A Conversation with William R. Eubanks

VIP Jackson Magazine

Written by Lyda Kay Ferree

Photographed Kim Sargent

Press Photo

William R. Eubanks’ name is synonymous with refined, classic interior design, whether
period or contemporary. At the mention of his name, one envisions a comfortable, but
timeless decoration of sumptuous silk and damask fabrics, period antiques of Great
Britain and the European continent, rich jewel-tone colors, Flemish tapestries, Old Master
paintings, fine porcelains, and Aubusson and Oushak carpets. From the firm he opened in
Memphis, Tennessee in 1976, his interior design and antiques business has grown to New
York and Palm Beach, where he has an elegant showroom at 400 Hibiscus Avenue.
Eubanks has projects throughout the United States and abroad. He has been named one of
the top fifty designers in the United States by Elements of Living. In April 2007 he
established the William R. Eubanks Distinguished Lecture Series in Interior Design at the
University of Memphis, as well as the James Weaver Scholarship.
His award-winning work has been featured in many publications, including Veranda,
Southern Accents, Palm Beach Society, Spectacular Homes of Tennessee, and Great
Designs of the World.
He attended Lambuth University, where he was the first interior design student of Dr.
Lawrence (Larry) Allen Ray, and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in interior design
from the University of Memphis. Recently, Eubanks was a guest at the West Tennessee
Healthcare Foundation preview party, which honored Dr. Ray in creating an endowment
for the arts fund.
VIP: You have strong West Tennessee roots, and we are proud to claim you as one of our
own.
William R. Eubanks: I was born in Jackson and grew up in Bells. My mother, Beatrice,
still lives in Bells.
VIP: In your remarks at the party that honored Dr. Larry Ray, you stated that Larry “took
you under his wing and set you in the right direction.” Elaborate on that statement.
WRE: I was a struggling marketing major at Lambuth University but secretly wanted to
be an interior designer. I had moved back to Jackson in pursuit of a charming young girl.
I was enrolled in marketing to be close to her, but I was miserable in school. I called
Larry to confide that I was not happy in my classes. In the conversation I explained to
him where my heart was. It was not in marketing and economics. It was truly in design. I
had two wonderful mentors in high school: Anniewista Williams, my English and Latin
teacher and a distant cousin, who prodded me toward the arts; and Louise Pearson, my
French teacher and a great friend, who also pushed me toward the arts. They dropped
little seeds of wisdom about design, and those seeds became full blown under the tutelage
of Larry Ray. Design is really in my heart.
Dr. Ray started the interior design program at Lambuth University to fulfill my dreams as
a student. We worked together so I could study what I loved. It was an exciting time. He
was so helpful and a mentor and truly the Pied Piper of students. He really pushed me
over the edge and made me believe that I could be successful in whatever I wanted to do.
VIP: As a child who grew up in rural West Tennessee, were you exposed to fine
furnishings and fabrics?
WRE: Absolutely! My mother has wonderful taste, and she was always changing color
schemes in her home as I do. We traveled extensively. You get an honorary degree every
time you travel, and it gave me so much pleasure.
VIP: Was there a defining a-ha moment in your travels and observations of fine interiors
that you knew your signature would be an old-world look?
WRE: When I was 26 years old, while visiting in London, I saw Regency dining chairs
that had belonged to Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman in Parliament. They were
spectacular dining chairs that Kenneth Neame had in his showroom. Kenneth insisted I
should purchase the chairs, so I startled my banker in Memphis, who questioningly
approved my purchase. Kenneth encouraged me to develop an antiques business in
conjunction with my interior design business. I took that to heart, and it was wonderful
advice. Immediately the antiques business started to grow, and today it is a very integral
part of what I do. Kenneth, who has a beautiful shop on Mount Street in London, is still
my great friend and business mentor.
VIP: Are you a goal setter, and did you dream or envision the interior design/lifestyle
world you have created?
WRE: No, not really. No one can predict his own future. We’re sort of like actors. We’re
only as good as our last part. I am a goal setter, and I continue to set goals. Trying to
attain those goals keeps me young and active. I have been working in Palm Beach since
1980, but I didn’t open my showroom in Palm Beach until 1998. Each step out of the box
has been more and more exciting. I’ve been very blessed.
VIP: What attracted you to the old-world look? Your signature style marries elegance
with comfort.
WRE: In late 1975 I opened a very contemporary showroom in Memphis on Walnut
Grove. It was a very quick evolution from contemporary to period. I truly fell in love
with period furniture. Always my passion has been England, and my first cottage in
Memphis was a beautiful English cottage hat I fell in love with. I moved from that
cottage to a little larger cottage and expanded to reach Italian and Portuguese, which is
the wonderful thing we get to do as designers – immerse ourselves in so many places.
Interior design is a constant education. It stimulates you all the time because every client
is different and has his own tastes, and the designer need to nurture this.
VIP: Is one born with good taste or can it be cultivated through study, travel and
exposure to talented individuals?
WRE: Education is the most important path to success, but you have to have an innate
