Eighteenth-century design will always have its detractors-those who condemn the Golden Age of furniture as impractical, uncomfortable, and outrageously expensive for modern American lifestyles. Atlanta interior designer Dan Carithers turns a deaf ear to the diatribes, not only ignoring them but disproving them-one eminently livable house after another.
A convincing case in point is the 1930s Georgian-style home of Virginia and James Ellis-an Atlanta house Carithers sumptuously decked in 18th-century French, English, and Italian furniture and objects d'art. His design renders the constellation of stellar antiques viable not only for the adults but for their 12- and 15-year-old daughters and all their pals.
"We wanted to live up to the house, with its great moldings and 11-foot ceilings," says Virginia, a TV investigative reporter-turned-full-time mom, "but we also wanted our home to be comfortable and approachable. We're just as likely to invite three families with all their children for the evening as we are to have formal dinner parties. It's not unusual to have as many as 10 children running around the house-and it works. This is Dan's special gift. He not only makes rooms pretty, he makes them practical."
Circumscribed by displays of 18th-century delft and sang de bouf (oxblood) Chinese porcelains, three old swivel chairs of no special provenance are integral to the living room's main conversation area. "When Dan first suggested these, I had to pause," admits Virginia. "Swivel chairs? I thought of my grandmother. But Dan explained how they could be angled to ease conversation; how we would grow to really appreciate them-and he was right. We do."
Further, Carithers liked the aged look of the chairs' original upholstery and urged his clients to leave the chairs unchanged. "It might be 25, 50, or even 75 years old," Carithers says. "What's important is that mellow, slightly weathered look it brings to the room."
When orchestrating an elegant design like the Ellis home, Carithers is constantly on the prowl for that perfect piece of furniture that will sound a slightly discordant note to keep the design, and those who are viewing it, on their toes. He explains: "If it's a really grand room, I like to bring it down. I always like to do something that introduces a humble quality."
In the living room, it's the 18th-century "cartoon" (drawing for a tapestry) behind the silk sofa that relaxes the room's highbrow tone. "It was very crudely done," says Carithers, "and was exactly what was needed here." The piece's scale, too, is right on.
"I've never lived in a house with 11-foot ceilings before," says Virginia. "It takes a special eye to find pieces of furniture that will work on this scale." Two such pieces of furniture are the mirrors above the living room fireplace and above the chest in the upstairs landing. "I'd been looking at this great 18th-century carved English mirror for about three years," says Carithers of the landing's mirror. "I was waiting to find a space with enough scale for it to work." The antique living room mirror required some convincing by Carithers to win over his clients. "They said, 'But, Dan. It's falling apart!'" recalls Carithers. But he insisted the 18th-century Italian piece exhibited "what I call 'good crud.' It adds a wonderful patina."
In addition to juxtaposing the humble with the fine, another tool Carithers employs to ease the starch in a roomful of 18th- century objects is color. Sunshine yellow saturates the home, creating an upbeat first impression in the entry. "Yellow is soft, and it looks good anywhere, anytime, and in any climate," insists Carithers. Yellow also makes a beautiful backdrop for the blue-and-white porcelains Carithers loves to collect for his clients. "I've always liked blue and white," notes Virginia, "but I had never lived with it. Now I love it combined with the yellow."
Downstairs, yellow is the dominant color, with blue and white as accents. But in the master bedroom, blue and white take the lead. "I used a lot of blue-and-white toile, then brought in some relief with the bed curtain's woven embroidery lining," Carithers observes. He detailed the bed and window valances with scallops, then repeated the scalloped shape to trim out a fauteuil. He also painted the Ellises' mahogany Chippendale-style sofa and Martha Washington chairs white. "I can't stand a room full of brown furniture," Carithers says, crediting this as perhaps one more reason his period-rich rooms feel fresh.
Other strategies are not so easily pegged. How did he know, for instance, that covering the dining room's Chippendale chairs in a velvet-and-woven check would lighten up their weighty stature? Or that using small drinking goblets for bouquets would be more effective than a massive centerpiece that competed with the scale of the fine English silver candelabras? "A lot of it is just tried and true," Carithers says dismissively of his intuitive touch. Displaying 18th-century delft on brackets above a period bull's-eye mirror in the dining room, he illustrates, is simply more interesting than "lining it all up along the sideboard."
"I don't know how he does it," says Virginia. "The checked fabric on the dining room chairs certainly isn't the most formal choice or the one most people would think of, given this architecture and furniture, but it makes the room feel younger. And that's what we wanted." Sparkly beaded fringe on a pair of chairs in the sunroom also adds more zing.
"We are a young family," says Virginia. "We wanted a formal home, but we wanted it to feel youthful. That's what we got."
Designing for more than 20 years, Dan Carithers is adamant about how a design should work, as well as how it should look. And he's not too shy to be outspoken with his clients, even on lifestyle issues: "I hate hearing clients say 'my formal china.' I tell them to get that term out of their mouth! We all have everyday stuff and more formal things, but we mix it. That's how to live." He and his wife, Nancy, live in Atlanta but travel the globe, designing, procuring, and pleasure seeking. Design is like fashion, he contends. "I was wearing jeans yesterday in Palm Beach, but with a coat and tie. In New York I may wear jeans with a velvet blazer and velvet shoes. There are no rules," he insists, succinctly summing up his magic.