When I was at the Design Bloggers Conference in Los Angeles a few years ago I got a call from Kyle Bunting just as I was about to walk into the conference room to hear Jan Showers, one of the nation’s leading interior designers, speak. Turns out they are great friends, and he asked me to say hello. I just caught her at the end of her presentation as she hurried out to catch a plane back to Dallas for another event that same day. The jet-setting designer was clearly in a hurry, but Jan’s Southern grace still came through when she took the time to have a quick chat with me.
Naturally, I was really looking forward to spending more time with such a lovely lady, and I got a lot of that when we finally sipped tea at her suite at the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco, overlooking the park and Grace Cathedral.
We talked about everything from her childhood dreams to her start in interior design and later furniture design, her family, her love for travel and what still may come. I was taken by Jan’s warmth and candor and feel so blessed to have spent such an enjoyable afternoon with her.
Claudia Juestel: What brought you to San Francisco?
Jan Showers: I have been coming to San Francisco since I was ten years old. I remember my first trip to San Francisco with my parents and my little brother, and it was fabulous, and I loved it. I thought it was the most glamorous, romantic city. I remember eating at Omar Khayyam’s. It’s no longer here, but it’s a legend. I’ve been coming here ever since, probably twice a year. I come for business and pleasure, both. Michael Taylor represents my furniture collection here in San Francisco, and it’s beautiful. I am so pleased to be here, and love the staff there. So there’s nothing I don’t love about San Francisco. I mean, what’s not to love?!
We also have really dear friends who live in Kentfield. I did their home, which is a beautiful 1938 modernist house that looks like it could have been built yesterday. Gardner Dailey, a famous California architect from that era originally designed it. It was just such a joy that house, which is in my latest book. It is the only house I have designed in the Bay Area so far, but I look forward to doing more.
CJ: We definitely want to see more. Let us start at the very beginning. I learned that you grew up in Hillsboro, a small town near Dallas, Texas. And it was very interesting to learn that your great, great, great, great, four times grandmother was in the court of Josephine Bonaparte.
JS: Yes, she was a lady in waiting, and it might have even be five generations back. Her name was Louise Josephine De Norris. As I became a teenager I thought it was really great. I have a locket that Josephine gave Napoleon to carry with him to battle. My great, great, great, great grandfather was a general in Napoleon’s army, so he was very connected to Napoleon as well. My mother was interested in anything, read every book there was on Napoleon, she was very into that. And as I got older I was as well.
JS: My mother’s family was French on her mother side, and it was a very matriarchal family. Her father’s side of the family was German. On my father’s side, they were British and Scottish. I know that my grandfather and my great grandfather were doctors. So was my dad. There is a long line of doctors, and my grandson wants to be a doctor. I definitely know that my heritage is why I have such great rapport with the French people, and I go to France a lot. I went to Germany for the first time when I was in my early 20s, and I had the same feeling of connection
CJ: You just feel it, right? So what was your childhood like?
JS: Well, it was very, very privileged. I grew up with a mother and father who could not have been better parents. The older I get the more I realize how lucky I was. You know when you are growing up you don’t realize that at the moment. My mother was an amazing person, and I write a lot about her in my book. She was a huge influence on me; she had wonderful taste. She was always impeccably dressed. She loved antiques and beautiful design of any kind and she was very worldly.
My father went to World War II, and he got his orders two weeks after I was born. I realized how fortunate we were that he came back and adjusted well. When he returned he and his father started a hospital that was wonderful and went on for many, many years. I grew up in a wonderful small town. It had very innocent and very family-oriented upbringing, and I had lots of good influences around me. My mother was very close to her family and they lived nearby. They had a ranch about 10 minutes from us. So on Sundays we would go over there and have lunch. It would be just a fabulous with lots of wonderful food! I love good food, and I think my love for cooking comes from that side of my family too. I have to say that I was probably spoiled.
CJ: Do you have siblings?
JS: Yes, I have a brother who is five years younger and still lives in Hillsboro. He is my husband’s law partner.
CJ: Keeping it in the family. So the right side and the left side of the brain are represented well in your family. What was the first moment when you recognized your creative talents?
JS: I knew that I was creative very early. I was always making things, and my mother was super creative. So she was very encouraging. I could make all kinds of different things, and I would make magazines. My first magazine I made from my mother’s House Beautiful when I was eight. It is funny and ironic that my latest book is called “Glamorous Rooms”. This magazine I called “Rooms”. I had always liked to rearrange furniture. Most designers say that they liked to rearrange furniture, and I did too. You just can’t stand it, and so you would move it. I also enjoyed going to antique stores with my mother and my grandmother. I had an interest in that, and in fashion, which my mother was also interested in.
CJ: So did you have personal input on what your room looked like? Did you say ‘I want it like this’?
