Paris Style

Southern Accents October 1994

Written by Donna Dorian

Photographed by Langdon Clay

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Memphis designer William R. Eubanks creates a Louis XV-style salon for a gracious hostess and arts patron

“We call her the Misia of Memphis,” explains interior designer William R. Eubanks of his friend, Mrs. Elliot Friedgen. Eubanks, of course, is also referring to the legendary arts patron, Misia Sert, who in turn-of-the-century Paris led Toulouse-Lautrec through all the right doors and made him world renowned.

With Mrs. Friedgen known in Memphis as one of the city’s most prominent arts patrons, the comparison is completely apt. This gracious and lively hostess is an anchor not only with members of her family, but also at both the Dixon Gallery and the Brooks Museum, where she indulges her enthusiasm for the Memphis-based artists whose works she collects.

When it comes to Mrs. Friedgen’s home, one could very well conjure up images of the Misia Sert style—although not in her century. Here, instead, Mrs. Friedgen and William Eubanks went back even earlier in time and looked to the great 18th-century French arts patrons for their inspiration. The result is a dazzling salon—what Eubanks calls a “Louis XV daydream”—created to entertain conversation into the late evening hours. It makes a fine accompaniment to Mr. and Mrs. Friedgen’s collection of Southern contemporary art.

“I know that I’m obsolete because I like ornate things,” she confesses, “but my mother instilled in me a love for all things French. Even as a child, I loved things like ormolu and candelabra and marquetry.” Eubanks, as lord himself of a grand historic English estate brought piece by piece from England to a new life in Memphis, sees it a little differently. For him, the house is the perfect reflection of his good friend: well-traveled, well-educated, in possession of a rich background of experiences.

During the 15 years they have known each other, Eubanks had occasionally done some rearranging and refining for Mrs. Friedgen’s previous homes. This time when she moved, she asked him to be in on the planning right from the beginning. Together they began by remodeling the house around Mrs. Friedgen’s taste.

The easy rapport between the two has been an essential ingredient in their success. With an international clientele and a decided preference for English antiques, Eubanks learned long ago to collaborate with his clients. “I’m only as talented as the person I’m working with, as talented as that person allows me to be,” he says. When sorting out Mrs. Friedgen’s inventory of furnishings, he worked like a seasoned editor, not imposing his style but rather helping her to refine and define what she already possessed. “I think her taste is clearer now,” Eubanks reflected. “The house is the culmination of a lot of building and collecting over the years, and it now has come together.” Playing her part in the pas de deux, she responds, “He has the best sense of everything—furniture, walls, fabrics. He makes this house prettier than I ever could.”

This is a house of strictly European taste in everything but its art. Even the Oriental influences here recall their presence in 17th- and 18th-century French salons.

Mrs. Friedgen has acquired many of her treasures during her extensive travels. One of her favorite finds, a Louis XVI-style marble-top commode, was purchased on a trip that she and her mother took to New Orleans. Decorated with ormolu and a central medallion, the piece stands outside the dining room area and is highlighted by hand-blocked Zuber wall panels.

The dining room’s juxtaposition of antiques and contemporary art is apparent throughout the house. To most, such conflicting styles might seem incompatible, but Mrs. Friedgen has a true flair for combining the two.

Even Eubanks was skeptical at first when she called him one day to tell him she had just purchased a huge new painting by Memphis artist John Ryan. What contemporary painting could possibly complement such an ornately carved commode? But as it turns out, he needn’t have worried: the Ryan painting fit right in, drawing well upon the Zuber panels, and today even the consummate antiquarian will admit that he learned much about decorating with modern art from Mrs. Friedgen.

The living room is another successful example of decorating with art and antiques, as paintings by contemporary artists Nancy Cheairs and Lisa Rivas mix with antique French pieces, including two Louis XVI gilded chairs that Elliot Friedgen gave his wife as a wedding gift. Here, as he later did in the bedroom, Eubanks used a 19th-century Aubusson rug to establish the subtle rose and butter hues of the room.

These days, Mr. and Mrs. Friedgen divide their time between Memphis and Pacific Palisades, California, but she never seems to neglect her home. “My mother raised us to believe that we have a responsibility to become involved in our community and to support the arts,” says Mrs. Friedgen, who certainly has done both. And more—she’s brought a little bit of Paris to Memphis, too.