March 2016

Mrs. Howard Room by Room: Self-taught Interior Designer Releases Second Book

Author: Nicole Schultz | Photographer: Erica George Dines

Phoebe Howard is the ultimate self-made woman. This Florida-based mother of four is a housewife turned household name in the Southeastern interior design world, touting an impressive client list and showrooms from Charlotte to Jacksonville. She never attended design school or worked for another designer, but instead learned by experimentation, inspired by her husband Jim Howard’s success as an architectural and design expert. 

Jim and Phoebe Howard opened the doors to their first interior design concept store in 1996 in an old, abandoned Jacksonville grocery store. “It was condemned,” Phoebe laughed, “but I felt that [the customers] needed a more three-dimensional way to understand [Jim’s] concepts.” After the store opened, the couple knew they were on to something. Merchandise was turning faster than they could keep it on the floor and Jim grew so busy that Phoebe decided to take on some of his clients. “I said, I’m just going to take the next client that walks through the door,” Phoebe shared, and she did. Phoebe’s very first client admired her obvious talent enough to have her decorate 18 of their future projects. “I call myself an accidental decorator, because I never had a plan, it all just fell in front of me,” but then she paused. “I’m a super lucky person, but I work really, really hard.” 

That hard work has paid off tremendously. For a woman with no formal training, it’s pretty incredible to be featured in publications like Southern Living and the New York Times; oh, and she has two published works: The Joy of Decorating and her latest tome, Mrs. Howard Room by Room. When asked what it felt like to have her name and work appear nationwide, she candidly admitted that it’s a bit weird. “I don’t have the intimidation factor that a lot of other designers do. I understand families and I understand the practical. My work is a mix of practicality and beauty.”

Phoebe Howard (above) and the cover of her book, Room by Room (right).

That lack of intimidation factor is part of the beauty of Phoebe’s design business. She began her career in interior design at the age of 38 with no real training or examples to follow. She never worked for another designer before she opened her stores, Mrs. Howard and Max & Company. “My store became my design laboratory,” Phoebe said. “I don’t have a marketing person. I don’t have an agent.” With Phoebe Howard, what you see is what you get. She is just a practical southern woman with a knack for buying, decorating and merchandising.

When Phoebe takes on new clients, she wants to know their personal vision for their home. “I don’t really like a blank slate,” she said. “I like it to be about the couple. The more input they give me, the better.” Between the high-end and low-end price points of her stores, it’s not difficult to grasp any style and create something beautiful to accommodate her client’s vision. “Ultimately, it’s about their needs and their style, not mine.”

Mrs. Howard and Max & Company, Phoebe’s two showrooms, offer different interior design styles. Mrs. Howard was the first store Phoebe opened and has housed her artistic visions throughout her years in the design business. “Mrs. Howard is more high-end, meaning more traditional and more antiques,” she said. When I spoke to Jill Walker, the manager of Mrs. Howard and an employee of Phoebe’s since the beginning, she described the showroom as “more high-end, residential, like a Hampton’s home.”

Five years after the inception of their first Mrs. Howard store in Jacksonville Beach, Phoebe opened the doors to their second store, Max & Company, named for their youngest son. “Max & Company was conceived as the baby store of Mrs. Howard,” she said. Max & Company has a younger and more modern feel to offer clients. It’s the kind of store that children of Mrs. Howard’s clients can begin to decorate their home with. Jill Walker, manager of Mrs. Howard, describes the Max & Company showroom as “a more Swedish, beach vibe.” When it comes to clientele and foot traffic, it’s a pretty mixed crowd between both stores. The stores get all kinds of traffic, from a girl’s trip to people wandering in just to look,” Jill said. You can find two of her showrooms tucked within The Galleries of Atlanta, a posh stretch of well-known local interior design stores and just up the street from the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center.

Being in a Mrs. Howard showroom feels a lot like intruding on the home of a Charleston socialite. Every room includes a display of cocktail shakers over a chic bar tray. The walls are neutral with blue hue accents and the hardwood floors feel warm and inviting. The stairs are covered in a leopard runner, leading to elegant bedroom displays of crisp white linens atop a gorgeous off-white bed frame. The presentation is shamelessly feminine and some of the items are surprisingly affordable. I found a gorgeous eggshell blue throw for under $65 that I wanted to take home. The walls surrounding the store are covered in imperfections, a sign of the many merchandise pieces that have found a home elsewhere with Phoebe’s clients. 

In addition to buying at market anywhere from New York City to Atlanta, Phoebe is also an international purchaser. “I love shopping out in the countryside of England,” she shared. Her husband Jim often joins her on trips overseas, in search of high quality antiques to bring back to her stores. “The English have such an appreciation for antiques and fine things. They are similar in so many ways to Southerners. I’ve always enjoyed their take on design,” she said.

Speaking of Southern, Phoebe has a bit of advice on how to achieve that “Lowcountry look” in your own home:

Keep your space warm, welcoming, comfortable and above all, approachable. This can be achieved not only with furnishings, but also with small touches, such as fragrance, fresh flowers and plants, or music. The hallmark of a great Lowcountry house is a casual, dog and kid-friendly home, free from intimidation and pretension.

Above all else, family is the most important thing in Phoebe’s life. “All I want at the end of the day is for my family to be happy and healthy,” she said. “Because of my business, having such an overflow of materials, I really don’t care about things as much as I care about people.” That could not be more evident, given the wide range of respect Phoebe has earned for her design talents over the last two decades.

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