JS: Oh yes! That was quite unfortunate actually because when I was ten my dad had a beautiful and very traditional mahogany four-poster bed in my room. I told him that I didn’t like the furniture and wanted something else. So my dad said, “Okay, we will go shopping”, thinking that it would be fun if he went with me. And my mother let us do it, and it was a complete disaster. He let me pick out these really modern cerused oak pieces that were ebonized black. This was back in the ‘50s, and when I look back on it I guess I was very hip, but it had nothing girly about it. My brother ended up with it three years later when I decided I didn’t like it anymore.
CJ: It sounds like when Jamie Drake told me that he decided to paint his bedroom black when he was nine.
JS: You just make these decisions. I didn’t go crazy with paint though. I don’t think my mother would have allowed that, and I think she was not thrilled about my furniture selection either. But she always let me be who I was, which was really great. You know a creative person needs that. You can’t be stifled. I tried always to let my girls do what they feel like doing and think freely.
CJ: I agree, that is so important. So at that time, you loved antiquing, you loved fashion. Did you say ‘when I’m grown up, I’m going to do this and that’?
JS: Well, I was going be a movie star; there was no doubt in my mind! I always loved magazines, and I can remember dreaming of my life as a movie star. I loved cutting out pictures of things that I liked. I loved magazines.
CJ: And then you made your own magazines?
JS: Yes, I did them of living rooms, dining rooms and things about when I’m with my husband, my movies, my children. It was hysterical! I wanted to be a movie star, and then in high school it became more about wanting to be an actress.
CJ: So were you in school plays?
JS: Oh yes. I liked it, and I announced to my dad that I wanted to major in drama with a minor in psychology. He said, “well, I don’t think so”. I really admired him a lot, so I asked him what he thought I should do. And my dad said, “I think you may need a business major”, which I think was very forward-thinking at that time because women back then were pretty much nurses, secretaries or teachers. The thought of interior design entered my mind later, but I majored in business.
CJ: So at that time, you weren’t thinking about design at all. You still wanted to be an actress, but your father wanted you to be more practical. In hindsight did that decision give you a lot of confidence for starting your own business?
JS: Yes, it has been amazing, and I really did enjoy getting a business major. When I look back I am very happy that I did. It was a good decision to make, and I also took a lot of psychology courses.
CJ: Which are very helpful in interior design, right?
JS: Yes they are, especially in residential design where you really need to understand people, and you need to like people number one. I have been very, very fortunate doing this for 38 years. I started my design business in 1977 after having my girls, which was part time then, and turned into a full time business later.
CJ: So you graduated with a degree in business, and so what happened between then and opening a design firm?
JS: Well I became pregnant. I married my husband Jim while I was still in college. He was a year older. It was major love, I almost would say it was at first sight because we had met before, but that’s another long story. We ended up getting married very young. It was not uncommon in those days. In fact at TCU (Texas Christian University) where we went to school, it was so common that there was what they called the married dorm. We didn’t live in it, but we had a cute cottage, and we were just playing house basically.
We had a great time, and Jim majored in business too, so we had a lot of classes together. I graduated in three years. He was a year ahead of me, and I wanted to be finished when he left. So I took 22 hours a semester and went to school all summer. My college education was quite intense because of that. We had a plan; we always have a plan. So then we moved to Austin. Jim went to the University of Texas Law School, and we were there for two and a half years. I taught business classes at the university for a year and a half. I taught a really simple typing class. But I also taught in a high school, which I really enjoyed a lot. Then I got pregnant, and about six months before we were going to move back to Hillsboro, which is where Jim ended up starting his law career, I became a mom at 24, having been married five years. I was 19 when I got married.
Jim is great! We were both lucky that it all worked out. Then we had another child. They were five years apart, and we traveled a lot, we went to Europe a lot. We had really good friends, and my mother and father literally lived down the street from us. Here is this wonderful mother who is the best mother of all time, and my dad was a doctor. So we could say “bye, we’re going to go to Europe for a while”, and we would go for a month or so. We were making up for lost time traveling and having a good time. My parents loved having the grand kids. So when my second child was about four or five I was doing everybody houses after people saw mine and loved it.
CJ: So you started your design career as a stay at home mom because whose friends were impressed with your beautiful home?
JS: Yes, and that’s how it all came about. Then finally the mayor of the town called me and he said, “Would you do my house and let me pay you to do it?” I said, “Yeah, that would be great”! I was very fortunate. I learned the most about design from a wonderful interior designer named Lucille Neblett from Waco, TX. She was very Sister Parish in the best sense of the word. At the time I was working with her on both my house and my mother’s house, groupings of art were very “in”. I told her what I wanted to do (a grouping) and she said “I’d rather be nibbled to death by a knat!”. That was just one of the many Neblett gems. Another one was when I asked the price of an antique in her shop, she would say “Get the blood and aspirin!”
