The Deep South, however, is where she prefers to find homes for her vintage treasures. "French furniture isn't just furniture but a lifestyle, and clearly, Southerners know how to live well and entertain," she explains.
She advocates pairing a couple of flirty fauteuils or a chic carved console ("the best you can afford") with boldly painted Italian faience, a handsome but comfy contemporary sofa covered in linen velvet, and splashy modern art on the walls to create fresh, lively rooms that exude effortless elegance. "Without antiques, family photographs, and other ties to the past, a room is empty," she opines.
What Mary Helen sells are the remains of an aristocratic lifestyle. "The nobility furnished their countryside châteaux with fine furniture," she notes. "Often the wood was left au naturel, but the furniture was certainly not rustique." Before she and husband Ron launched the business in 1990, Mary Helen was an assistant to Frances Emond, who owned Wardemond, once the best antiques shop in Birmingham. Together, they went on buying trips to Europe where Mary Helen fell hard for French furniture. "I grew up surrounded by beautiful things-Oriental rugs and English furniture and ceramics," says the former arts student. "But French antiques are my addiction."