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Risky Business

For Tia Elders, life is about taking the road less traveled, and life at home is about taking risks

Stripes of varying widths create the illusion of symmetry in the slightly odd-shaped living room, which appealed to Elders’ fondness for the unusual. She found the Fortuny curtain panels at a decorator auction and had them sewn together to accommodate the height of the windows. The large head on top of the chest was originally a garden ornament, and the red devil on the wall, titled Big Daddy Devil, is by Atlanta folk artist R.A. Miller.

Select photographs by Katherine Slingluff or Sara Essex Bradley

Tia Elders has never been one to go along with the crowd. She’d rather explore a back street than a main thoroughfare any day. When taking one of her frequent flea market and tag sale junkets, she seeks out country roads and small towns in favor of highways and big cities. And back at home, when putting her finds together, she’s always passionate about trying something new. “I’m so tired of the TV Nate Berkus designers,” says Elders of the popular design guru who garnered his own show after being touted by Oprah. “I’m so tired of nobody taking a risk.

If you see something unusual, repurpose it. Think outside the box.”

The kind of decorating inspiration that Elders does enjoy on television includes the History Channel’s American Pickers and HGTV’s Cash & Cari, both of which follow seasoned dealers of antique and vintage wares as they hunt for hidden treasures. “They make people think about the old washtub you wash your dog in that may be of value to someone else,” says Elders, who these days makes the bulk of her acquisitions at small-town auctions in Mississippi and Alabama. “I love to hit the road and get off the highways,” she says. “It takes longer, but you just get out and go.” After owning and running a Magazine Street clothing store for 13 years, Elders explains, “I like the idea of being out.”

Elders’ 1,500-square-foot home in the French Quarter speaks volumes about her philosophy. Color, whimsy and a sense of humor are key. In fact, Elders is a color consultant who shares her expertise with clients.

But there are no rules. Retro salon chairs with bullet-shaped hair-dryer hoods rub elbows with a Victorian settee, cheeky portraits of monkeys, family antiques and favorite quotes from Alice in Wonderland. “I love color, and I love things with history,” she says. “I love things that have had a whole history before I get them. They have a heartbeat of their own. And if it’s something that makes you smile or makes you giggle, that’s important.”

Originally from Prescott, Ariz., Elders visited New Orleans in 1994 and fell in love with the French Quarter. She relocated to the city that same year and never thought of living anywhere else. When she eventually decided to buy in the Quarter, she made a list of three requirements – ample space, off-street parking and a balcony – and found all three in the second listing she toured. Located in a three-story 130-year-old building with its original carriage way, slave quarters, romantic winding staircase and tall guillotine windows overlooking wrought-iron balconies, the address has a quintessential French Quarter feel – and the added bonus of a peculiarly angled front door, which appealed to her inclination toward the unusual.

Elders furnished the property from scratch, taking day trips on the weekends and picking up any- and everything that appealed to her. Instead of carrying fabric swatches and paint chips for matching and coordinating, she prefers the spontaneity and excitement that come with ferreting through a good yard sale and the natural alchemy that occurs when she brings her discoveries home. The first pieces she purchased, a Victorian settee and chair from a pawnshop auction, set the tone for the living room’s background shades of blue and green. To balance the room’s odd shape, Elders painted the walls with green stripes of varying widths that create the illusion of symmetry and then serendipitously stumbled upon a group of similarly colored silk Fortuny curtain panels that mimic the pattern on the walls. She also had the pattern of the tiles at the foot of the fireplace repeated around its frame. A veteran do-it-yourselfer, she painted many of the furnishings throughout the space herself and custom-mixed the purplish hue of the living room floor, the grayish-blue of the reclaimed doors between the living and dining rooms and the turquoise of the stairs using three colors of stain purchased at the hardware store. 

Intense yellow, trimmed with green and accented with the bright red of a teak table and chairs handed down from her grandparents, enlivens the dining room as do the kind of insouciant touches that are Elders’ trademark – satirical portraits of aristocratic monkeys hung over the stairs, favorite quotations applied to the walls, giant paper flowers and a platform shoe she painted for the Krewe of Muses parade, to name just a few. Rainbow stacks of Fiesta dinnerware, which she began collecting 20 years ago and uses regularly for entertaining, are displayed in several vintage cabinets, and quirky glass vases picked up at Studio Inferno’s twice-yearly seconds sales line the stairs. Above the fireplace, Elders’ favorite quote from Alice in Wonderland – “Imagine six impossible things before breakfast” – embodies her belief in living a life marked by momentum. “I think I’ll always have that quote around me,” she says. “That’s the one that inspires me every day to get out there and do what I think I can’t do.”

Behind the dining room, the kitchen, which took shape after Elders found the tiles used for the backsplash, provides a rare glimpse of white. But even its black-and-white foundation is punched up with graphics of jumping frogs and splashes of orange and green. “I found the knobs at Christopher’s Discoveries [now closed] and thought they were very Emerald City,” she recalls. Upstairs, tucked under the rafters of what was originally the attic, is the bedroom, a cozy spot where one can hear the unmistakable sounds of the French Quarter, which offers the same history, irreverence and one-of-a-kind fun that Elders likes in her décor. “I can lie in my bed and hear what band is playing on one corner and what band is playing on the other, and if it’s a band I love, I can walk out on the street in my pajamas – a pair of pajama pants and T-shirt – and go hear a set or two and know people there,” she says. “Nobody cares that I’m in my pj’s – and where else can you do that?”
 

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