Then I got to work with a designer from Dallas by the name of Ken Jorns who let me follow him around and learn the ropes and learn the Design Center and all that. He was nice, nice guy. And so he showed me where to go, what to do and all that. I was lucky. Then I started designing houses in Dallas, where we had a second home. It got off the ground almost immediately, and in fact I had to often say “no”, because I had to do it part time. I was going to be a mom first, that was really important to me. I wanted to be there for the girls. They were both into drama– imagine that. They would do all these one-night plays, and Jim and I would go to everything they did. They were cheerleaders, and we kept going to football games. We were very much involved in their lives, and that came first until Elizabeth was in high school. And so when she was in high school, which was late ‘80s, the design business became full time.
CJ: So before that you actually turned projects down?
JS: I had to. They would have to understand that it was part time; so it was very much like that the first ten years.
CJ: But after the mayor, you never did it for free again?
JS: After the mayor paid me, I never did it for free ever again, ever again. But I will never forget how thrilled I was with that first check. It was not much, it was a paltry amount, let me tell you. But it was so much fun to get a check for something I loved doing.
CJ: What did your dad think about that?
JS: Oh, he was so proud of me. I think he was surprised actually; but I think he thought he knew that I could do whatever I made up my mind to do. I am very, very strong willed.
CJ: But at some point he probably thought ‘okay, she fell in love, she got married, she had kids she’s going to be a mom and a wife. He knew how important family was to you. So all of a sudden you’re starting a career, and he must have been thrilled. His investment in college finally was paying off, right?
JS: Yes, and what he told me to major in was working, you know. It was just such a great thing for me, and at that point I was in my late 30s.
CJ: I understand that you also later opened an antique store.
JS:About ten years after I went full time I opened my antique business in a well-known place in Dallas called “The Muse”. The Muse is a collective where a lot of antique dealers have a stall. So that was my first experience, and I was only in there a year. The reason that was only a year is because I realized that I needed to be there more to make sure everything was right. So I thought “why don’t I go to Paris? I’m paying more for these things, and my clients are having to pay more, it makes more sense for me to go to the source.”
CJ: And go to Paris.
JS: And go to Paris, duh? And so that is why the whole thing started, and that was in the 1995. So I found a place. The first place I looked at was right next to the Dallas Design Center. It was warehouse, and I saw what I could do with it, and I loved the location because designers all go right by it. Very fortunately it was a big hit! On my first buying trip to Paris I started seeing all this amazing French ‘40s furniture that was obviously derivative of 18th century Directoire design, and I loved it. I loved the woods. I literally fell in love, I literally did.
CJ: That was very different from anything you had ever seen before growing up, going antiquing or shopping in the States at that time.
JS: Yes, and it was like a light went off. I had seen a photograph in a magazine that just stopped me. You know sometimes that happens? It was a flat in London’s Mayfair district that Syrie Maugham did, and it was this beautiful silver tea paper and a mirrored commode sitting in this hallway that captivated me. Something about that photograph made me feel that I was going to do that kind of work, that I had discovered something that I absolutely was passionate about. I was passionate about design period, but it became something different.
CJ: So this was in 1996 and you had opened up your firm in 1977? Did your style change dramatically at that point?
JS: Yeah, because back then I was doing a lot of George Smith, sort of the English country style. He was very, very popular in the ‘80s. I was doing a lot of that, it was cool looking. I liked it, and when I think back on those rooms I think they were pretty, and they would look fine today. But this was different, and I was worried because it was Dallas after all.
So here I am in Paris, I’ve fallen completely in love with something they had never seen there before. I had inventory in the shop and things that I had bought down from New York and some antique shows. It was all more traditional because Dallas was so traditional with all of that brown furniture. I thought I have got this much money to spend, and I would like to buy all of it. It was the mother lode, but I thought I better not do that. So I bought about 30 percent of the shipment of what I loved and the other 70 percent of what was more traditional. It all mixed together really nicely in the way I set my showroom up with different vignettes.
CJ: Is your showroom still in the same location?
JS: I still have it in the same place. We enlarged it, doubling the size of it after about five years. So I get my shipment in, and the first pieces that sell are the ones I love because people were so thrilled. They were talking about it. The pieces got tons of attention, tons of press and got me lots of clients as well. But it was so wonderful, and I turned around and went right back to Paris and bought 80 percent of that and 20 percent traditional. But I always wanted to mix it, because I personally get bored with everything being the same.
CJ: It’s like a museum.
JS: It is. It’s like a museum and I hate that. So everything just sort of happen in a wonderful way, and people got it. I set the showroom up that way, so that you could see how you could use things you already had with this genre of furniture; and it worked.
CJ: Because as a designer when you own a shop, you set it up very differently. You think of it as rooms so it’s very easy for people to come in and say “I want that, can you do that for me?”
JS: I know, and that is why Ralph Lauren is such a genius, because he always had those rooms set up that he changed several times a year. Obviously because I sell antiques, things sell off the floor; so we are constantly changing. We change way more than four times a year, and designers loved that. So being in the design district was a really good decision as well, because not only am I selling to my clients but I am also selling to other designers who are regular customers and are bringing their clients in.
CJ: So is your business now sort of 50/50 between your showroom and your design business?
