The Evolution of Memphis Style

The Commercial Appeal Friday, January 11, 2008

Written by Stacey Wiedower

When it comes to interior decor, Memphis is a Southern belle with an edge.

We’re not afraid to shrug off the old afghan and slide on the crisp, clean slipcover, so to speak.

“I think we’re sort of losing our Southern roots and joining the rest of the world through globalization,” said interior designer Keith Headley, owner of Headley-Menzies Interior Design and a 25-year veteran of Memphis interior design. “We’re moving out of the direction of everything being overdone.”

No longer the land of swag-topped drapery treatments and fussy period furnishings, Memphis interiors have crossed into territory that reflects a more current, if not contemporary, vibe.

“Memphis houses used to be all Chippendale sofas and wing chairs,” said Joe Tice, owner of the East Memphis design firm Joe Tice Interiors. “English, English, English. People used to say Memphis was Queen Anne country.

“I haven’t used a wing chair or a camelback sofa in ... I can’t remember the last time.”

In place of antique pieces with classical lines, in some cases, homeowners are choosing to inject their interior spaces with sleek, clean-lined pieces that translate well to today’s uncluttered, relaxed esthetic.

“Definitely, everything is less fussy,” said Virginia Rippee, a 24-year owner of the Memphis interior design firm Virginia Rippee & Associates. “Colors are less fussy. Everything is cleaner, softer.

“It’s contemporary. I won’t say modern, because people want their rooms to be soft, want them to be where you can go in and sit and be comfortable. When we get home, we want coziness, we want it to be inviting.”

And that marks a distinct shift from the city’s design past. Memphis, sweetly Southern though she is, has experienced a tough transition from a long-held tradition of formal entertaining.

“Things are more relaxed today than 10 to 20 years ago in entertaining,” said interior designer William R. Eubanks, owner of William R. Eubanks Inc., and a 31-year veteran in the city’s residential design market.

“People are staying at home more and entertaining more at home, and they’re doing it more casually,” added interior designer Lesley Samuels Marks, third-generation owner and buyer at Samuels Furniture & Interiors. “When you’re invited to someone’s house, rarely does anyone wear a coat and tie anymore. People are more casual. They don’t want to sit and eat on a shiny damask sofa.

“I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that, but the overall trend is toward more casual, functional rooms.”

Said Eubanks, “We’re stepping out of the box, and it’s so vital to see that happening. Memphis is growing and changing in a very positive way.”

Homes are evolving to reflect residents’ changing lifestyles.

“Back when I started, everything was more formal - everyone had a living room, dining room and den, and they followed tradition and did their rooms according to what their parents and grandparents had done,” Samuel Marks said. “Today, lifestyles are more casual, and you see homes being built with that in mind.”

As a result, new homes and renovated older homes tend to feature open floor plans in which the kitchen - the new hub of the home - is a major focal point.

“Many years ago the kitchen was a closed-off area. Not anymore,” said residential interior designer Kenneth Cummins, a 20-year owner of the Memphis residential design firm Kenneth W. Cummins Interior Design. “It’s the center of the house now. Any time you entertain, people end up in the kitchen.

“Houses now are more open-concept, more casual.”

The Internet, along with a proliferation of home-related magazines and television design shows, has brought the world of interior design to the public’s doorstep.

“People have access to everything and there’s so much more transparency in the business,” Headley said. “The rise and popularity of shelter magazines has made a big impact, because it has brought the consumer directly to the manufacturer.”

“I don’t the exact statistic, but something like two out of three people who come into our store have already researched what they want on the Internet,” said Samuels Marks, who noted that an influx of homeowners from other areas are helping to bring about the city’s shift from pure traditional style to a more “transitional” style.

“We’ve become much more transitional - the younger generation is forcing us to do that,” Tice said. “It’s on the edge of traditional. It means using darker woods, sleeker lines, less clutter, crisper colors.”

Headley calls the look “tailored.”

“In past days, contemporary sort of meant metal and glass,” he said. “And I think that has morphed into what I call ‘tailored’ furnishings - clean lines without scrolls and ironwork.”

Another word often used to describe today’s design esthetic - in Memphis and beyond - is eclectic. And it’s an appropriate term to express homeowners’ desire to incorporate elements of the traditional past with current, sleeker furnishings and accessories.

“That’s very popular right now - a touch of contemporary and a touch of traditional,” said Rippee. “There’s no more, ‘Make this look 18th century.’ You will see some antique pieces in a room, but blended in with contemporary ones.”

“There’s always room for an appropriate, classic piece of antique furniture, but it’s not flying out the door like it used to,” Headley said.

“People are living out their fantasies now,” Eubanks said. “Instead of being safe and staying in one genre, people are building their dreams. I think (homes here) run the gamut. Visually, driving through Memphis tip to tip, you can easily point out the different decades when different parts of the city were built. It used to be all 17th century English, but no more.

“It will be interesting to see what happens over the next decade.”