By Lee Cutrone Photographed by Katherine SlingluffTia Elders painted the dining table apple green and Hugh Martin had the top of it laminated with a cabbage rose fabric. The seats of the chairs also are laminated for easy cleaning. The coral motif chandelier is from Hugh’s Magazine Street home furnishings store, Hugh Martin Home.
Once upon a time
a life-changing cyclone took a girl named Dorothy and her little terrier to a land called Oz, where her new surroundings came to life in vivid Technicolor. Once upon another time, a history-making hurricane called Katrina took a local shop owner named Tia and her little schnauzer to a not-so-distant land called McComb, Miss., where her new surroundings came to life in what might be described as vintage Tia-color. With the help of her friend and fellow Magazine Street shop owner, Hugh Martin, Tia Elders crafted a faded depression era cottage into a funky melding of Shabby Chic florals, flea market finds, auction bargains, and bold, saturated colors—a melding of your great-grandmother’s heirlooms and a John Waters’ film. And the retro refuge, which began as an evacuation destination, has since become a favorite weekend getaway for Tia and friends.
Streamlinedpieces like a 1950s chair and a furry floor lamp, also from that era,add a cool, downtown edge to the living room’s feminine florals andtraditional bric-a-brac.
“It’s a mix of Shabby Chic and Elle Décor,” says the lively homeowner, whose irreverent humor and rapid-fire repartee with Hugh, her friend of several years, is as spontaneous and playful as her Mississippi home. “I call it shabby décor. We don’t want to call this your grandmother’s house,” she says. “We call it your fun aunt’s house with a twist. It’s floraltastic.”
An Arizona native who visited New Orleans after college and was instantly smitten, Tia moved to the city in 1995, became a French Quarter resident, and opened Ms. Spratt’s, an Uptown plus-size clothing boutique, four years later. When Katrina struck, her experience of evacuating to Lake Charles and spending five weeks in a hotel with her dog in tow, prompted her to look for a second home that would be easy to get to but also far enough away that it would be out of the danger zone. Tia searched a number of Mississippi towns, including Natchez, Osyka, and Woodville for the right house and ultimately chose a 1,500-square-foot, mid-1930s bungalow in McComb, located one and a half hours northeast of New Orleans.
“When we walked into this house for the first time, it had a lot of light and good bones,” she says of the house, which is located on quiet street with a sleepy, small Southern town feel. “We met in the kitchen and we just knew. I put in an offer the same day.”
The living room mixes furniture from the 1930, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. The beaded table lamp and the coral chandelier in the dining room next door are among the few new purchases that Tia made for the house.
During the next year, Tia and Hugh frequented every junk shop, flea market and auction they could find in nearby Mississippi towns and in Louisiana, snapping up china, lamps, tables, chairs, floral paintings, Corning ware, glassware, and a host of decorative odds and ends, always buying pairs or multiples of items when they existed. A good find, which could be anything from a pair of pink poodle lamps to an old door, elicits a surreptitious “psssst” between the friends and then, when they’re safely out of sight of shop owners and other bargain hunters, a celebratory dance of excitement. “When we go to junk stores, we don’t talk, we just signal,” says Tia. “It’s all about the deal.”
The living room’s pink fireplace, the focal point from the front entrance, is framed by cow-hide patterned wallpaper.
The living room’s multi-layered design scheme includes wall flowers, but isn’t for shrinking violets. “I can’t get some clients to mix stripes and plaids,” says Hugh Martin. “But Tia’s not afraid to mix patterns and colors.”
“It’s all about the deal,” says Tia, who hunts for purchases on weekends with friend and fellow Magazine Street shop owner Hugh Martin.
Children’s chairs serve as shelves on a red wall in the kitchen. “If you like it, it all goes together,” says Tia, who likes to use and combine things in unusual ways. “I don’t like to box myself in.”
Candlesticks double as pedestals for a colorful vignette of fruit and a reflective sphere.
Mid-day sun illuminates the living room, which has a window seat (one of two in the house) and built-in cabinets. The iron coffee table, which Tia painted, came from Magazine Street and the rug from the Dallas Market, but most of the other furnishings came from the Mississippi flea markets and other shops that Tia and Hugh peruse on weekends.
Tia, who enjoys cooking for friends, had glass panes inserted intothe kitchen cabinets and removed the doors that closed off the nichesabove in order to create display space for her many collectibles. Sheleft the bead board walls and layout, as they were to preserve thevintage quality of the space.
“It’s so much fun because you have no expectations,” adds Hugh, whodescribes the duo’s enthusiastic bargain shopping like a hummingbird onspeed. “You have that dream you’re going to come across not an‘Antiques Road Show,’ piece but a fun piece that can make a statementand that can make people smile.”
Tia painted the kitchen’s flea market chairs and covered them withvinylized fabric. She found the 1950s sconces in Atlanta. “I love thecontrast of the old table and super modern fabric,” she says.
For the most part, Tia spent very little of her budget on structuralrenovations. Floor furnaces were removed and patched over; glass paneswere inserted into kitchen cabinets to provide display space for hercolorful collectibles. Worn, Formica kitchen counters were replacedwith new laminate ones and the kitchen sink was traded in for a similarone that cost just $15. The floors in both the kitchen and bathroomwere renewed with a rainbow of composite tiles, which have the vintagelook of linoleum but are more durable and available in a wide varietyof colors. In the bathroom, corrugated tin was used as an inexpensiveshower surround. By buying mostly flea market and junk store finds(Magazine Street, River Road and Pontchatoula in Louisiana are favoriteplaces) and renewing them with innovative touches like laminatedfabrics, Tia also was able to furnish the house on a shoestring.Typically, she and Hugh could walk out of a store loaded down withmerchandise for under $200. “Our best tool was our imagination,” saysthe homeowner, who occasionally had to convince Hugh that one of hermore offbeat ideas would work. “We had some go-rounds on things likeintensity of color,” he says. “Sometimes I’d be fighting things in mymind like a cow pattern wallpaper and a very traditional floral. Mostpeople can’t work that way. But that’s part of the fun of it. Therewere no rules.”
The kitchen’s vintage dinette set occupies a sunny spot that was originally a back porch.
A self-described wallpaper fanatic, Tia used a variety of unusualpapers, including one that looks like wood paneling and another coveredwith images of chandeliers. In fact, the whole design scheme of thehouse is based on the premise that the quirkier and less conventionalthe mix, the better it works. The living room juxtaposes a blueceiling, a pink fireplace, black and white cow print wallpaper, ayellow and green floral paper, cabbage rose fabrics, and a mix ofpieces from the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Yet, like the rest of thehouse, it manages to be sweet and homey while also being youthful andstylish at the same time. One look at Tia’s dog Tigerlily curled upsnuggly on the rug or sofa and it’s obvious that this is both a funhouse and a safe haven. “When I walk into somebody’s house, I want tosee some personality,” says Tia. “I love color and I feel better withcolor around me. “It’s all in the way you put it together.”