JS: There are three arms of my business: I’ve got the design business, which technically is a part of Jan Showers & Associates, which includes the antiques. And then I have the Jan Showers Collection, which is represented in other showrooms as well.
CJ: Designers often at some point start making licensing deals, and that may be a small part of their business. But you started out having a showroom with antiques a long time ago, which in itself has become a very successful business. I’m just wondering what the balance is.
JS: Well, you know it is interesting you ask that because I started the collection in the summer of 1999. This is the 15th anniversary. And so last year they were almost equal. I love that! That was the whole idea. From business standpoint I did realize that I needed to do something to diversify.
CJ: Let’s talk a little bit about the collection. You have seating, case goods, lighting, mirrors, screens. How many pieces are in the collection, and how do you go about designing your pieces, and what makes it different than the rest of the furniture that is designed by other designers?
JS: I was so crazy about those antiques, I loved them. And there was only one. I realized that I could not find them anymore. So I would have to make things. I had wonderful workrooms, and at the time I started the collection I had 20 pieces that we were already manufacturing in Dallas. It is still all made in Dallas, except for the last part of the lamps, which are made in Murano. It started out with 20 pieces, and I would say now we probably have close to 200.
CJ: That’s a pretty big collection.
JS: It’s gotten bigger, but I consider it still to be a boutique collection. You know why it has grown? It is because we have really grown the lighting end of it a lot, which has been really, really successful.
CJ: Good lighting can be hard to find.
JS: It’s hard to find, and people love those lamps. They love the mineral lamps and the beautiful colors of the Murano lamps. Even with the Euro having going up we still sell those lamps like crazy. So that’s been great, and I have fun with them. I love lamps; I think they change the rooms so much.
CJ: I totally agree. You are known for luxury and glamour. Have you ever taken a high/low design approach, or would you design for a big chain?
JS: No, I haven’t. I might do Target if they came along and asked me to do a licensing deal. I think they do a really good job of advertising, and I could see doing lamps, tabletop, mirrored frames, and glass accessories that I design.
CJ: What if a client asks you to use anything like that?
JS: Well I think there are times you do. In secondary bedrooms in big houses we use Pottery Barn For Kids and such, not usually in the major rooms, but we definitely do so for children’s rooms. We understand how people live in their houses and that children are going to pretty much wreck things. We use more and more fabrics specifically for children because a lot of our clients are young with kids. I love this look, which is another thing when I thought that there was a little method in my madness too, my passion. I thought that I wanted to cater to people who are younger and are coming up. It’s more fun for me.
CJ: How do you go about designing your pieces, and what differentiates your collection from others?
JS: Well what differentiates it is that I am really, really careful about that. We do serious market studies when we come up with an idea for a piece, which is usually inspired by something I had found in France or anywhere or it is something I need, like the “Manhattan” table. At night I am a big reader, and I didn’t have a good place to put my books. I didn’t want to put them in drawers, and I thought why not make a little table that will hold books and magazines so they are not all sitting on the floor by my bed. And that’s how that came about. Sometimes it is because the beauty of it inspires me. But before we put anything into collection we always make sure that we know who is on the same par with us, and we look at their collections and make sure that they are not doing it. That is just absolute necessity because the only reason I did it was because I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
CJ: You want something unique?
JS: That was the reason. So that’s how careful we are about it.
CJ: What is your process of designing the furniture?
JS: We do drawings. If we have an existing piece that we really like and that we are going by, we do the drawing based off of that, but never exactly the same. We don’t ever knock it off exactly, also A) because it usually is not quite big enough and B) because it usually has more carving and stuff than I like. So we always clean things up for a traditional look that is younger looking, fresher looking.
CJ: What are some of your favorite furniture styles and design periods?
JS: Well, I absolutely adore furniture from the very late ‘30s through ‘40s into early ‘50s, French and Italian. There were so many great designers during that period, not only were there designers of furniture, there also great ceramicists, and I love jewelry and old watches from that period.
CJ: Cars? I love cars from those periods.
JS: Everything, when you think about it, it was incredible, a renaissance of design really. And you know I love movies, I’m a movie freak.
CJ: And those amazing sets.
JS: Yes, I think really learned a lot when I went to the movies. When I was growing up the movie changed every Sunday at our theater, Texas Theater, and it was my very favorite place in the whole wide world. I never missed a movie ever. Sunday afternoons were my favorite afternoons of the week because we would get to go see a movie and they showed movies from the ‘50s. And that was when Cinema Scope came in, and the sets were all amazing. Of course, some of them were a biblical and crazy and a lot of them were really schmaltzy, but they looked really good.
CJ: What are of your favorites?
JS: Well, let’s see. Of course, my favorite movie ever is “Vertigo”. I love Alfred Hitchcock, he was just by far my favorite. But then there other movies like “An Affair to Remember” with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. I love anything with Cary Grant; the man was a genius. He was a comic genius, he had a dancer’s body and he was an acrobat. The way he moved was so incredible. Just watch him walk across the room was phenomenal. I have “North by Northwest” on my DVR, and every once a while if I can’t go to sleep I just turn it on just to look at him. I’m so enthralled with him; he’s amazing.
