Tour a Classic Southern Estate with a 21st-Century Sense of Fun

Designer James Farmer reimagined his friends’ historic eastern Alabama home to suit their modern needs and stay true to the property’s beautiful bones.

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May 07, 2020
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Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

Photo By: Emily Followill

An Historic Home

Georgia-based designer, author and lifestyle expert James Farmer leapt at the opportunity to update this home, one of the last working farms in the eastern Alabama community of Oak Bowery. The stately home and outbuildings retained many of the architectural features original to their 19th century construction, which offered Farmer the opportunity to peel back centuries of ill-advised cosmetic changes and reveal the property's authentic beauty.

Farmer was also eager to customize the home to suit its new owners — Brandy and Mitchell Martin (who happen to be his college friends) and their two children. He had his work cut out for him: now-necessary features like a garage, modern bathrooms and a functional kitchen and pantry weren't part of the original 1845 home's plan. In partnership with architect Norman Askins (a fellow Georgian), Farmer planned a contemporary comeback for this historic home.

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From: James Farmer

Rediscovered Beauty

When this handsome, kinda-Federal, kinda-Greek-Revival home was built, its brand-new community was undergoing a period of rapid growth a period that ended when a planned railroad route ended up swooping south. The pace of local life slowed, and the property remained somewhat preserved in time ... until Farmer's clients (and Farmer himself) came along.

Learn More : Tour Southern Designer James Farmer's Refined, Traditional Home

From: James Farmer

Highlighted Passages

Transom windows above exterior doors at the face and back of the house admit dazzling shafts of sunlight, while corresponding features above interior doors branching from the foyer offer architectural echoes of the intricate furnishings Farmer chose for the home.

From: James Farmer

Eastern Assortment

Chinoiserie has traditional associations, but Farmer puts a fresh spin on classic motifs by combining tabletop patterns and offsetting his choices with bold accents (here, bowls of peaches and acid-green orchids). This moment in the hallway hints at the riot of colors and patterns to be found deeper in the home.

From: James Farmer

Cabinet of Curiosities

While it's tempting to reach for reproductions to achieve the variety of shapes and textures in the porcelain displayed here (and throughout the Martins' home), Farmer emphasizes the satisfaction to be found in sourcing the real thing: "Always be on the lookout — and the hunt for — porcelains and accessories of that sort," he says. "New accessories just do not have the character of older porcelains, pottery, objects and such. I am always on the hunt, and provided all the pieces seen in this home. Patina goes a long way!"

From: James Farmer

Picture-Perfect Powder Room

The first-floor water closet is anything but an afterthought, thanks to an ornate mirror and intricate wallpaper that expands the home's avian theme.

From: James Farmer

Depth in Details

Farmer reached for Farrow & Ball’s dragged wallpaper to swathe the dining room in summery and beautifully textured apricot. Created when a brush is used to pull water-based paint slowly across the paper’s surface, the striated result "creates depth that paint alone cannot create," Farmer says. "[Farrow & Ball use] ink pigments, and their colors have that wonderful aesthetic, especially when applied in the striated fashion. Paint simply applied to sheet rock loses its luster."

From: James Farmer

Celebrating the Season

When it comes to incorporating fresh blooms in his interiors, Farmer lets the harvest guide him. "I am a very seasonal person, so I like to arrange flowers in my clients' homes based on what is blooming in the yard and garden," he says. "Here we were in the height of summer, and the flowers reflect that. Just because you have a particular style of home doesn't mean you have to have a particular style of flower arrangement; whatever is blooming is always best!"

From: James Farmer

Back to Basics

After undoing decade upon decade of questionable treatments, Farmer made it back to the home's original walls and flooring — which, to his delight, were floor-to-ceiling heart pine (a material that's as practical as it is beautiful). "I always tell my clients that there is a reason why heart pine has been used since floors were created," he says. "Used in homes, warehouses, factories, barns and any structure requiring a floor, it's a solid material that requires more upkeep upon installation than [it ever will] day to day. It's a great choice any time."

From: James Farmer

Blues You Can Use

Farmer balanced the heart pine planks' warmth with a kaleidoscope of cool, dusty tones in the upholstery — and a bolt of robin's-egg blue on the legs of a diminutive occasional table.

From: James Farmer

A New Role for an Original Fixture

"We honestly think that this room could have originally been the dining room, because this mantelpiece was the most elaborate in the home," Farmer explains. "However, in the contemporary configuration this became the study, and when we treated the original heart pine respectfully, the patina simply glowed and was ready to be seen for another century."

From: James Farmer

Modern Geometry

Note the manner in which Farmer's arrangements of curios maintain bilateral symmetry — that is, if you divided them in half with a vertical line, the halves would be equal to one another (the same goes for the books and objects in the cabinet we featured a few slides ago). The profusion of patterns and textures he develops feel balanced rather than cluttered because of that element of care.

From: James Farmer

Tone Poem

Textiles in the study range from a bucolic natural motif on the curtains to a traditional plaid for the armchair and an opulent area rug, all in dusky and mineral hues. As in the hallway, books and decorative pieces share space on the shelves — and mergansers, pheasants and ducks continue the bird theme seen throughout the home.

From: James Farmer

Crisp Kitchen

Gleaming white subway tile offers a modern counterpoint to the traditional cabinetry in the functional kitchen Atlanta architect Norman Askins added to the space. A subtly cheeky leopard-print fabric on the caned chairs' upholstery contributes a playful note. A warm traditional runner, in turn, carries the eye beyond the farmhouse sink and the stove into the heart-pine-paneled sitting room beyond them.

