Designer Phoebe Howard Shares Her Design Process and Sources of Inspiration

In 1996, Phoebe and Jim Howard opened the doors to their first store, Mrs. Howard, in Jacksonville, Florida, hoping to demystify the decorating process for their customers. The goal was simple: to create a retail space that showcased Jim’s architectural and decorating talent, and Phoebe’s natural skills for buying, decorating and merchandising. With equal parts of exceptional customer service and a well-rounded mix of furniture, antiques, and accessories, the store was an instant success. Five years later, they added another store, Max & Company, which features a younger, more modern appeal. Now, the Howards have Mrs. Howard and Max & Company stores in Jacksonville, Jacksonville Beach, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Over the years, Phoebe’s penchant for creating stylish spaces has evolved into her own brand of decorating, which has garnered praise from national media as well as her clients. Known for her fresh take on traditional style, Phoebe’s work can only be characterized by its timelessness and her mantra to “keep it pretty.” Her work is encapsulated in her first book, The Joy of Decorating, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang. She has also written a monthly decorating advice column for Southern Living Magazine.

While she is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on Southern style, Phoebe is well regarded for her business acumen as well, catering to both clients and other members of the design community who have embraced the Mrs. Howard aesthetic. Phoebe scours the globe for new products for her stores and clients and creates a custom line of pillows, lamps, mirrors, and casegoods. She also has a furniture collection called Mr. and Mrs. Howard for Sherrill Furniture, which is available in her stores as well as retailers nationwide.

The Mrs. Howard and Max & Company shops, as well as Phoebe’s own decorating projects, are a veritable library of design inspiration and have been published in House Beautiful, Veranda, Elle Decor, Southern Living, Coastal Living, Southern Accents, Traditional Home and The New York Times, among others.

Each day is so different because I travel so much. Mostly, I try to prioritize which tasks need to be done based on which installs are upcoming or which items need to be ordered on a time-sensitive basis, etc.

I have to say that I love installations the most. I love seeing all the months of hard work come to fruition into a beautiful room.

Phoebe Howard Design

What made you want to become a designer?

When I was a young girl, my aunt Myra gave my bedroom a makeover and it had a large impact on my life. Ever since then, I understood the power and influence that decorating and design can have on your life, and I try to incorporate that into what I do.

Where do you find inspiration?

Mostly in my travels, but also in the day-to-day. When I am not on the road, I’m at home in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. My husband Jim and I often walk the beach in the evenings and there’s always an inspiration to be found in a beautiful sunset over the ocean.

Phoebe Howard Design

Do you have a specific person that’s inspired you or mentored you, that one specific person that’s really influenced you?

My aunt Myra and also my mother, Madeline. She was an art teacher and always was so creative. These two women were a force to be reckoned with and had such a unique perspective that always inspired me.

What has been your most challenging project? How did you tackle it?

Probably my mother’s living room! She is a very picky client! We weren’t seeing eye to eye on a color palette and finally, she showed me an old antique chair that was completely dilapidated, but she loved the fabric on it. Once she told me that was the palette she wanted, we were able to come up with a scheme that she now loves.

Phoebe Howard Design

What’s your process with a client when designing their space? How do you work a client that may not know exactly what they want?

It’s always a challenge when a client doesn’t know exactly what they want. I actually love when clients have hard opinions and can say “Yes” or “No” quickly and easily because it allows us to get a clear direction. Typically when we can’t start with a specific path in mind, we go through my books – Joy of Decorating, Coastal Blues or Room by Room and see what speaks to them. Even if they can’t pin down what or why they like something, I can at least get an idea of where to start from there.

What’s been your favorite project you’ve worked on and why?

We recently installed a project in Asheville and I loved how it turned out. I also loved the fresh mountain air and scenery, it was a great change of pace.

Phoebe Howard Design

What apps or software can you not live without?

I really love Instagram! It’s such a great way to connect with people that you might not otherwise meet. I’ve also bought a lot of great pieces from some dealers on there as well.

What 3 pieces of advice would you offer to someone looking to update a space?

  1. Paint! Paint is the easiest way to transform a room.
  2. Add Curtains. Curtains are the icing on the cake – I feel that a room looks unfinished without draperies. Would you want a cake without icing? No!
  3. Consult a professional. It’s what we are trained in. Decorating can be much more overwhelming than you would expect, so don’t make costly mistakes by trying to do it on your own.​

Phoebe Howard spoke at the Southern Women Talk Signature Style discussion on September 25 at DISCOVER ADAC.

Published in Dwell, Featured Articles