CJ: How about “To Catch a Thief”?
JS: Oh, the best. I have that on my DVR too. And Grace Kelly, can you believe those clothes? That is probably, as far as wardrobe is concerned, my favorite, and I like the set design and that film a lot too. But I do think Vertigo is an incredible, incredible film.
CJ: Agreed. I absolutely love both his and her clothes in the movie. I am changing the subject, but I want to introduce our friend Kyle Bunting here. You two share kind of a Texas love for cowhides and you designed patterns for his collection.
JS: Yes, we do, and I designed three patterns and an art chair. I loved doing that, that was so much fun! I first saw one of his rugs at the David Sutherland showroom, where I am represented in L.A. and I could not believe how great this rug was. I have always had a white cowhides everywhere, just in the natural shape. I love them because they just sort of brighten and lighten a room up like you can’t believe, and there’s something sexy about them.
When I saw the rug I thought it was incredible. I asked the manager of the showroom Steven Tobey, who’s a dear friend of mine, about them. As it turned out Kyle was a really good friend of his. Steven introduced me to Kyle, and when I met Kyle we just hit it off, just like that. Steven told me, “Every Sutherland showroom has a big Kyle Bunting rug because everybody knows that Kyle and I go together”. That’s just all there is to it, we just go together, and I would venture to say I put up a Kyle Bunting rug in almost every house I do.
CJ: And it is usually white?
JS: Yes, ivory. I haven’t done one in color.
CJ: You use color on your design, but for the cow, no color.
JS: No cow color. Kyle wants me to use it, and I might some time. He loves color, and I love color, but I don’t particularly like it on the floor. However, I do have some ideas about how I might combine it with ivory that I think would be really pretty. I think I there is just a lusciousness about that ivory. I just think it’s so gorgeous and it looks more natural to me, which is another thing I like about it.
CJ: What would the secondary color be?
JS: Well I was thinking maybe doing an ivory with a chocolate brown.
CJ: We are still staying in the neutrals.
JS: We are still staying in neutrals, yes we are. And everything on it looks so luxurious and so rich and so sexy. That is why I like it.
CJ: We know you love cowhides. How about some of your favorite design elements that you never get tired of implementing in the design?
JS: Yes, cowhides are really up there. But I would say mirrors; I love mirrors. They are really magic and elements that I always add something fabulous to a room. I love beautiful lamps. You can change a room up and make it look fresher with lamps and make people look better. Eye-level lighting is everything! Art is very important, and I am a big believer in clients using an art consultant. I don’t like decorative art, and you can buy good art in all levels. There is nothing that can take a room to another level like a nice piece of art.
CJ: This relates to the understated glamour you are known for. How did you develop your style and how would you describe it?
JS: Yeah, well I think that is what I do. I find glamour in a cashmere sweater, I find glamour in your alpaca shawl. I just like things to feel great. I was glamorous when I was a little girl. I have a photo when I was probably four, my hair in French braids and I got on my mother’s high heels. It is hysterical. I wanted to be a movie star. I always liked to dress, my clothing style is more glamorous I think, but it’s quiet. I never can understand it when somebody has great personal style and their house is horrifying. I will say to clients honestly, “Your home does not reflect who you are”. And they will think about it, they’re busy people, they forgot about it. It is sort of always shocking to me, and the reason I am saying that is because I think my personal style definitely affects my design. I think the clothes that Grace Kelly wore in “To Catch a Thief” would be just as much of an influence on me and the way I design a room is anything else I could tell you.
CJ: We have talked about movies having had a strong influence on you. How about designers, architects?
JS: Yeah, well I love magazines, and I think magazines always influenced me. I have always loved art, and my mother took me to the Dallas Museum of Art from the time I was really small. She exposed me to art from an early age, and so I think art also has influenced me with color and form, shape. Obviously people-wise my mother was a big influence.
CJ: You mentioned Syrie Maugham. How about other iconic designers?
JS: I love David Hicks. I think his rooms are timeless. I would love to live in that flat he did in London for the Lord and Lady Londonderry. I can live in that room, timeless. It looks slightly more modern than probably what I do, but I definitely could live in that house for sure. I love David Hicks, Syrie Maugham, Francis Elkins.
Francis Elkins to me is one of the most timeless designers of any one. You look at her rooms and they still look good today. Yes they were traditional, but she was friends with Jean-Michel Frank, and she was using those pieces back when nobody or no other American designers were. I think Billy Baldwin was incredibly talented. I love his use of dark colors. I love the villa he did in the South of France for Mary Wells and Harding Lawrence, the villa “La Fiorentina.” I love the South of France, and everybody was doing something really gaudy, over the top with too much stuff, and here he put his blue and white stripe carpet on the floor with a blue sofa and really light fabric. How much fun did they have in that room?
