Designer Spotlight

In New Orleans, Tara Shaw Crafts Soulful Spaces with Old World Charm

Tara Shaw
In her new book, Soul of the Home: Designing with Antiques (Abrams), Tara Shaw highlights her elegant, airy interiors, where art and antique furniture reign supreme (portrait by Sara Essex Bradley). Top: In the living room of this Mississippi estate, the black-and-white scheme is punctuated by small pops of color provided by a bolster covered in a souzani textile, a bunch of roses and 18th-century gilded Venetian mirrors. Photo by Paul Costello

“I was unprepared for the purchase that would change the course of my career, and actually, my entire life,” New Orleans–based designer Tara Shaw writes in her new monograph, Soul of the Home: Designing with Antiques (Abrams). It was 1998, she recounts, and she was shopping for a desk. “One Saturday I walked into a store that was unloading a fresh shipment [of antiques] from Europe, and there it was. Except it wasn’t a desk at all. It was a gorgeous Louis XIV–XV armoire boasting a treasure trove of ravishing details. . . . It stopped me cold.”

Shaw had been wholesaling fashion lines for seven years through two showrooms in Dallas, as well as traveling regularly to New York on buying trips. The armoire upended all that. In no time, she had passed her business on to her employees and started a new venture as a wholesale importer of antiques. “My plan was to go to Europe and fill containers with one-of-a-kind items,” she says, the large antique carnelian cocktail ring on her hand, engraved with the words “Woman of Honor,” flashing in the light as she flicks back her blonde hair. “I fell in love with New Orleans and set up a to-the-trade shop in an old cotton warehouse — no electricity and no bathroom. Dealers and designers would drive from out of state and sleep on blow-up beds at the door. Michael Bruno [the founder of 1stDibs] told me that this is what 1stDibs was about — the excitement of getting it right out of the container.”

Tara Shaw living room
“A built-in nook in the foyer [of a lake house] is a cozy place to read a book,” writes Shaw, adding, “The painted Louis XV–style tables are French and play well with the Venetian palace chairs.” Photo by Paul Costello

In 2000, Shaw recounts, “Veranda contacted me and asked if they could see my warehouse at the Port of New Orleans. And once they toured the warehouse, they asked to see my home. I was beside myself when my Victorian house made the cover.” A call from Harry Connick Jr. and his wife, actress Jill Goodacre Connick, soon followed. “I had worked in design pro bono for years,” says Shaw. “Harry and Jill were my first paying clients.” Not a bad start, to be sure. These auspicious beginnings eventually led to her own furniture line, TS Maison — about 60 pieces of which she has licensed to a large brand — and a storefront on 1stDibs, Tara Shaw Ltd., where she sells her own furniture designs and antiques. A second Veranda cover, in 2015, featured her current château-inspired New Orleans home. Today, she employs a staff of five, a team she anticipates will grow when she completes renovations this month on an 11,000-square-foot building on Magazine Street that will house a public showroom and, above it, luxury residences.

Tara Shaw dining room
The dining room of a New Orleans Victorian features a grisaille mural wallpaper by Zuber, which, Shaw writes, “transformed it from a mere walk-through space into a destination in its own right — complete with a view.” She paired the table with 18th-century Italian Directoire-style dining chairs covered in a fluffy, curly hide. Other pieces include a painted Louis XV enfilade, Louis XIV chairs and a Murano chandelier. Photo by Peter Vitale

Shaw has evolved a signature look that inventively mixes Continental antiques (Louis XIII through XVI, Empire, Italian and Swedish) with mid-century modern and custom pieces — all of them set against primarily white backgrounds. The success of the aesthetic, and its applicability to environments as varied as a rustic lake house and a refined art-filled Victorian pile, owes primarily to the warmth imparted by the well-worn finishes of the antiques. “That kind of patina,” she writes, “the layers and layers of detail that show a chair or cabinet or secretary has been used for centuries — simply can’t be replicated.” Shaw is a sucker for “scattered losses” (areas where gold finishes have chipped away), beautiful wood grains pocked with wormholes, painted furniture that reveals two or three layers of color. These “imperfectly perfect” finishes, she believes, relax a room. Their authenticity also transmits a kind of soul, which can, in turn, be harnessed to convey the personalities of the people who hire Shaw to design their homes. These clients include a World Series champion baseball player, the owner of a professional football team, an internationally renowned celebrity chef and, of course, entertainment personalities like the Connicks.

Tara Shaw white living room
Shaw chose a white color scheme for a parlor in the New Orleans home to highlight the art, which includes works by Ida Kohlmeyer and Hunt Slonem and early 20th-century landscapes. Photo by Peter Vitale

“Soul has a spiritual meaning for me. It’s the part of you that is uniquely who you are,” explains Shaw, adding that for her clients, “the goal is that their home reflects who they are.” It was important to the baseball player’s fashionable young wife, for example, that their 30,000-square-foot estate in Mississippi convey a sense of glamour. Shaw set the stage with a scene-stealing 18th-century Italian gilt chandelier in the foyer, forestalling the potential ostentation with an installation by artist Bradley Sabin composed, she writes, of “black ceramic petals that flutter across the far wall like falling leaves.” Bridging these extremes is a restrained Biedermeier library table and Swedish 18th-century stools. The arrangement is chic to the core.

