For someone who describes herself as an “accidental decorator,” Phoebe Howard is certainly doing well in the world of interior design. Known as Mrs. Howard to many, Phoebe is quick to point out that she has had no formal training in her field. But if her booming business is any indicator, she is a remarkable success, both as decorator and entrepreneur. She and her family own and operate a number of interior furnishing stores in several locations across the Southeast, including the original Avondale store (also named Mrs. Howard) that first opened its doors almost two decades ago. Her residential design projects keep her busy too, and recently her success has expanded in other ways: she has a signature line of furniture with Sherrill Furniture, and her book, The Joy of Decorating, was published in 2012. She also writes a regular column for Southern Living in which she offers decorating advice.
But she’s not the only thriving decorator in the family. Phoebe’s husband, Jim, began working in the interior design business long before the retail stores were established. In fact, it was his work that inspired the couple to open their first store on Herschel Street in 1995. They wanted a three-dimensional space where clients could see how all of the furnishings would come together in a room. According to Phoebe, it could give Jim’s clients the opportunity to “really see the entire design” and “allow them to touch and feel” the pieces. Jim remembers being inspired by the Ralph Lauren mansion store in New York where, “whatever you tried on or touched made you feel better. I wanted to do that in a home furnishing store.”
The Howards’ grown children are also in on the business. Phoebe and Jim’s son, Andrew Howard, is a decorator in his own right. He runs his own company and has a unique style, which he describes as slightly less traditional and “a little more colorful and family friendly” than his parents.’ Andrew’s sister, Nellie, the youngest of the Howard children, is also an active player in this decorating family, as the manager of the beach store. She’s very happy to be working so closely with her mother, and she is intimately familiar with the family trade: “I was practically raised at the back of the town store,” she says.
“Far beyond what we had envisioned”
More than 15 years ago Phoebe and Jim brought to life their vision of a place where clients could “touch and feel” their home designs. They purchased an old, spacious building in Avondale that had originally housed Setzer’s grocery store. It had the high ceilings that they were looking for, but it was more than a fixer-upper, according to Jim. He says that other buyers would likely have bulldozed it and put in new construction, but they refurbished and transformed it into Mrs. Howard, a high-end furnishing retail store.
They had prepared a modest business plan, without realizing how successful it would be. In the first year, the sales far exceeded their expectations. Phoebe says that they surpassed their original goal by ten times, prompting them to order in much greater quantities. They had discovered a market: clients who could appreciate the combination of classic decorating and fresh-looking designs. “There was a need for home furnishings and one of a kind pieces,” says Phoebe. In her book she writes, “The store was an overnight success, and we realized that we had created something far beyond what we had envisioned.”
Originally they had two tenants on each end of the building, but after a few years of success, they decided to expand when one of the renters moved out. The Howards opened a new store adjacent to the first one and named it Max and Company (after one of their sons). Phoebe’s idea was for Max and Company to cater to a younger audience, or, in other words, the adult children of Mrs. Howard’s clients. According to her, “Max and Company is literally the child of Mrs. Howard…(having both stores) creates a nice mother-daughter shopping experience.” She strongly believes in the “high/low” shopping experience, in which clients can match expensive items with inexpensive ones. In the back of this building, known to the Howards as “the town store” now, Jim and his design team have their office.
Not long after the first expansion, Phoebe opened a second Mrs. Howard and Max and Company in Jacksonville Beach. They had a great number of clients at the beach already who now wouldn’t have to “cross the ditch” anymore. But the growth of the business didn’t stop there. Phoebe and Jim’s success as designers is not limited to this region; they have clients in New York, Atlanta and other cities beyond Jacksonville. These residential projects have brought about a demand for new retail stores, so they opened a store in Atlanta about six years ago, and then, most recently, another in Charlotte.