JS: And among current designers I admire Peter Marino’s work, his attention to detail. The project he has done I have seen in person are absolutely phenomenal. I also like Mary McDonald’s work. She is fun, she is glamorous, and I have a lot of the sensibilities I think that she does, but she is a lot younger than I am. She’s very dramatic, but there are some things, like the dressmaker details that she uses, that I love, that comes from my mom. My mom taught me early on about such details.
CJ: Did you watch the Million Dollar Decorators?
JS: Yes I did. I didn’t miss one. I had fun watching the show.
CJ: What do you like the most about being an interior designer?
JS: I think that the most fun part for me is creating the concept with the client. I love that coming up with the idea. I talk to them first, I look at photographs they have or just images. And then in my head I come up with something. I really go into a zone when I come up with a concept. Then I just sit down with them and have them envision it. Seeing what my vision is that is when I get the biggest thrill. I really do, that to me is the best. But I have to say, I do like buying antiques too.
CJ: Understandably. So now I have to gush a little bit. You have been featured in countless shelter magazines, were named one of the top 100 interior designers in America by House Beautiful, are included in the Andrew Martin International Design Directory, and in 2008 received a Lifetime Achievement from the Fashion Group International. What would you consider your greatest career achievements?
JS: I think my first book getting published was a big thing for me. I think it was a dream I have had for a long, long time. And when that came to reality and I held that book in my hand, I will never forget that moment. So I think that’s a big achievement because it represents everything going back 25 years. We didn’t use all the photos, but I think that is a huge achievement. It came out in 2009, and it is still selling. It was the most amazing thing Claudia, it really was a thrill for me, and it still is.
CJ: Well you published another one. We’ll talk about that one too, but let’s talk a little bit about the “Glamorous Rooms”, the first one. I was interested to know how Michael Kors came to write the foreword.
JS: Well, I have known Michael for years. The dress I am wearing is Michael Kors by the way. I met him in the early ‘80s when he was doing a trunk show at a small boutique in Dallas called “The Gazebo” that was owned by a really good friend of mine who is now the general manager of the flagship Neiman Marcus store in downtown Dallas. Michael was there for the trunk show, and he and I just hit it off. And I loved his clothes; I still have clothes of his that I bought from him in the ‘80s. I have a wood-bead skirt, it’s the cutest thing you have ever seen! And he is hilarious, he is one of the funniest people I have ever known.
So through the years, I would go to his trunk shows anytime he was in town and we would always go to dinner afterwards. We are just really good friends, and so when the editor at Abrams said, “Jan, we need someone to write the foreword, someone well known to write the foreword for your book’, I don’t know why he came into my head immediately. He was becoming so well known because of “Project Runway”, and so Abrams was like delighted that I would ask him. But I knew how busy he was, and I knew how crazy his life was.
The fashion industry is insane, and Michael has lots of people working for him I know, but anyway I called him and I said, “Hey, I’ve got a favor to ask of you. I love you and I don’t want you to say yes to this if you don’t have time to do it, but I really would love for you to write the foreword to my new book’, and he was like, “done”, and two days later I had this amazing thing. I think it is so adorable that he wrote it, and I think he is so fun, and it is so him. We did start out sort of at the same time because I was just pretty new, I was just getting started in ’77 when I met him and we were both starting out. He was doing classic, timeless looks when others in the ‘80s they were doing big shoulder pads and grossed up.
CJ: You had a kinship.
JS: We did because I was not going do anything that was awful, trendy, or grossed up. The ‘80s were not the best for fashion or in interior design.
CJ: And especially, no offense, Texas wants things that are bigger. You were probably sticking out like a flower.
JS: It was just awful. So we related to each other, and he conveyed that. Yeah that was really great, he’s great.
CJ: It was wonderful that you have such a longstanding friendship. So Glamorous Rooms is 25 years of your design work, and how about the new book.
JS: “Glamorous Retreats” came out in 2013. I do I like the publishing, I like the writing, I like putting it together. I even enjoyed the editing part of it, which is really kind of tedious. I think they had to send me eight edits, and that was a lot to go through with a book that is over 200 pages. That was a lot to do, but there was always a mistake somewhere or not the right color exactly somewhere in the images.
CJ: It is a little bit like putting a house together. It is those little tiny details that nobody else notices but you.
JS: Yes, you want it to be perfect.
CJ: And then at some point you have to let it go.
JS: Yes. Finally had to let it go. I’ll never forget about this darling Esther de Hollander who was in charge of making corrections. And finally she said “Jan, this is the last one, we can’t do another one, we are on deadline”. It was like, “okay this is it, it is done now, we have given birth, just go print it”.
CJ: And then fast-forward, and you took it out of the box for the first time.
JS: Yes, amazing, that was just amazing. And I’ll never forget that. For the second one we were photographing projects from Harbour Island, Bahamas, to Palm Beach, to Nantucket, to three or four homes in Colorado that are ski lodges, a project in Deer Valley, ranches in Texas and in Oklahoma, a horse farm in Arizona, a fabulous place, and an amazing retreat in Scottsville, and a house Marin because that is such a beautiful retreat.