Tara Shaw entryway
Of the Mississippi home, Shaw writes, “The centerpiece of the soaring foyer is a stunning eighteenth-century Italian gilt chandelier with a majestic carved flower motif; a relatively staid but elegant Biedermeier library table and Swedish eighteenth-century stools ground all that drama, while a brass banister threads through refined gold tones. On their own, the formal antiques could have made the entryway feel too stuffy for a young family, but the addition of a contemporary artwork by Bradley Sabin — made of ceramic black petals that seem to flutter across the far wall — picks up the floral theme and pulls the scene firmly into the twenty-first century.” Photo by Paul Costello

The wife’s dressing room is done in gray blue, with a turquoise 1970s pleated leather sofa. Otherwise, rooms are entirely white, with high-contrast black pieces and gilded or painted antiques scattered throughout. “My mother greatly influenced my love of white and the subtle aspects of a layered white interior,” says Shaw, who grew up in pristine white, minimalist homes: first a gentrified farm outside Lake Charles, Louisiana, then suburban houses in Houston and Austin. However, she points to a still weightier factor in her preference. “Because of my lifestyle — I’m a plate spinner, a multitasker — it has more to do with craving the calm of a home that is serene. I also use beautiful textiles — mohair, velvet and aged textures like Belgian linen — because they create a subtle background for antiquities. They are luxurious partners.”

Interiors by Tara Shaw
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Interiors by Tara Shaw
Tara Shaw den

Of the Mississippi home, Shaw writes, “A large-scale eighteenth-century Italian mirror with elaborate gilt carving inspired the use of an African textile on throw pillows, which pick up a tonal detail in the mirror and translate it for a global, cross-cultural era.” Photos in this slideshow by Paul Costello

Tara Shaw kitchen

“To quietly distinguish the otherwise understated cooking and prep area in the kitchen,” Shaw writes, “the marble backsplash was cut with a curving Rococo-esque profile and a book-matched graining that matches the counters. The nineteenth-century lanterns are not an exact pair — resist the urge to make everything perfect and a space will feel relaxed. Contemporary stools are covered in leather for wipe-clean ease.”

Tara Shaw dressing room

“The wife’s dressing room is one of the only areas in the house to depart from the black-and-white color scheme — the soft gray tones on the wall were meant to create an enveloping effect where she could lounge with friends and family,” Shaw writes. “The centerpiece of the room is a vintage pleated leather sofa whose shape is reprised in contemporary swivel chairs. The eighteenth-century Italian mirror is propped against the wall — a casual touch that’s also functional for checking out shoes.”

Tara Shaw lake house living room

Shaw chose “substantial furnishings that don’t feel heavy” for the lake house living room, about which she writes, “The scale of the reproduction Knole sofas, nineteenth-century mirror, and eighteenth-century Italian candlesticks, all with tall proportions, accentuate grand heights. Vintage mid-century campaign chairs and a contemporary cocktail table with Louis XVI–esque lines were added to give an au courant edge. Accessories include a nineteenth-century Swedish girandole and an of-the-moment resin bowl by Martha Sturdy.”

Tara Shaw lake house bedroom

“The transitional, Louis XIV–era commodes are a brother-and-sister pair (alike but not strictly matching) that flank the contemporary hand-forged iron bed,” Shaw writes. “The silver-gilt Louis Philippe mirror helps cement a silver-blue color scheme and makes the most of tall ceilings.”

Shaw attended Louisiana State University, majoring in education, but quickly realized this was not her passion and left to pursue a career in fashion. After a stint as buyer for a department store, she opened her Dallas apparel showrooms. Then came the armoire (today it lives in the pool cabana of the home she shares with her husband, Robert “Robby” Walsh, and their whippets, Jack Shaw and Brother Lucca). The couple is hoping to buy a getaway in France this year. To design its interiors, Shaw will, undoubtedly, lean heavily on her passion for antiques. An antique, she writes, “can seduce you in a way that no assembly-line-produced good ever could. And if you fill your environment with pieces that make you feel that way, then guess what? You’re probably going to fall in love with your environment, too.”

Tara Shaw’s Quick Picks

“I am always on the hunt for statement lighting. This pair of antique Italian lanterns check all my boxes: dramatic, original patina, and they work well over a kitchen island or add drama to any room that needs a pair of lights.”

“This ring combines the new and old, which is my modus operandi. It combines European and American motifs, an old British Isles coin with a Maltese cross atop, all surrounded by fleurs-de-lis.”

“This Richard Serra is one of an edition of forty-five. I used Weight and Measure to anchor an eighteenth-century Swedish secretary in a client’s home. Contemporary art made the antique come into the present and the home feel alive and current.”

“Iconic chairs from Charlotte Perriand are the type of blue-chip contemporary and mid-century pieces I am searching for to make a room ageless.”

“Caio Fonseca works in such a wonderful range of colors, from vivid yellows and blues to reds and browns. This one happens to be a deep rich red and brown, and since I love working with walnut antiques, it would be a good complement.”

“Always on my list is a handsome table lamp that can be used on a desk or bedside. This mid-century model, with brass detail and pleasing design, will make office work more appealing.”

“Tall, dark and handsome — a perfect storage for media. I love a tall piece to anchor a room, and the clean lines of this Italian armoire will balance perfectly with contemporary art and painted furnishings.”

“I call this Louis XVI side chair the ‘little black dress’ of dining room furnishings. It is the most sensible of all dining chairs for enduring design, and the hand-worn patina and hand-carved details add to the allure.”

“Daybeds are ideal for living rooms where you want an open visual through the room. This elegant nineteenth-century Swedish daybed has great detail, with neoclassical carving on both sides, and an earthy scraped patina.”

“This is my most requested item on 1stDibs. What I love about a canopy bed is that it creates an instant ‘safe haven’ in any bedroom.”

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