From: James Farmer

Coaxing in Color

Farmer keeps things (somewhat) simple in the kitchen, but he punctuates expanses of white with whispers of personality: the enamelware on the counter and stove echo the island, and an exuberant pattern enlivens the curtains.

From: James Farmer

Personal Collection

The cheerful kitchen curtain fabric resurfaces in the breakfast room, where it shares the spotlight with a bold paper (Schumacher's Zanzibar Trellis). Once again, the collections on display are both eclectic and organized, thanks to another symmetrical arrangement. The panel at their center has a special place in Farmer’s heart: "I found it at Scott Antique Market [in Atlanta] and there was a sister piece — probably from a scenic mural. They were not the same size or scene, but similar. I had them framed and one was perfect for this breakfast room — and the other found its way home with me!"

From: James Farmer

Developing a Pattern

Farmer insists that incorporating bold patterns like these into one's home is simply a matter of confidence. "Start with a solid base like a sofa and punch it up with patterned pillows," he advises. "Or apply pattern to the wall with a paper but hang a monochromatic piece of contemporary art atop [it]. When the same vein of color and shades are running through [a space], pattern isn't busy but coordinated."

From: James Farmer

Going Green

Farmer practices what he preaches: tones in the table lamps, blown-glass vase, peacocks and reflected botanical illustrations in this breakfast-room tableau all support the utterly extroverted wallpaper he selected for it.

From: James Farmer

Making Heirlooms Part of the Family

What's the use of having gorgeous Chinese Chippendale chairs like these if you aren't incorporating them into your life? Farmer feels that when it comes to historic furniture, engagement goes a long way. "Remember what the pieces — a sideboard, a storage chest, a secretary — were intended to be. They were meant to be used! I like to use them today, whether for their intended purposes or to display collections. Whether it's painting the back of a secretary a nice color or filling a chest with toys, puzzles and books for the kids, the most important thing about living with antiques is continuing to use them. That takes the seriousness out of them."

From: James Farmer

A Profusion of Porcelain

As in other rooms, ornamental pieces like the red-and-white ginger jars and plates on the built-in shelving share space with books, fresh fruit and wine glasses that are absolutely intended for use. Farmer's message resounds throughout this modern collection: you don't have to be precious about treasures.

From: James Farmer

Local Luminaries

Farmer isn't the only college friend making a contribution to the Martins' new home: to create an intimate transitional gallery between the first and second floors, he commissioned botanical art from another former schoolmate, Alabama artist Andrew Lee. "We worked together to create flora and fauna pairings seen in and around Alabama," Farmer explains. The gleaming frames pair beautifully with mounted lighting on a similar scale with a complementary finish. "The fixtures are a wall lantern; I love to use lanterns on stairwells, because they are architectural, and scale-wise, they provide a wonderful balance to interior architecture like a stairwell," he adds.

From: James Farmer

Reprise

Notable elements from the first floor — Andrew Lee's illustrations, the maximalist Schumacher Zanzibar Trellis wallpaper, the subtle leopard print on the occasional chairs — return to develop a sense of cohesion on the landing. Even the runner Farmer chose for the kitchen has a twin at the double doors leading to the home's Juliet balcony.

From: James Farmer

Variation on a Theme

Classic caning and ceramic figurines continue upstairs in the guest bedroom, where Farmer chose a paler floral to upholster the bedstead, occasional chairs and a bench. Monogrammed linens in a barely-there blue give the space a sense of serenity.

From: James Farmer

Home Sweet Home

Farmer turned to Tennessee artist Lauren Dunn for a one-of-a-kind focal point: a modern portrait of the home itself. "We commissioned this for the clients and it is a perfect fit over the mantel in the guestroom," he says.

From: James Farmer

Opening for Opulence

"The master bathroom was a completely new addition, because houses of this era did not have such luxurious bathrooms indoors," Farmer says. Who could resist crowning a clawfoot tub with an ornate chandelier in such a space? "While we were remodeling, the old fireplace was exposed...and opened up an excuse to create a touch of glamor" in the room he says.

From: James Farmer

His and Hers

"Soft aqua and sepia-tone browns are a favorite combination of mine because they are very flattering for masculine and feminine personalities," Farmer says. "Large patterns like an exaggerated damask and loose floral go so well together," as in this wallpaper and window treatment.

From: James Farmer

Purposeful Palette

Everything in the master bedroom — from the custom linens to the hand-painted bedside dresser and the complementary curtains — contributes to a feeling of impeccable tailoring and bespoke luxury.

From: James Farmer

Something Old, Something New

Jewel-bright porcelain and ornate pleated fabric flanks original doors in the home's back hallway. The deep stain on their weathered wood contrasts beautifully with the rich ivory tone Farmer chose for the windows, walls and trim, and the pale putty paint on the ceiling adds another note of depth.

From: James Farmer

Here Comes the Sun

With traditional rockers for Farmer's friends and a positively plush swing for their children, this generous new screened porch will function as a satellite family room in warmer months.

From: James Farmer

Room to Grow

By project's end, Norman Askins had added 800 square feet to the home James Farmer reimagined for the Martin family. It's not hard to imagine the new owners establishing deep roots here.

This home is one of 10 properties featured in James Farmer’s new book, Arriving Home: A Gracious Southern Welcome, available for pre-order now to ship in September. To feast your eyes on more of Farmer’s contemporary Southern style right now, check out HGTV’s tour of his own home in Georgia.

BUY NOW: Amazon | Arriving Home, $45

From: James Farmer

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