CJ: What places outside the U.S. have you done or where you would like to design projects?
JS: Well, we had done something in Toronto, which also previewed in Glamorous Retreats, and we have done the house I mentioned in Harbour Island. I go to St. Barts all the time. I have never done a house there, but I would love to. I have really never done a project in New York; I would love to do a project in New York. I would also love more projects in San Francisco. I love it here. I just adore San Francisco really more than New York. I don’t know if I want to do anything in Paris.
CJ: A little pied à terre for a client?
JS: Yes, that could be fun. A palazzo in Venice would be fun. I love Venice, and am so unfortunate that I have to go there every time I go to Europe to visit my glass factories.
JS: I know it’s just horrible.
CJ: Tell me about your travels, which places do you like to go to besides Paris and Venice?
JS: Well, our regular stops are Paris, Venice, Brussels, London. I love Lake Como, that is always a relaxation vacation. I have never been to Austria, but we have also been going to Switzerland to a lot. But I want to go. Jim said recently “when are we going to Austria?”. Too many places to see, too little time.
CJ: You would both absolutely love it. Well let’s talk about time because first of all I find it hard to believe that you’re a grandmother.
JS: Thank you. Jim and I have been married for over 50 years. Elizabeth is a jewelry designer and Suzanna is a photo stylist and writer. She has done work for House Beautiful, Coastal Living, and several other magazines, and she sort of does it all. She finds the house, she does the writing, she does the styling, she does the whole thing, she is a very good writer. She used to do design work for me in Houston. We had a Houston office, and then after she had three children she could no longer do it. She’ s just got her hands full.
CJ: What are some of your favorite things you like to do with your family.
JS: Well, I love for them to come to our house in Hillsboro. That is our family home, which is where the girls were raised. We have a townhouse in Dallas I love too. I love it when we are all together, they come to our house for Thanksgiving, we go to Suzanna’s house for Christmas, they come to our house for Easter. And now that they have the house in Harbour Island, our new tradition is doing Harbour Island in June as soon as school is out. It is a great way to spend time with the kids. When we are in Como they come over and usually stay a week. So we have a lot of family time together. I see Elizabeth a lot since we are both in Dallas. We have fun, we go to dinner, we hang out.
CJ: Try out new jewelry designs…
JS: Oh yes. She always says I am one of her muses. She has more than one, but I am probably the older muse, not the younger one.
CJ: Well clearly anybody at any age can wear her jewelry. It is timeless just like her mom’s design.
JS: Elizabeth has a great sense of color, and she loves nature so much. She’s very athletic and has traveled all over the world. She was even in the bush for two weeks. She is way more adventurous than me; I am a more of a luxury traveler. She also loves animals, and did a whole series of animals. It is more whimsical. I have the most amazing one of a kind “Monkey Tales” earrings Jim gave me for Christmas.
CJ: Your business obviously must be really demanding. So it must be wonderful to spend time with your family. What else do you do to relax and recharge?
JS: My relaxation comes from two things every weekend. I try to work it so I get to go on Thursday to our country house in Hillsboro. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I got all my meetings in those three days. Then in Hillsboro I am working too. I am on the computer or I am on the phone. But it is different, I can be in my workout clothes, I could be whatever. And the grounds are beautiful; it is a pretty place. There are birds everywhere, there are trees; it is just gorgeous. So that house and the setting are very relaxing to me. You can’t imagine, and I come back a new person and ready to roll Monday morning. As you know, I love to watch old movies. That is very relaxing to me. Also reading is a huge part of me.
CJ: What do you like to read?
JS: I read a lot of books. I really got on the history kick lately. It is so fascinating, and I do love fiction. I get on fiction kicks. I like Jennifer Egan a lot, I think she’s a really, really good writer.
CJ: Where’s your favorite place to read?
JS: I love to read in bed. I like to watch the movies in bed. We have a room in our house we call the library. It is a small room with bookcase, and it is super, super cozy. I like to also watch old movies there a lot. Jim and I would sit in there every night and have our drink and visit.
CJ: What’s your drink of choice?
JS: I either will have a glass of Prosecco or I might have a vodka soda or a Martini depending on what I’m in the mood for. I like Prosecco because it is light in the summer especially.
CJ: You are known for being glamorous, kind, generous, charming, what is it that people may not know about you?
JS: I think people would never think of me as liking to cook. I love to cook. I don’t cook when I am in Dallas because I don’t have time. But I like to cook when there is time and planning. So I plan my grocery list out. I have to admit I have somebody who buys the groceries because I don’t have time to do that either. I have to buy them in Dallas to get the ingredients that I want, the fresh fish and so forth. I take all that with me, and have so much fun cooking. So that’s relaxing to me too. That reminds me of my mom too. I also think that I am practical, and I think people are surprised at that probably.
CJ: I think that’s a good quality to have as a designer and people really appreciate that.
