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It is no secret that for the last ten years there was a move in the Antiques and Interior Design world to get away from the beautifully decorated traditional period styles. More and more the pages of design magazines were filled with a new found look. The big name designers began to switch gears and incorporate these new “looks” into their projects. The majority of those designers living in New York, California, London or Paris have “pulled it off” with their knowledge of the decorative arts and many have not been afraid to use color.

For the most part, I have found that many designers living in the United States outside of New York are offering a more “bland” approach to their projects and this “look” has been widely accepted to the point that each house looks like the other. Toward the end of last year we were fortunate to acquire a few new clients. One is a young couple who hired us for both interior design as well as to assist them begin a collection of decorative arts with their furnishings.  Another couple close to our ages were introduced to us by a mutual friend who understood they were about to engage a designer from out of state because they felt that no one locally would understand their desire to have fine things as many of the “traditional” designers had moved on.

When we visited for over three hours much of their conversation was how the appreciation for antiques and traditional design had vanished. They had become very frustrated about what they were seeing in the magazines over the course of the last several years. An opportunity for a third young client presented itself at the very end of the year whose mother (a good friend) appreciates our inventory and taste in design. This new young client, the latter mentioned above, lives two states away and just sent photos of her new home (a 1970’s ranch) with an array of personal treasures accumulated by various members of the couple’s family. The furnishings are a mix of George III period, Mid Century Modern, early 20th century, some French, and Chinese and Japanese 19th century porcelain. All the art is modern or contemporary and is quite suitable for the house considering the architecture.

She was bored with the popular look of many of the designers today who give their clients the “Pottery Barn” or “Restoration Hardware” look. She was not into the “herd” mentality like the rest of her friends, whose homes looked alike. She asked me to help her because she knew I had been exposed to many things in my travels, my associations as an antiques dealer /interior designer and had years of experience. (In other words, age does have advantages)….. She was very nervous as I interviewed her trying to ask questions about her lifestyle which I always do with new clients. These include questions about the size of the family; the pets they have; how they entertain; who uses what room; what are her favorite colors; budget of course and so on.

Most importantly, I asked her to define her style if she could and the result was the Pottery Barn statement. She said she loved the “southern” classic grace which she had inherited with some of the family furnishings. She was afraid that the questions would lead to my not wanting to do the work since there was such a wide range of furniture styles she had inherited. I told her the style was eclectic. I went through the photos and yes, there are a few things that do not work well with each other but for the most part this young lady (young as defined by 40 years old) has a nice collection of well built case pieces which can be incorporated in all the right places. Now, I would not have gone out and bought these items to work with one another if I had a clean slate but they can be used. Designers have always made the mistake of throwing away things to make their own statement and this client was afraid I would do that as well.

With the economy like it has been the last seven years and with changes in the industry, I have found that most people are reluctant to discard everything and start anew unless they are so profoundly wealthy and have no attachment to anything they have collected. Another young couple in their thirties I spoke of in a previous article has been enjoying the design process thus far but I had to slow down the purchases of antique case pieces for their own good. For example, “he” heard me mention something about 18th century Sevres porcelain with relation to a good friend in France who is an expert on Sevres. Immediately he says, “Is that something to put in the Living Room bookcases?” Call me crazy since we all have to eat but I just do not believe in filling a space until there is an understanding about what is going where and how these rooms which open into one another will “play” together.

We need FURNITURE before we begin to fill the bookcases with porcelain that could be quite expensive. We have made an appointment later in the month where I will begin to educate them on traditional styles and furnishings of period rooms. If they wish to collect ceramics of any kind along the way I am most happy to oblige as long as they are familiar with what it is and they understand the market. The most exciting thing about them is that they want to learn and understand. They too, tell me of the multitude of friends they have in this beautiful old neighborhood who live in restored houses yet furnished with the “Pottery Barn” look or minimal look. Their friends’ homes are “done” however this young couple is not typical thirty “something” and they will have to learn and understand the different levels of collecting antiques. Patience and understanding will be beneficial to them in the long term.

The couple close to “our age” is well traveled, well read, and have been collecting European decorative arts for years. They fit the profile of the design clients I have had during my career who live in Alabama; Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; Tennessee and Mississippi. The problem I have found in the course of this last year working with other clients has been the selection of traditional furnishings. Many fabric firms have either gone out of business, merged and or are designing only contemporary looks. That is not to say that traditional or document pieces are unavailable, they are available but often there is a wait time. I look forward to working with them because it will be comfortable and easy.

However, I must say that the challenges of working with my new young people are far more exciting as I will be able to be a mentor to them. Out of the blue last week I received a phone call from a young lady at The School of Environmental Science from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where I graduated in January of 1972 with a degree in Family Life and Counseling.  She is the head of Development for that school and making a trip to meet with me because she wants me to discuss my role in the antiques/design world and how I can be of help to my former school outside of a monetary role.

My mind has been racing with ideas as well as the idea of an opportunity to help inspire a whole new generation of students interested in the decorative arts and design. Many of you reading this may already be in those teaching roles, written books or giving lectures. It is so important that we continue to do this for so much history has to be understood in order for our passion of the decorative arts to pass from one group to another. There is hope that there are a few out there as I have outlined in this article.

These young people will be the stewards of the next collections whether it is antique furniture, ceramics, books, glass, silver and so on. I love this business although it has had many challenges in these past years but I am very happy I did not give up on it and for those of you out there with me, I see hope in the future. Respectfully Submitted, Mary Helen McCoy

About the Author

Mary Helen McCoy

Mary Helen McCoy

Mary Helen McCoy is a woman with a mission – that is, to deliver to her clients the ultimate in period furniture and decorative arts. Her firm is considered one of the nation’s premier sou...