern to you?
BD: It’s a sense of beckoning that you feel instantly at the front door. The house has its own personality and extends a warm welcome. The best Southern homes are set up for conversation. Things are arranged a little more casually, even though the pieces themselves might be formal.
SH: How do you achieve that balance of arranging formal furniture casually?
BD: I rarely line pairs of chairs side by side. I’ll situate them toward a view, the fireplace, or the sofa. I also avoid arranging everything at right angles around a coffee table so that it doesn’t become too regimented and linear. I want to see the silhouettes of things. I don’t like to walk into a room and see the back of a sofa—it’s like people who have their backs to you at a party.
SH: Given that you’ve lived all over the world, it’s no surprise that you’re deft at combining diverse cultures into your design work. What ties everything together for you?
BD: I look for common threads to link things together in a room, and then I link them to the next chapter in the house—the adjoining room. It can be through color, pattern, or form. I might find a table from China or India with a leg silhouette that is similar to one on a French or Chippendale chair. Foliate carvings on a Burmese chest can be echoed in a French damask with a leafy pattern or a Gracie wallpaper panel with a tree of life design. The nature of such chinoiserie automatically connects East and West. People will either see and understand the visual references, or if not, they’ll simply think the room is pretty. We’re designing a space to be joyful on either level.
SH: You have been settled now for many years in your own fabulous and oft-photographed house, Elway Hall, on 300 acres in Warrenton, Virginia. How did a globetrotter transition into a gentleman farmer in the horse country?
BD: I think back to both of my grandmothers and visiting them in Tennessee and Arkansas. Their lifestyles made huge impacts on me. They cultivated their gardens over decades, and they were always working, cutting, and bringing in their roses and dahlias, as well as growing and canning their own vegetables. I learned to appreciate the deep connection to the land that is innate in so many Southerners, and I knew I eventually wanted to live and work that way. I love communing with nature, the seasons, and all the animals we have here at Elway. Whenever I get “designer’s block,” I can get out and walk to the barn—then the ideas start to flow.
SH: Your decorating, both at Elway and beyond, reflects an obvious appreciation and understanding of history. Do you have a favorite period from which to draw?
BD: I’m very influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. I’m intrigued by what the human hand can create from the treasures of nature to bring through the window and into our homes. And yet I never want to be tied to one particular look or period. Rooms should be timeless, not trapped in time. We have to continually refresh and think anew. But Southerners also respect the value of the past.
SH: We’re sure you have no set-in-stone decorating formula— along the idea of “something old, new, borrowed, and blue” for weddings. But if you did, what would your version be for a room?
BD: Since I’m always looking outside for inside inspiration, I think of the elements of the natural world: earth, air, fire, and water. By attributing their abstract qualities to inanimate objects—whether through color, texture, or form—we can create balance. I see gold as being both fire and mineral. Aged brasses, rusty oranges, and any neutral tones become earth. Sheer fabrics on windows echo fog and mist, which reduce to air. The reflective surface of a pond is no different from the mirrored top on a tea table that reflects light and a vase of flowers. If I can get all the elements in a room in harmony, then I feel that same sense of calm that I feel in the woods or in a field.
SH: Your rooms always include fine, often one-of-a-kind pieces. So when or where are you willing to go “low”?
BD: It’s not a matter of being willing—it’s almost a necessity. When you have things that are so expensive, dramatic, or aesthetically grand, you have to go low to maintain equilibrium. If you don’t, you end up holding your hands in your lap so you don’t break or disrupt anything. I’m always going to use really good fabrics that wear well on the pieces that get the most use because my guests are going to touch those and luxuriate in them. But I’ll go to the flea market for a funky lamp and then make sure to put the right shade with it to bring it up to date. Or, if people are going to put their drinks down and their feet up on the coffee table all the time anyway, then maybe I won’t use a fine finish. I’ll save that for a hand-painted console against the wall. It’s a bit of a dance, but rooms look better when the high and low are intermingled. Quiet luxury is the Southern way.
SH: Finally, given your 30+ years of decorating, how do you think Southern style continues to evolve?
BD: We used to swap ideas and information—and a little gossip—on our front porches and in our gardens, but travel and social media have changed all that. They’ve expanded the borders for the connectivity that has always been indigenous to the way we think. And our style has definitely become more modern. We’re not beholden to only using antiques, crystal chandeliers, and white linen slipcovers in summer. We’re much quicker to hang abstract art over great-grandmother’s buffet or to put contemporary lighting over the dining table. There’s more interest when you pair opposites to create tension. Drama has always been an important part of the Southern vernacular and aesthetic—and even our personalities. We love eccentric characters, whether they’re in stories by literary greats such as Flannery O’Connor or Tennessee Williams, or they’re in our houses, where they greet you at the front door with a drink in hand.