ability for design so the marriage of both study and instinct makes a good designer.
Design is very much like playing the piano by ear. There are people who have a natural
instinct. Then so much is learned through travel and reading.
VIP: What tips would you offer to the person who is considering hiring an interior
designer? Is there a checklist of questions that a client should research before contacting a
designer?
WRE: It is very, very important to have an interview with the designer you are
considering. I can express that strongly enough. Certainly there is a checklist of
questions. The designer will ask you pertinent questions about your lifestyle: how you
like to entertain, your daily routine, if you are formal or casual, your color preferences,
your favorite objects. The list is endless. The relationship between designer and client is
therefore a very intimate arrangement, so you must be happy and comfortable with the
designer you choose. You have to feel that sense of trust. That’s why so many of my
clients become such wonderful friends. They become an extension of my family. Clients’
ideas like ours, are changing and growing ever day, and we have to be able to grow with
them and take them on a journey.
VIP: When you first meet with a client or prospective client, do you begin with a client
profile: likes and dislikes, favorite colors, lifestyle preferences?
WRE: If they don’t ask you those questions, you are talking to the wrong person.
Designers have to get inside your head. I have a wonderful client in New York who
walked into a room that we had designed and started crying. ‘You’re inside my head’, she
said. ‘Everything I wanted I couldn’t articulate, but you’ve been inside my head’. There
was so much joy in that statement because we had fulfilled our client’s dream.
VIP: I read that you want the property to reflect that of the owner, not Bill Eubanks.
WRE: When our clients open their front doors to their friends and guests, we want their
homes to be a true reflection of them, not William R. Eubanks. We encourage our clients’
individuality; we are not prima donnas.
VIP: Are you comfortable working with contemporary spaces?
WRE: Absolutely! We have always enjoyed contemporary design. A true contemporary
painter is always trained in the classical style. We are certainly comfortable in both
arenas. I just did a fabulous contemporary space on Sea Island (Georgia). I have done 5
or 6 houses for this client. This is a whole new adventure for them. The first project we
did for this client was a lovely Georgian home filled with period antiques. The
juxtaposition of this wonderful contemporary space broadens their horizons and shows
how open and multi-faceted they are.
VIP: What are the challenges of working with clients in other countries?
WRE: It all goes back to educating one’s self on different cultures. If we’re working in
Lima, we have to think like we’re living in Lima. It’s very important to immerse oneself
in the culture of the region in which you are working to be able to have a successful
project. Every region has its own rhythm and style.
VIP: Talk about one of your best design moments and one of your most challenging
design projects.
WRE: It’s always a little daunting to take on a high-profile client. When my design team
and I embarked upon a new project for rock star Rod Stewart’s Palm Beach house, I was
a bit anxious. Once the designs were completed and construction began, we soon
discovered that we would not see our client for almost a year because of his very
demanding touring schedule. Even though were all most excited with the design. I had no
idea what would be Mr. Stewart’s final reaction to the finished project. Normally, a
designer has frequent visits with his client through out the course of the project. This was
not the case. As months wore on and this project progressed, so did my anxiety. When
Mr. Stewart finally arrived home, everything was finished and installed, and we were
there to greet him. I opened the doors for him. He stood there for a second. Then he gave
me a big kiss on the cheek and said, ‘I love it!’ My anxiety was over. There are so many
moments like this I which we see our clients’ faces light up when they finally see the
finished project. This is what it’s all about.
As for challenging times, we refurbished a glorious old Trumpy yacht, similar to the
Presidential yacht, the Sequoia. The boat was our client’s child. He loved his boat more
than anything. Together we took the boat to a little village in Louisiana, where expert
craftsmen discovered to our dismay that we had to rebuild the entire hull. This does
certainly qualify as a challenging moment for an interior designer. The story has a happy
ending because the boat was rebuild and refurbished to the owner’s delight. In the
process, I learned to speak Cajun.
VIP: What are your hobbies and favorite travel destinations?
WRE: Gardening and reading are my favorite hobbies. My greatest indulgence is travel.
London and Paris are favorite destinations.
VIP: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
WRE: I am so happy with where I live now. My home in Memphis is my quiet respite \
where I tend my garden. Being an Aquarian, I am a water person, so in Palm Beach I live
on the ocean. Palm Beach is a small island so you get to know people very quickly. It’s
like a small town. I can walk from my oceanfront home to my work. The Palm Beach
Grill is my favorite restaurant. You know everyone in there. It’s great fun – low lights,
good food, and a very friendly atmosphere. In New York I am energized with new
concepts and ideas by simply walking along Madison Avenue.
VIP: What do you enjoy most about being an interior designer?
WRE: The aspect of my work I prize most is sharing time with my clients, who have an
almost unlimited array of life experiences. They become my closest friends.