Dining by Design: Barry Dixon shares early influences

I had the honor of interviewing one of the world's most talented and admired interior designers of our day, Barry Darr Dixon! His portfolio - in addition to his amazing interiors - boasts books, fabric, rugs, furniture, an amazing new home collection through Arteriors - [take a peek at that design process in this video], and soon to include paint. He is among the “legends” in the design world that we look to for inspiration and study.
Traditional Home, left photo: Matthew Benson
I literally had a smile on my face from the start of the interview to the very end - some two hours later! That is an awful lot to serve you in one sitting, so I've decided instead to slice it up into a few posts so that you have time to savour each segment as you would each course in a great meal. Where is the best place to start? Always, at the beginning; so I'll start with Barry's reflections, looking back on his early years.

“I grew up in a wonderful household, but a fairly formal one steeped in strict southern traditions – the way that you do things, the way that you set a table, the way napkins are folded. That was where I started and then I cross-pollinated with the dining experiences of living on every continent before I finished high school. There is a lot of cross-cultural pollination in our work and in our habits. Dining is one of those habits that you acquire through life; not only what you serve and what you put on the table but how it’s served and how you perceive those experiences along the way.”

Barry Dixon's upbringing, his travels and his impressive portfolio are far beyond where my years have taken me. I grew up in a small town; the biggest historical lesson happening there being one well-covered visit from President Jimmy Carter in 1977! Yet Barry has no air about him, no attitude and chatted with me as if we knew each other for years. As I reflected on our conversation, I thought a lot about the common descriptive always heard following Barry's name, "true Southern gentleman", and though true, I realized it is also too vague. Gentleman is only a label; a result of the character traits of gentleness, kindness and respect for others. Barry Dixon exudes all of these and treats everyone - and everything for that matter - with respect. It is from those admirable qualities that this, "southern gentleman" is born.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Barry Dixon was in the second grade when his father took a job that brought the family around the world. Tennessee and parts of Arkansas are the grounding places that he calls home though and he shared some childhood memories that have influenced the way he lives today. I love to hear the change in tone and inflection when I ask a question that clearly conjures up meaningful and special memories for someone. In Barry’s case, this was definitely when he spoke of his Grandmother Darr, his mother’s mother, and memories of spending time on his grandparents farm. His voice changed, with words coming faster and a bit louder; I could hear him reliving the experience as he narrated. I was telling Barry a bit about my upbringing – and well, the picnic table came up - and that triggered these sweet memories for him.

The "Nettie Darr" table [front] is a design in honor of Barry Dixon's Grandmother
Garden Dining Area at Barry Dixon's Home via
Reminiscient in feeling of sitting under the shade of the pecan trees
"I remember being a kid and going to spend the summer weeks with my grandparents in the South. I think about my grandmother Darr, my mother’s mother, during the waning halcyon days of the “cotton is king”, southern sensibility era. Everyone farmed, whether a family had another business or not, they still farmed. My mother’s family was involved with cotton gins but they also farmed cotton bean, tweed, that sort of thing."

via Traditional Home
An old coffee tin of Barry's Grandmother Darr, inspired one of his fabrics, Cacao Vine, for Vervain
"In those days, everything was about service and hospitality. Part of the charge of the matriarch of a large operation in the south then was meal preparation. Lunchtime would arrive and all the people that worked for you, both the fulltime people as well as the seasonal people, had to stop what they were doing and come in from the fields and be served what, from my grandmother’s perspective, was a gracious, wonderful lunch.

I remember there was a giant Pecan Grove on the side of the main house of my grandparents farm, there were orchards – it was a sustainable lifestyle, technically – with the animals, the cattle, the fresh eggs, fresh churned butter and all these wonderful things but it was a very Martha Stewart moment when lunchtime came around because she would - with the people that helped her – get right in there, with her sleeves rolled up. It didn’t matter how many people there were; if there were 10 people or 100 people coming in from the fields, she would have prepared it."

Pecan Grove via MS Design Maven
"The pecans were grown there as much for the pecans, as for the shade and the coolness they gave you. It was a wonderful cool area in that hot southern climate to feed your field hands and farm workers. And they would have three to five, six, seven tables lined up, all set with red and white checkered cloths, daisies and coffee pots on the table. There was no such thing as paper plates. Everything was real. Maybe everything didn’t match perfectly but it was set beautifully. Real porcelain, real glass, real everything!

There was fried chicken for 100 people, hand pan-fried and creamed potatoes served in blue willow out on those red and white checkered table cloths. There were green beans, cold salads and ambrosia with coconut and mandarin oranges. I can remember there would be an array of desserts and cobblers in long dishes and so people would know what type of cobbler it was – if somebody wanted strawberry rhubarb and someone else wanted plum or peach - my grandmother would cut little fruits and leaves on the lattice top of the three-layer cobblers so people would know before cutting into it. Homemade whipped cream, homemade ice cream, churned right there in the backyard when it was really hot.

I can still see what it looked like; I can still smell it. People nowadays would cater an event like this but not in those days. That was hospitality and that was important! You weren’t inside the house in a formal dining room but what a rich dining experience. The same thing you’d see on the cover of any gourmet magazine now; that is what they served farm hands back in the day.

On the other side of the family, I can remember bells underneath the tables that you stepped on and then service just appeared magically and all that. But on my mother’s side, it was just a different side of that same thing. They were both wonderful and beautiful and steeped in history . They were both hospitable and colored the way I live today, and I live between the two.

Formal guests that you don’t know so well love being treated with a familial essence and yet, you’re most informal, familiar guests – long-term friends and family – love a little bit of thought, formality and consideration put in to their dining experience. If it’s just getting up for coffee and yogurt and granola in the morning, I put everything out. I have flowers. I don’t serve anything in other than a serving dish or some little vessel that is special because they are worth it, they merit consideration; they are the ones you love."

What did Barry carry forward from these experiences?  There is a quote that came to mind for him, "treat your family like guests and your guests like family", a hospitality his grandparents always extended. "Whether on a formal or informal level, I always try to think that way", and that is a philsophy I think he extends to others all the time; it is not exclusive to the dining experience. What early experiences have influenced the way you host, serve and share dining moments?

As I listened to Barry share these special and intimate details of his family life, I couldn’t help but wish we were sitting with a pile of his family photo albums in front of us but through his telling of his story and the pure joy in his voice, a clear picture was formed in my mind. I felt like I was sitting in the Pecan Grove having lunch there too. I hope this journal entry left you feeling the same!

I have so much more on the menu from my conversation with Barry Dixon, but let's savor this and I'll share more with you in the next post! Until then, who else is in the mood for apple cobbler or a slice of pecan pie?
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