New Orleans antiques dealer offers tips on decorating with vintage treasures in new book

By Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Some of the most interesting interiors are those that combine well-chosen and personally meaningful antiques with carefully curated contemporary pieces. But is there a secret to doing this successfully? New Orleans interior designer and antiques dealer Tara Shaw thinks it’s an art, but one that can definitely be learned.

Shaw shares those secrets to mixing eras and “cultivating a home with heart” in her first book, “Soul of the Home: Designing with Antiques” (Abrams; $50). The 272-page book is filled with tips and both pithy and practical advice, including how to tell your Louis apart, how to tell French pieces from Italian, how to deftly combine eras and styles.  The successful antiques wholesaler and custom furniture maker also shares more than 175 photos of client spaces (some never before published), favorite shopping haunts, anecdotes from years of treasure hunting, and more.     

HomeStyle caught up with Shaw recently and asked her to share some antiques advice and elaborate on some of the more provocative thoughts in the book.

In a wide open plan space that also includes a dining area and the kitchen, a floor to ceiling fireplace was installed to delineate the living room.

 “An antique can seduce you in a way that no assembly-line-produced good ever could. And if you fill your environment with pieces that make you feel that way, then guess what? You’re probably going to fall in love with your environment too.”

The unique aspect of using a one-of-a-kind find that has made it into your home brings such depth of meaning. The piece could have been carved by a furniture carver that only made one of that item and it holds court in your room, an acquired new member of the family, the beginning of a legacy. 

“The truth is, I think sticking to any one era can date an interior…. Mix styles the way you mix people at a dinner party. Seat together people you know will get along famously once you’ve had the chance to introduce them.”

Find your voice in furnishings, see what style/styles you are drawn to. Start with anchoring a space with the style that you are drawn to and build around it with complementary pieces from different periods. If I was working on my dining room and I liked clean lines, I would start by purchasing a set of Louis XVI chairs, classic, straight lines, timeless not trendy, and pair the chairs with a mid-century or contemporary dining table. The juxtaposition could be in the lighting over the table that would be the life of the party since chairs are clean-lined, it might be Italian with curved arms and crystal. It is your party so it is important to listen to the still small voice when you see an item that says “take me home with you” and you can envision where you will use the wonderful new acquisition -- pull the trigger.

“One of the biggest thrills I get out of working with antiques is putting them together with contemporary art.”

  It's the opposite that creates interest. There is nothing better than an old chest, whether inherited or purchased with a contemporary piece of art anchoring it that breathes new life into the room.

“Antiques show their age and history, blemishes and all. That kind of imperfection is a lovely thing to live with because it’s so forgiving.”

When I am shopping in Europe or the U.S., I allow myself one piece a container. I never refurbish the piece. It is welcome in the condition I found it in my home. I like seeing the worn patina on the arms of chairs, nicks on tables. My home is relaxed and imperfect and just the message I want to send to friends and visitors.

“Loving old things doesn’t have to mean your house has to look stuck in the past. My design philosophy has always been to seek out the one-of-a-kind pieces that speak to me and then edit, edit, edit.”

Because I have been collecting for years, it’s about the edit. Fine-tune the meaningful things in your rooms and when you edit, they will stand out.

 “Learn how to recognize that moment you connect with an item and then commit.”

Pulling the trigger or committing is the crucial part to starting the journey in collecting. I can remember many times when I thought something was slightly more than I wanted to pay and then regretted it when someone else purchased the item. I think that was the hardest lesson for me to learn in Antiquity because I did not realize upon first starting to collect that the item was probably a one-of-a-kind so I would never see it again.

“Follow your heart and you can’t go wrong.”

I try to be led by my heart and I believe it leads you down a different path than your head might tell you to go.

“Antiques can elevate a standard builder house or room.” 

We add antiques in design to add depth to a home. In a new builders kitchen, there is nothing better than antique lanterns or pendants over the bar area. In a bathroom, adding an Italian mirror over the contemporary vanity.  It is the attribute of an antique to add character or elevate a room.

“Always feayour nest with things that are meaningful to you. You should be able to “read” a great house like a biography.”

Find your voice. I had to dig deeper to find out what styles I was drawn to. I could only purchase one nice piece of furniture a year when I first started collecting and I wanted to get it right. I wanted to find my own furniture style and not purchase things that I would want to replace in five years when a trend changed. I hope to help others understand antique styles and mid-century and find their own personal journey to collecting a home that is reflective of their heart- felt acquisitions and is as unique as they are.

 “Start with the “heroes,” the memorable, worthy and head-turning objects that strike a dramatic note, then fill in around them, complementing or contrasting against them as you go. “

 The “hero” is the beginning for me in any room design. It starts with what is most important as the focal point and then the journey begins.

“You wouldn’t wear all your jewelry to one party.”

HA HA!  I am talking about allowing a “hero” or key anchor piece to take center stage in the design of a room and working around it to allow it to have the limelight. You would lose the impact if the whole room had celebrity status.

“Give up on the idea that your interiors will ever be done… when you really think about it, would you wear the same exact outfit for the rest of your life. Why would you want your house to?”

I am always working on an upgrade. I love that auction houses can sell treasures for you or consignment shops when I find something that is a step up from what I have. I want to collect the rest of my life if I find something that speaks to me and the avenues to (be) green (and) recycle are larger than they ever have been -- and you can make money doing so.