Funky artwork and an amazing chair collection give character to a lakeside ranch house.
At the end of a long week tending his Dallas clients, interior designer John Phifer Marrs can feel a chorus of "Eurekas" beginning to warm up in his head. By the time he's behind the wheel of his Escalade, the voices are coaxing the SUV to soar full throttle. John's on his way to his own slice of paradise on Beaver Lake near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and every track he lays represents one more care he's leaving behind. Six hours later, when he pulls up to his three-bedroom ranch house overlooking the lake, just about every anxiety has melted away, and John is ready to relax.
"Eureka is a complete escape from Dallas, which can become pretty full of itself. Everything that's a big deal in Dallas isn't here," he says. Not that he doesn't love Dallas, too. Though a native Arkansan, his adopted home has been good to him. In addition to designing, John sells antiques at The Shop at John Phifer Marrs, where he does a brisk business.
But the busiest people are those most in need of a radical respite. For John, the lake is a 180 from life as usual. "This house is much more casual than my home in Dallas. It's all about getting comfortable."
An inveterate collector, John has filled his lake house with primitives and assorted funky artworks. "Part of my decorating mantra is appropriateness. There's nothing worse than fancy antiques in a country house and vice versa. Everything here had to be able to suffer the use and abuse of daily living. I didn't want any finishes I had to worry about."
The house was ideal for his collection of folksy hooked rugs. "I knew I wanted carpet because I didn't want to show a lot of dirt, but it had to be low pile for my hooked rugs. Everything had to be simple because I didn't want to spend my time at the lake cleaning. If I had my way, I'd put a drain in the middle of every floor and just hose down each room!"
Provenance takes on a whole new meaning at the lake. Consider John's living room sofa. "It was the first sofa I bought out of college. It was originally a chocolate-brown velvet. Then I covered it in crewel. You can lift up the slipcovers and see my life's progression, much like the rings on a tree," he laughs.
A few pieces, however, are 19th-century heirlooms of high quality. "I inherited the good American cherry bookcase and the two-piece American cherry china cupboard," he notes. Chairs are a mixed bag. The Victorian chair in the bedroom belonged to Grandmother Marrs; most of the others are pieces that, for whatever reason, caught John's eye.
"Some people collect charms. I collect chairs. I collect every style. Seriously, I never met a chair I didn't like. I'm part of the Marrs family-we're all sitters," he says, deadpan. The Marrs side influenced him in other ways, too. "When other kids were out playing softball, I'd be inside, rearranging the accessories. Grandmother Marrs would take me with her to pick out picture frames. She instilled a sense of confidence in me."
That confidence spawned this attitude: "I'm thrilled if you like it here, but what other people think is not why I've done it this way. Some people may see this as a lot of old, tired junk, and that's OK. I'm a collector. I like things with a story and things that are a part of my past. It would be very hard for me to decorate a space for myself from scratch."
Summer is breezy and pleasant at the lake, but John uses the house year-round. "Fall's magnificent with the leaves. In winter, I light the fire. Summer, I live on the porch. The house has enough bedrooms for company, and I have had both Phifer and Marrs family reunions here. That's what this place is all about. There's nothing better than Thanksgiving here. I put all three leaves in the table so it sits 18."
Well, nothing, maybe, but New Year's. "There's nothing better than drinking champagne on a cold New Year's Eve on the screened-in porch," John grins.
We get the picture. All we might add to John's harmonious version of heaven at Eureka is a hearty chorus of resounding amens.
Photography: Werner Straube
Design: John Marrs, John Phifer Marrs Inc., 4623 W. Lovers Lane, Dallas, TX 75209; 214/352-4949, johnmarrs.com.
Now slipcovered in chintz, the sofa is the first John Phifer Marrs purchased out of college.
A telescope stands ready to home in on birds and wildlife, while on the opposite wall, the fireplace (not shown) cozies the space in winter.
A self-portrait of Dorothy Eisenbach displayed against the brick wall is among John's favorite paintings in his eclectic mix of original art.
The American cherry china cupboard is an heirloom.
John had fun with a guest bedroom's lime green palette.
The Victorian chair belonged to John's grandmother.
A bedside table is the only nod to formality.
Interior designer--and owner of the lake house nicknamed Camp Laughing Beaver--John Phifer Marrs