A Q&A With Interior Designer Barry Dixon

Photograph Courtesy of Barry Dixon Inc.

To Barry Dixon, the element of surprise is crucial to good design. In modern or traditional rooms, that can mean adding an antique or two. Bridging the past and present is fundamental to Dixon’s design philosophy.

A renowned interior designer, Dixon also has his own furniture and rug lines, and recently introduced a new fabric collection, available at the Marie-Howard Showroom inside the Michigan Design Center. His work has been featured in national shelter magazines and he has served as a judge for the Detroit Home Design Awards. His book, Barry Dixon Interiors, was published in 2008.

Dixon was born in Memphis, Tenn., but spent his formative years in a peripatetic existence that stemmed from his metallurgist father’s job.

The family lived in such far-flung places as India, French Polynesia, and South Africa. He returned to this country in the late ’70s to attend college at Ole Miss and today lives in a 1907 Edwardian estate in Warrenton, Va. His global travels have failed to extinguish a soft Southern drawl.

Dixon was in town recently to deliver lectures at Michigan Design Center (MDC) in Troy and the Christ Church Antiques Show in Grosse Pointe Farms. We sat down with him over coffee one June morning at MDC to discuss decorating with antiques.

How did you get interested in antiques; did your parents collect them?

My parents were big collectors, and they enjoyed the process of finding things and mixing them. They peppered their traditional antique collection with exotic things they found around the world. That got me interested as a kid in combining and mixing things and finding similarities between seemingly dissimilar elements and putting them together.

Some people might be loath to add an antique to their modern décor because they fear it will clash.

If everything in a room is completely modern, it camouflages into itself and disappears. You put one well-chosen, curvilinear-formed Queen Anne highboy in a very angular collection of other [modern] pieces, and they stand to attention because they’re diametrically opposed. So you see them in a way you never saw them before. You really understand their geometry because of their proximity to this other element that’s the polar opposite.

 

If someone has, say, mostly dark mahogany furniture, would adding a light-stained pine chest or golden-oak library table ruin the look?

I think people build too many boundaries around themselves imagining what they can or can’t do. Just as you can juxtapose a modern piece with an antique one, you can do that with a dark stain and a lighter one. If everything is dark, or everything’s light, they disappear into themselves.

Decorating exclusively with antiques in a certain period has its limitations, too.

If you put together a perfectly executed period room, then that’s exactly what you get: a perfectly executed period room that could be in a museum. But it may not have that next level of surprise, excitement, or modernity — the thing that makes it more personal and possibly more livable. I think when a room is too much a slave to history and there’s too much museum quality, it becomes less hospitable.

If someone is ready to buy an antique, what would you suggest?

Before you go out shopping, know what you like. Once you know that, learn more about it, so that you’re collecting more astutely. That doesn’t mean you have to be a scholar; I often think some of the best collections have been acquired by people with no formal training because it’s all innate to them. They’re buying from the heart.

The antiques market is in flux. What may have been collectible 20 years ago may not be so today, and you can get them for reasonable prices. What are some good buys now?

Certain Victorian pieces are still among the better buys right now. I also think a lot of the revival pieces from the early 20th century, which were emulating an earlier style, a revival of another period — those pieces have come into their own, and they’re good buys now. I also think that regional pieces are always wise to invest in. The best thing to do is to find those regional pieces outside of your own region because people there don’t value them [as much]. I have clients right now in Tennessee who are searching for good Tennessee and southern Kentucky antiques. So maybe I would find them up here and they would be underpriced.

What about the so-called shabby chic pieces, the kinds of things you’d find at flea markets — you don’t look down your nose at them, do you?

I absolutely don’t. They serve a different purpose as we collect more rarefied objects and more elevated, serious things, because there’s a certain levity they bring to the picture when we mix them. The balance of this lesser thing inhabiting the same space with the rarefied makes the whole room approachable.

 

I read that you have a little bit of everything in your home.

I do, because I can’t commit to any one thing. I really celebrate and love so many aspects of so many different eras and pieces of the aesthetic continuum. Because I’m an interior designer, I like to use my home for what I call a design laboratory. What I enjoy is constantly playing around and pairing one thing with another. It’s almost like a cook playing with different spices and flavors, or reinventing the recipe for meatloaf.

Tell me about your new fabric line. There’s a strong emphasis on nature, as well as geometrics.

And history, and antiques — all those things. We have about 250 fabrics and trims now with Vervain. From my perspective, the two things that influenced me most as a designer are history and the natural world, almost in equal parts. I think man has always looked to the outside for inspiration; he looked through the window to decide what was going to go into his interior. That’s where foliate carvings come from, where many textures, colors, and patinas come from, that’s where the wood species come from — they’re all from the natural world.

At the same time, I’m so inspired by those who’ve lived and designed before me that I’ll never be able to get away from being inspired by antiquity. These are like moments in time that are forever amber by actually holding and feeling something in your hand. For the fabric line, there were 15th-century Moghul textiles that I collected in India that inspired something. I have 18th-century Venetian woven brocades that inspired part of the collection. I also did rubbings in my vegetable garden of heirloom cantaloupes, and that became one of my textured chenilles. I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to cover a sofa in cantaloupe webbing, something that was soft but had that pattern of a wonderful cantaloupe in the garden? I also did rubbings on an oak tree in my garden. Whether it’s the fabrics or antiques, everything is an echo of the beauty of the natural world.

Whenever we are inside, we want to be surrounded by reminders of how wonderful it is to be outside. Whether you were a caveman thousands of years ago drawing pictures of bison and trees on the cave walls, or whether you’re stuck in your house for a long snowy winter in Minneapolis in the 21st century, you want to be reminded that spring is just around the corner — of the beauty of the natural world and all its colors.

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