“Make it pretty”
Jim fondly describes his wife as a “rare bird.” He contends that she is probably “the best seamstress and the best cook in America.” What makes her sense of design so special is that “she immediately knows what’s important in your house. ” When asked about her philosophy on design Phoebe is quick to point out that “you have to be careful to avoid a trend.” She says that “if you stick with the classical envelope” and make sure that your big purchases are timeless, you can always change around the smaller items such as throw pillows.” In general, she is known for her simple phrase, “make it pretty,” and her book is an excellent illustration of exactly how to do that in every room of the house.
To understand what Jim and Phoebe appreciate in individual furnishings I turned to their signature line. The Mr. and Mrs. Howard products by Sherrill Furniture are reflective of the Howards’ taste in design. Jim’s favorite piece in the line is the cantilevered armchair. He says, “it has architectural integrity. It is the bestseller and a really comfortable chair. It has a lot of action and style and can go anywhere.” Phoebe finds it difficult to choose just one piece because she loves them all, but two of her favorites are the Throwback Wing Back chair because of its “beautiful lines” and the Brooke slipper chair.
“A Decorating Family”
The First Coast is truly home to Phoebe, but her family also has roots in Alabama, where a favorite aunt once lived. Aunt Myra Thompson had a particularly strong influence on young Phoebe. The elegant style of Myra’s Montgomery home still stands as a vivid inspiration for the successful designer and entrepreneur. In her book Phoebe recalls being intrigued by her aunt’s style: “It seemed so basic and simple, yet so elegant. I realized that anyone could be surrounded by beautiful style if they chose to do so.”
At a difficult time in Phoebe’s adolescence, Aunt Myra’s flair for elegance turned out to be a saving grace. Phoebe’s parents had recently divorced and she was having a rough time adjusting. One day Myra surprised her niece by completely redecorating her bedroom. It had a profound effect on 13-year old Phoebe. In The Joy of Decorating she writes, “I can still close my eyes and recall every detail of that room. It embraced me and allowed my wounds to heal…In every room I decorate, my goal is to re-create the same sense of inspiration and comfort I felt in that bedroom.”
During that time with Aunt Myra, Phoebe was living in Alabama, but she’s lived most of her life in Jacksonville and will always call Florida home. She and Jim both grew up here, and their children, four in all, were born and raised in Jacksonville. Nellie and Andrew’s brother, Max, for whom one of the stores is named, lives in town too, and their sister lives in London. Nellie attended Episcopal and Andrew is a graduate of Stanton. Currently most of the family live near one another at the beach, where Phoebe and Jim are awaiting the completed construction of their new home in Neptune Beach. The grandkids are being raised here too. Andrew says, “My wife and I are both from here and we couldn’t be happier raising our boys in our hometown. Jacksonville is not the big city some might want it to be, but we like the small-town feel you get living here.”
Phoebe and Jim are clearly proud of their decorating family. They feel fortunate to have both a son and a daughter working with them and living close by. Phoebe makes the point that in most family businesses it is generally the sons who go to work for fathers, but that daughters rarely work for the mothers. “I feel really lucky that the children are working for us,” she says. “They can take the vision and carry it forward.”
Although he considered other career paths, Andrew thinks that becoming a decorator was inevitable. When he was young, “every weekend we were redoing spaces in our home. We were always going to antique shops.” As a child it sometimes seemed like “grunt work,” but now he can’t imagine doing anything different. “People are always surprised to learn Phoebe, Jim and I each have a fairly different design aesthetic. The great thing about that is we can collaborate, and it is wonderful having so many talented people to bounce ideas off.”
Nellie especially appreciates the opportunity to work so closely with her mother. She says that they have a really tight bond and that her mom is “always willing to help…I’m always learning something new.”
The Howards’ success exemplifies the quintessential American dream for entrepreneurs, and they feel very lucky to be working together. According to Andrew, “Working with family is fantastic, but it is a tricky balance. While learning from my parents has been incredible, it takes extra hard work to stand out and make an independent name for myself in the industry. Although I would not have it any other way.”