Why design superstar Barry Dixon loves houses that tell stories

Learn how to tell your own when Dixon comes to Mathews Furniture + Design on March 31
Barry Dixon
Photograph by Kevin Allen Photography

Last week we were excited to speak with designer Barry Dixon about his inspirations and upcoming trip to Atlanta. Dixon lives in a 1907 Edwardian home on 300 acres in Fauquier County, Virginia. His high-profile clientele have included the likes of Diane Sawyer and former Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist. His many lines include accessories and furniture for Arteriors, furniture for Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth, fabric and trim for Vervain, furniture and pendants for Avrett, and paint for C2 Paint. Come meet Dixon at Mathews Furniture + Design on March 31 as he talks about his latest products for Arteriors (click here to RSVP). 

You’ve talked about your “vagabond childhood.” How does that history inspire your designs today?
I was born in Memphis, but my dad worked for a foreign company. He took commissions in India, Korea, South Africa, and all over the world, and we went with him. I lived on virtually every continent. I was exposed to all these different cultures and climates. You really absorb the culture, almost by osmosis, if you live in a place.

Can you give some examples?
We lived in French Polynesia on New Caledonia, where you had the French aesthetic, the French cafes, playing against native, primitive elements like thatched roofs and grass mats. Then we moved to South Africa. There were similarities, like the thatched huts and tribal elements, but it was not Polynesian. When you’re exposed to these things, it doesn’t seem alien to bring them into other designs.

So you grew up with a mix?
My parents liked to collect. When we were in India, they bought textiles and rugs. In Korea, it was brassware and carvings. In South Africa, it was wood tables and tribal pieces. Then you have to find a way to sort of fold these dissimilar and disparate elements into a cohesive home.

And how has this influenced your design philosophy?
In a way, we’re writing our own stories in our homes—using our own “words”—words being the things we collect, the chapters of our lives. The most interesting homes have layers of personal history.

So while the rest of us were stuck on English Country, you were learning to appreciate different cultures?
I have always loved an intelligent mix of things. I’m not a matcher. I’m a mixer. I love that cross-pollination of disparate elements: east and west, north and south, old and new, primitive and refined, shiny and matte, masculine and feminine. All of these opposites create an exciting tension.

But you still consider yourself a Southerner?
Yes, I went to Ole Miss. My parents were Southerners, and I grew up going to Ole Miss football games. My grandparents were from Tennessee and Arkansas and owned farms; so, specifically, I relate to the rural South. It’s home. When I came home, I came home to the South.

What do you think makes a house Southern?
It’s hospitable when you open the front door. And it’s connected to the exterior—porches and rockers and big windows. You bring the outside in. Southern homes are more attached to the natural world.

What types of things do you personally collect?
I inherited transferware, creamware, and drawings, so I still collect all those. But I also love 15th- to 18th-century oil portraits. And I’m a natural scavenger. When I walk to the woods or over to the barn, I’ll bring home a hummingbird’s nest or what’s left of a box turtle shell. My paint colors are Pantoned from my world here on the farm. “Approaching Storm” came from a photo of the sky. “Belle’s Nose” was inspired by the fleshy pink nose of one of my angora sheep. The same for my line for Arteriors. The Snail Shell Lamp was inspired by snails on a tree, and the Spore Mirror was inspired by cockleburs stuck to my pants.

What is inspiring your work for Arteriors?
In his exhibition, “Savage Beauty” [for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011], fashion designer Alexander McQueen explored things that are protective in the natural world. I wanted to bring this idea to home couture. The Aramis Collection was inspired by body armor like fencing masks, and I’m doing a series on thorns.

How long have you been working with Arteriors?
We started about five years ago. Every collection is always the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. With experience, you understand more what the factories can produce, so you get more adept at designing something that can be produced. I think designing products has made me a better designer.