How to express Southern hospitality through your home design

Interior designers share how to inject your home with Southern details.
A lion cornice on the exterior of the Glenn Hotel provided inspiration for the interior design inside.
(Courtesy of Sims Patrick Studio / Thomas Watkins)

Credit: Thomas Watkins

Credit: Thomas Watkins

A lion cornice on the exterior of the Glenn Hotel provided inspiration for the interior design inside. (Courtesy of Sims Patrick Studio / Thomas Watkins)

A 2023 study from the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology found that younger Southerners may be losing the distinctive Southern drawl that defines the region. Which begs the question of whether other aspects of Southern identity are also disappearing.

Interior designers based in the South seem to think that you can still tell a Southerner by their interior decor. These designers believe that Southern hospitality still exists in the realm of interior design where family heirlooms, original art, native plants and the lost art of entertaining at home help make Southern interiors distinctive.

“Southern hospitality in design often consists of traditional furnishings,” said Atlanta interior designer Erika Hollinshead Ward. “But I believe it has more to do with creating a home that functions beautifully for hosting and entertaining family, friends and guests. A well-designed home doesn’t have to be spacious, it just needs to consist of the creature comforts that make it easy and comfortable for gathering.”

Creating a hotel interior design that feels like a welcoming private home was how interior designer Libby Sims Patrick brought Southern hospitality to her firm's work on the downtown Glenn Hotel.
(Courtesy of Sims Patrick Studio / Thomas Watkins)

Credit: Thomas Watkins

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Credit: Thomas Watkins

“It’s really the way I was raised. It’s all about developing great relationships with people, being friendly,” said Decatur, Alabama, native and Atlanta-based designer Libby Sims Patrick. Her design studio Sims Patrick Studio has done a number of hospitality projects in the South including the Glenn Hotel downtown. She says that Sims Patrick Studio likes to make their hospitality projects feel warm and inviting much like the experience of visiting a private home in the South.

Designer James Farmer lives in his hometown of Perry, though you can see his work in homes throughout the country. He is also a best-selling author whose latest interior design book is “Celebrating Home.”

For Farmer many of his lessons about Southern hospitality go back to his grandmother. “She said the best dish a host or hostess can serve is confidence.” So what if you don’t have a matching set of fine china says Farmer, “don’t make excuses and over-apologize.”

We asked designers for the things that define Southern decor to them.

Interior designer James Farmer integrates elements from nature into his design in botanical art, fresh cuttings from the garden and bird motifs.
(Courtesy of Emily Followill)

Credit: EMILY FOLLOWILL

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Credit: EMILY FOLLOWILL

Entertaining at home

Since COVID-19, Sims Patrick has seen more people meeting in restaurants and getting away from visiting each others’ homes. “My mother used to always say ‘it doesn’t matter what your house looks like, just have people over’.” Hollinshead Ward recommends designing your home with conversation in mind. “I prefer art as a focal point in lieu of a television, furniture arrangements that encourage conversation such as club chairs encircling a round cocktail table or a generous island in a family kitchen. Lots of fond memories are made in the kitchen and great food just adds to the overall experience,” she said.

Using your best things

“I’ll go back to what my grandmother always taught me — that we eat with our eyes first,” said Farmer. “Before there’s a bite taken, there’s a visual feast,” so he recommends setting a pretty table and using your treasures instead of hiding them away in a china cabinet. Don’t squirrel away your best silver or china for another day. That day is today, say design experts.

“Flowers from the garden are a great way to incorporate Southern touches into interior design” says James Farmer.
(Courtesy of Emily Followill)

Credit: EMILY FOLLOWILL

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Credit: EMILY FOLLOWILL

Bringing the outdoors in

Whether it is fresh foliage clipped from your garden and displayed in a vase indoors or framed prints of guinea fowl and native birds, Southern style is all about acknowledging the South’s natural abundance via your home decor. “Nothing’s too insignificant to celebrate whether it’s sunflowers and zinnias or a guinea fowl figurine,” said Farmer.

For Sims Patrick that means using plants and flowers from the region for hotel projects. “When we look at projects, we’re always thinking about what does it feel like to arrive at the front door? Are their plants? And are those plants native?”

Telling a story

From Natasha Trethewey to William Faulkner, nothing is more Southern than storytelling. “I think your home should be an expression of you,” said Sims Patrick who recommends telling your own story by decorating with art you love, family photos and souvenirs from your travels. In the case of the design Sims Patrick did for the Glenn Hotel, that story centered on the 39 lions decorating the building’s cornice. Her firm ended up bringing lions into many aspects of the historic hotel’s design, from door knockers to mirrors, telling the story of what she calls Southern strength and “moral courage,” through the symbol of the lion.

Farmer keeps a painting of sheep (“I love sheep” he said) by an Asheville artist over the fireplace at his Cashiers, North Carolina, mountain home. Another way to tell your story is through personal photographs. Instead of leaving all of your photos on your phone, Farmer recommends printing favorite photos in black and white to add rich detail to your space. “Put it in an old silver frame. Find great old frames at antique shops and thrift stores,” he recommended.

Interior designer James Farmer thinks a key element of Southern style is mixing high and low as in this arrangement of humble sunflowers in a fancy silver cup.
(Courtesy of Emily Followill)

Credit: Emily J Followill

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Credit: Emily J Followill

Mixing high and low

For Farmer, Southern style is all about juxtaposition, “so it may be an heirloom piece of furniture, such as a sideboard or a chest. But there’s also a great piece of contemporary art. So it’s a mix of things,” said Farmer. A guest bedroom in his Perry home where his nieces often stay typifies that idea of blending old and new, fancy and humble. The room features family heirlooms but also contemporary framed artwork done by his nieces.

Celebrating seasonality

Arrangements of seasonal flowers like limelight hydrangeas or foliage like magnolia leaves placed in small vessels allow you to decorate even if your garden isn’t huge. “I always tell people big flower arrangements are tough to do. The small ones are easy, they make a big impact,” said Farmer. “I encourage people to create a little herb garden, even if it’s on their deck, or grow a tomato in a pot and have a fresh sliced tomato or top it with some chicken salad. It’s just really about taking what you have and using it,” said Sims Patrick.

Relishing the comfort of home

For Farmer the greatest luxury is time, especially time spent at home. “There’s something so luxurious and comforting about the refrigerator or the pantry stocked with favorite foods or snacks, plenty of Epsom salts for a bath or all the books or magazines you want to read or perhaps you haven’t had time for.”

Felicia Feaster is a longtime lifestyle and design editor who spent 11 years covering gardening, interior design, trends and wellness for HGTV.com. Felicia is a contributor to MarthaStewart.com and has been interviewed as a design expert by The New York Times, Forbes and the Associated Press.

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