Text: Karen Carroll
Photos: Photography courtesy of Jackye Lanham Interiors
Southern Home (SH): Would you begin by sharing a bit about your background?
Jackye Lanham (JL): I’m what we used to call an army brat. We moved every couple of years, internationally and around the South. No matter where we were, a pair of twin beds and a steamer trunk full of my treasures came along with me. I’d shove the beds around into whatever configuration in my new bedroom and constantly rearrange my dolls and things. I guess that was the beginning of my sense of space planning and placement, as I’m still shoving furniture around. However, I certainly didn’t grow up talking about interiors and architecture. I came to design through the back door.
SH: How did that door open?
JL: My father, being an army officer, told me I had to have a profession when I turned 21 so I could have a life and pay for myself. He became a professor of military science at the University of Alabama, and that’s where I went to college. I was in the school of home economics, as it was known then, and one of my professors suggested I major in interior design. I graduated, and honestly, I didn’t know where in the world that would lead. But you learn most by doing, and believe me, I learned by making a lot of mistakes. I also had a couple of great mentors. Tom Hayes, a wonderful antiques dealer I worked for early on, taught me so much about antiques, as well as how to create a sense of ambience in a home with things such as fresh flowers and music, along with beautiful objects. And then after I went out on my own, I began collaborating with Norman Askins, an architect whom I’ve worked with on various houses. He really educated me about history, architecture, and proportion.
SH: When you’re starting with great architecture, how does it impact the way you approach decorating?
JL: If you’ve got a good foundation, you can quietly keep adding what I call eyeshadow and the room only gets better and better.
SH: How would you describe your style?
JL: Thoughtful. Collected and layered, in a clean, crisp way. I keep the palette pretty simple and let the objects stand out. I would say that comfort is a big priority, which means more than just the cushiness of the chairs. I want a room to make you feel good in every way.
SH: Your rooms don’t beg for attention with bold color or loud pattern—they’re more like a gracious hostess who invites you in, and once inside, more will unfold. How do you create the kind of eye-catching moments that may not be noticed at first glance? JL: I love detail. Detail is what you see after you’ve been in a room for a while. You look around, and all of a sudden you go, “Oh, now that’s interesting.”
SH: What are some of those design details you consider your calling card?
JL: I want curtains to be more than just a straight panel of pretty fabric, and I’ll design a graceful valance or shaped cornice when it’s appropriate. Instead of having a white liner, I’ll back them with a little pattern or another color so that when the curtain gets flipped, it’s one more element to discover. I’m also always thinking about the way upholstery is finished—perhaps edging with a little welt cord in a different fabric, or using bullion on the skirt of a sofa. And I enjoy composing tablescapes on an end table or coffee table and laying out graphic arrangements with art and objects on walls. Those types of things pull you in for a closer look.
SH: We can’t imagine one of your rooms without antiques. What draws you to them?
JL: Patina; the wood; the form; the craftsmanship often lacking in new furniture. I love things that are gutsy and interesting, such as Anglo-Indian and Irish furniture, which are takes on English pieces, although pumped up and with a little more character. Then there’s the other side of me that’s very refined and attracted to the delicacy of things. I’m sort of all over the place, but figuring how the gutsy and the delicate work together is like fitting together pieces of a puzzle. Antiques ground a room, giving it a story and sense of history.
SH: Let’s talk about dining rooms—they have long been a staple in Southern homes, and yours are particularly pretty. With the recent trend toward open-concept floor plans in new construction and major renovations, should we fear it will become extinct?
JL: I don’t like huge, open rooms. I want walls. I do believe the pandemic has changed our perspectives about space and, hopefully, the open trend will reverse and the dining room will be resurrected, if it was in danger of going away. People are longing for places where they can retreat and not be interrupted by all the activities going on simultaneously in a cavernous room. And when people do gather to share a meal, enjoy each other’s company, and tell stories, that’s a lovely ritual. It’s hard to have a wonderful experience if you’re staring into the kitchen with a sink full of dirty dishes and someone’s running the disposal. It kills the mood.
SH: Do you like to be pushed outside your comfort zone? Could you, for instance, ever envision designing a completely contemporary and minimal project?
JL: No, I’m not sure I could, and it’s probably not the kind of house I’d be asked to decorate. I definitely appreciate and admire the look when others do it well, because it can be so beautiful. But there’s too much of an itch in me to find cool and fabulous things to put everywhere! I do relish being challenged, however. I recently finished a project for a client I’d worked with on a previous house. She wanted this next one to be super colorful and bohemian, and that really stretched my sense of refinement. We were both happy with the way it turned out. Ultimately I try to approach each project the way an actor approaches a script. Sometimes you’re playing the rich man; sometimes you’re playing the cowboy or the bum. You get into character—the homeowner’s character—because the end result needs to reflect their style and personality. They’re the ones who have to live in it.
SH: We feel certain Jackye Lanham has never designed a “bum” room.
JL: Well, that was probably a bad example for my metaphor. But I do always look forward to taking on new roles. That, for me, is one of the most fun things about being a designer.