Inventive & Inviting Interior Design

When Jane Christopher moved to Birmingham, she called on her interior designer daughter Ellie Christopher to mix in some modern elements with her collection of fine antiques and unique décor.

“In all my houses, I’ve never had such a cozy space, so the study is a favorite,” says Jane. Ellie used shades of blue for the settee and the back of the bookcase. “We have been collecting antique books for years,”Jane says. Ellie also added artwork, a clock/mirror, porcelain pieces, and other special finds to the shelves.
Photography by Mary Margaret Smith, Styling and Florals by Kathleen Varner

Not every interior designer would relish the opportunity to have her mother as a client, but that certainly wasn’t the case with Ellie Christopher. Her mother, Jane Christopher, possessed an enviable collection of antiques and décor that Ellie grew up with, some of which she helped her mother choose. The challenge was how to incorporate and update everything for Jane’s new Cherokee Bend residence in Cross Creek after her move from Columbus, Georgia, where she had lived for 30 years.

Architect Hank Long added the welcoming portico with a copper roof based on a historic house in Virginia. Window shutters were also added, and the plain red brick was painted a fresh creamy neutral color (Benjamin Moore’s Stone Hearth).

Ellie understood her mother’s decorating style, which is similar to her own. “I’m fairly traditional, but I like things to be a little offbeat,” says Jane.

“I don’t want anything to feel too stuffy or for everything to match.” Keeping that in mind, Ellie introduced a little tension and contrast throughout the design. For example, in the living room, she placed quirky antique mismatched lamps on one wall and a pair of more modern smoky glass lamps on the other. Jane’s fine case goods are also mixed—a leggy table on one side of the sofa and a heavy chest on the other.

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“My art collection is so important to me and so personal; I’m a bit of a storyteller and each piece has one to tell. Ellie helped me find the perfect placement to enjoy them.”

—Jane Christopher

Ellie balanced the feminine with more buttoned-up, handsome elements such as the plaid stairway runner in the entry and the selection of fabrics in the study—leather for an ottoman, a nubby textural material for an armchair, and a solid blue linen on the perfectly scaled sofa topped with stylized floral and plaid pillows. Even though the dining room leans more fanciful, Ellie chose to paint a mural on the walls featuring muted branches instead of a fussy floral pattern.

While the mother-and-daughter collaboration was mostly seamless, there were occasional moments when Ellie had to gently put her foot down. “My mother is like many of my clients,” says the designer. “She studies all these shelter magazines and wants to do certain things because she think that’s what she should do. But that often leads her astray from what she really loves.” Jane kept showing her daughter tear sheets and making suggestions, especially regarding the palette. Ellie would then bring over fabric swatches based on her mother’s ideas, but Jane usually said no unless it was brown, coral, aubergine, green, or blue. “I finally said, ‘Mom, your favorite color is brown,’ ” laughs Ellie. Adds Jane, “At first I thought that was terrible; brown is not really a color.” However, she changed her mind when she saw how her daughter mixed it with her other favorite hues to create a chic look.

Hickory Chair swivel chairs, along with a Paige Albright Orientals Suzani, emphasize the room’s palette of browns and creams. Coral tones add a dose of color while curvaceous Lucy Cope table lamps bring an edgier note. Ellie created the four abstract pieces as a foil to the classic floral painting.

In the living room, the swivel chairs show off a brown print called ‘Indian Zag’ from Lee Jofa, while a subtle chocolate plaid graces a French armchair. “I trust Ellie, so when she suggested painting the living room ceiling a coral shade, I didn’t hesitate,” says Jane. “She has had professional training of course, but she also has an innate gift. I recognized that when she was three years old and turned her Fisher Price kitchen into her art studio!”

Ellie transformed the interior of the elevator into a virtual library with Brunschwig & Fils wallpaper, a Paige Albright Orientals rug, and a two-armed brass sconce.

Speaking of art, Jane has an enviable and disparate collection that she has collected over the years. To highlight it, Ellie selected neutrals for the walls. “I didn’t want the pieces to get lost,” she says. In fact, every decorative element is edited to perfection to draw the eye in so that each one can be appreciated. “My mother doesn’t like too much busyness or for things to be out of place,” says Ellie. “It’s almost as if her home is always ready for a photo shoot.” Mission accomplished.

Ellie’s Tips To Shake Up Your Antiques

Give an antique lamp a new shade to keep it out of the dowdy camp and impart a whole new attitude. It doesn’t have to be custom; there are so many options that are very special and look custom.

Add some edgier pieces of art to spice up an existing collection. If you are working with a lot of oils, for example, add in some different mediums such as collages, photography, pen and ink, charcoal works, gouache, etc.

Consider what’s underfoot. If all the rugs in a house are patterned and antique, slip in some neutrals with natural, textural finishes such as sisal, seagrass, jute, or abaca to bring down the formality in the space.

Introduce a little tension in the room. You don’t want everything to be too perfect. For example, if you have a fine chest, you can create a vignette on the surface that brings some surprise. Use items such as bright lacquered trays, quirky lamps, and books in punchy colors.

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