JS: I really am practical. For instance I would rather see a client put their money into really wonderful antiques or art than into fabric that costs $600 a yard for drapery. So to me that’s practical. I’m also really cautious about using fabrics that I think might disintegrate in certain climates like Texas. The sun there is brutal. Also with children we have to careful. I tell the girls who work with me, don’t be suggesting some Scalamandre fabric to go on this sofa when she’s got a three year old. So I think I am practical in many ways.
CJ: Perhaps the next book could be on “Practical Glamour”.
JS: Why not? I also don’t know if people know this about me or not, but I definitely love clothes. I love jewelry!
CJ: Oh, I think they know that. Anybody who has seen pictures or has met you would.
JS: I do, I do, I have to admit.
JS: Love them.
CJ: How many do you own?
JS: I would not count them.
CJ: You have a special closet?
JS: No, I don’t have that, I don’t really have enough closet space. I have a new rule that when I buy a new pair of shoes, I have to pick a pair of shoes that goes to my daughter Suzanna because she wears the same size I do. Liz wears the same size of dresses. So she can come and get things out of my closet. Suzanna gets shoes, and Liz gets clothes.
CJ: That works great.
JS: It does work.
CJ: I understand that your collection is popular with a number of celebrities. Plus many other prominent designers purchase your pieces for their clients.
JS: Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Owens, both of whom I like as far as performers a lot, have bought several lamps from my collection. Robert Wagner has several pieces, and so have Jennifer Lopez, Heidi Klum and Ellen Degeneres. She is so nice! Kelly Wearstler uses my lamps a lot, and one time she said in House Beautiful that among her three favorite things was my “Moonglow” lamp, which I thought was great. Michael Smith and Michael Berman also have bought from my collection.
CJ: So other designers who have furniture collections are buying your pieces. Isn’t that a nice compliment?
JS: I know, isn’t it great? Michael Berman is a super nice guy too.
CJ: It is important to be proud of one’s work, but also to work with nice people. Have you ever been in a position where you felt you should turn down a potential client because they were going to be impossible to work with or fire a client for the same reason?
JS: I definitely have, and I’ve also been in a position of firing a client for talking ugly to my employees. There is no excuse for that. I just won’t put up with that! I had to tell a client “I’m sorry, but I can’t work with you because you are not nice to everyone who works for me. I will refund your deposit, I will refund the amount that we have not used, and let’s both go on with our lives”, and they couldn’t believe that I was serious.
CJ: Good for you!
JS: I won’t put up with that at all.
CJ: That can be very hard to do for some designers. Something like this must have been especially hard during the recession when business slowed down for all of us.
JS: It is much harder, but we were lucky during that time that our existing clients went ahead and went on with some projects, like second homes or maybe decorating their daughters’ homes.
CJ: And that tells us about relationships again and how important they are.
JS: Well, you make sure that you’re nourishing those relationships because those clients are going to come back to you one way or the other.
CJ: If a client has found you through your book or a magazine article and knows very little about you and your work, you have to prove yourself to them. And if you get a good referral from somebody, you are already in the inner circle.
JS: Absolutely. With a referral you are in, and those are always the best clients always. But I do have to say that that book thing has gotten clients for me. They are calling me because they like the books, and they have read them, and they want this or that look. I have this one girl right now who is so adorable. One day she said “I’m just sort of star-struck Jan, when you come around I kind of forget what to say”. And I said, “listen, let me tell you something: I am a working girl. I grew up in a small town, don’t be star-struck”. It was just so funny because she meant it.
CJ: Of course she meant it, remember you were dreaming of being a movie star. I think you have carried that your entire life, that’s your aura.
JS: Yeah, well I don’t know. It’s funny I wanted to be that, but then it changed to being an actress because I really understood what acting was about and how great I thought it would be to do that. But I couldn’t do it. I am so glad my father put breaks on that. He was so smart, he was really smart!
CJ: Well you should design for the actresses now.
JS: I’d love it. I think that would be great. I would like to do a house for Gwyneth Paltrow because I think she has great taste. I have seen a couple of her houses, but I think she kind of does her own thing. And also J.Lo has really good taste, and she probably has a good designer. So that’s unlikely to happen probably, but you’ll never know. If you are in New York or in L.A. you have definitely an advantage, and I’m seriously thinking about opening an office in L.A.
CJ: Maybe you should. The glamour you produce in your design is so reflecting of what is good taste in L.A., and I think that would be great.
JS: I’d like to. And it’s something I talk about a lot. We’ll see.
CJ: One day soon I will get an email from you saying just that.
JS: I have had so much fun with you! This is just wonderful
CJ: Me too. Thank you so much Jan. I think officially this is the longest interview ever.
JS: Well, we have had a good time.
I very much look forward to visiting Jan’s showroom in Dallas and can’t wait to see her design for a glamorous actress or two. You can find both books “Glamorous Rooms” and “Glamorous Retreats” on Amazon or in local bookstores.