They’re not ‘just things,’ as some will try and tell you. Your home furnishings telegraph all kinds of messages and meanings — and not just to those who come to visit. The journalist LEE CULLUM does some translating.
“Things contain people.” So said Dallas-born novelist Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. They also contain ideas, memories, places.
For Hailey, it was all of those when she furnished The English Room at her house in Los Angeles. In it, she put pieces that she and her husband, Oliver Hailey, a playwright, had collected from shops in Rudgwick, West Sussex, for Eames House, a treasure of the 16th century that they bought and renovated. (The kitchen was redone thanks to her phenomenally successful first book, A Woman of Independent Means.) Generously apportioned and with radiant roses in front and back, Eames House was down the street from the pub and the Anglican church. There were bedrooms for everybody: Hailey and her husband; their daughters Kendall and Brooke; his mother, Hallie Mae; and his brother Thomas, stricken with polio as a child but who, from a wheelchair, lavished attention on politics and chess.
“When they first came to Rudgwick,” recalled Mr. Tilley, who sometimes drove the Haileys to theaters in London, “they were so full of life, every one of them.” Hallie Mae lived in the room in L.A. that later would recall Eames House, and now guests enjoy the fold-out bed and the ambience of antiques stores, where the Haileys found a drop-leaf dining table and six chairs — their first purchase — and a chaise longue called a duchess chair, Hailey’s favorite, now in her L.A. living room. Though Eames House has a half-timbered Tudor façade, the family’s taste, Hailey tells me, “ran to Bloomsbury, inspired by Charleston, the farmhouse in East Sussex where Virginia Woolf’s artist sister, Vanessa Bell, lived with, among others, the painter Duncan Grant.”
It is not unusual to find special parts of oneself via another country. Interior designer Emily Summers, in her own Dallas house, has resonated with the elegant restraint of Germany’s Bauhaus modernism and, in her courtyards, with the gardens of Japan. Her styles of furniture, she says, range “from the ’40s to the ’80s.”
Paula Lambert of the Mozzarella Company has infused her new home with the colors and light that I associate with Italy, where she learned to make cheese. A spectacular coffee table, however, began in London at the restaurant NOPI, where Lambert was having dinner. She peeked beneath the tablecloth, admired very much what she saw and sent a photo back to her interior designer, Dan Nelson of Vision Design. Without telling her, Nelson drew a replica as a coffee table and had it built in Dallas.
For biblical scholar Marjorie Currey and her husband, Fred, it’s the Middle East and their enduring hope for its three great religions of the book: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. A magnificent archway leading from the entrance hall to the living room is inscribed thus: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” On the other side is this from the Koran: “There is one God. His name is Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” Everything in both rooms has been selected to support the idea of cultural convergence.
Then there is Garrett Boone, co-founder of the Container Store and now chairman of TreeHouse, the Dallas and Plano home-improvement stores that are highly focused on green living. The Dallas Morning News featured Boone’s own Walking Table, an irregular slab of wood mounted on slender wood legs with feet moving ahead, filled with purpose, and his Jonah Bed, with its partial canopy inspired by the rib of a fish he found somewhere, hugging the shore. Both of these exuberant creations of his — made in his own woodshop across town — grace the Turtle Creek condominium he shares with his wife, Cecilia.
And what could be more inviting than dining in the round, at a table that envelops a group and encourages intimate conversation? Bonnie Wheeler, director of medieval studies at Southern Methodist University, once had a long, splendid groaning board of “diamond mahogany and rosewood French Art Deco,” she explains, with “multiple leaves that could be extended to 22 feet — enough space to have dinners for whole classes of students, but also cozy enough for just a few friends when brought down to its basic size.” All this she traded to a round mahogany table, large enough to seat 12, worthy of King Arthur and his knights, though it’s from the much more recent 18th century.
Gail Thomas, a founding fellow of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and the former CEO of The Trinity Trust Foundation, now the Trinity Park Conservancy, and her husband, Bob, a lawyer, have explored plenty of urgent issues at their dark circular table, hand-painted at the center with rich and glorious color. She found it at AOI Home, formerly Art of Old India, in the Dallas Design District years ago and around it has led full and fluent conversations — “soulful conversation,” Thomas would say — ever since.
So, things — especially those that bear witness to our most closely held moments, to our love — do contain people, places, ideas and memories. Our home furnishings testify to our enthusiasms, our emotions, to the quality of our intellect and the lasting impact of our lives.
LEE CULLUM, a Dallas native and Southern Methodist University graduate, is an award-winning journalist and the host of CEO, a series of interviews with business leaders, on KERA. She is a contributor to The Dallas Morning News.