Known for expertly layered and gorgeously curated interiors, designer Meredith Ellis has been creating soulful, personal homes for clients for over 20 years. Having worked for some of the best — Bunny Williams and Michael Smith, to be precise — she launched her own firm in 2008 and relocated to her home state of Texas. Since then, she launched her own to-the-trade showroom, James, with locations in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, and has been featured everywhere from AD to Luxe, Traditional Home, and The Los Angeles Times.
We spoke with Meredith about her extensive career, her love of layering in her rooms, and the growth of her impressive business. See what she had to say, and be sure to shop her chic selection of Chairish picks.
On Your Work…
You’re particularly known for richly layered textures, patterned wallpapers, and a creative use of color. Tell us a bit about how you developed your eye for that and how it’s become a signature element for you.
My mother was an interior designer and so from a very young age, “decorating” was something I was exposed to early on. I would always tag along with her to her clients’ homes, the design centers, or antique stores, and she taught me how to shop — how to really look at something and how it fits into the surroundings. She was always bringing home colorful fabric swatches, putting together schemes, and introducing me to different ideas.
All of that is in my DNA. Wherever I am, if there is a shop, a flea market, or an antiques mall, I can’t pass it by. Constantly shopping and being exposed to beautiful architecture and design perfects your eye because you begin to recognize quality and value.
You’ve done design work all across the US… if you had to select a favorite or a particularly unique project from your portfolio, what would it be?
This is a really tough question, because I’ve had so many projects I’ve loved, and all have been unique in their own way. I think my favorite projects are always the ones where the client comes to the table with items — antiques or personal — that tell a story of who they are, and I have to incorporate them. For example, I have a client who is an artist, and she asked me to help design her home for her and her family. She was so open minded about the whole process and was so trusting. I wanted her home to feel like you were stepping into one of her paintings. We painted the rooms in a variety of high gloss colors and then layered in patterned fabrics and her art. I think because of her trust, and an understanding that designing Interiors is an artistic process, the result was memorable.
You launched the James showroom in 2015 and have locations in Dallas and Houston, as well as a rep in Austin. What brought that about, and what has that experience been like?
Since I was a child, I always wanted my own home shop… a place to try new things, collect unusual objects, and decorate. When we relocated to Austin from Los Angeles in 2010, I really missed the design community that had become such a part of my life. I also recognized the Texas market was lacking a wide variety of artisanal textiles which I frequently used in my projects. I called Peter Dunham, whom I had known for many years, and asked him what it would take for me to bring his beautiful line to the state. I had a very young family at this point, and the timing wasn’t necessarily right, but the idea was born.
The itch wouldn’t go away and in 2014, realizing we were ready to make this a reality, my husband and I wrote a business plan and formalized our ideas and strategy. We officially opened the first boutique artisanal textile showroom in Austin in July 2015. Seeing the response and recognizing the need in the state, we knew an expansion into Dallas and Houston would likely be in our future. We opened in the Dallas Design District in November 2017 and doubled our space in 2018 when the showroom next to us vacated. Then in 2019, it was on to the Decorative Center of Houston, so it has been quite an exciting journey!
What would you like to do next with James? How will it be growing in the future?
We have some exciting plans that will be taking shape early next year, so stay tuned. In the meantime, we continue to expand our offerings with new lines and our own custom pieces. We recently introduced our new faux linen wrapped coffee table with a marbleized leather inset top by Rule of Three Studio. We’ve spent the last six years growing and expanding, so right now our most important goal is to focus on our customer service and bring our clientele the very best.
How has the design industry in Texas evolved since you started your career?
I started working in this industry 23 years ago, and at that point, if you wanted to get the best experience as an interior designer or find the best resources in the industry, you had to go to New York or LA. That’s not necessarily the case anymore, in large part thanks to the Internet and the ease with which people can travel. We also have an incredible talent pool of designers and craftsmen in Texas — plus every city here is rapidly growing, creating a lot of interesting work and opportunity for all.
You started out by working for Bunny Williams and Michael Smith before launching your own firm in 2008. What were those formative experiences like, and what did you learn from them?
Bunny was an amazing teacher and mentor. She genuinely cared about exposing us to as much as possible, plus she was a great employer. Whether it was going with her to antique shows, listening to her pitch a scheme to a client, or getting to spend the weekend at her house in the country, she was always showing us how to do something, and why. As a business owner, I learned from Bunny that no matter how talented you are, you must have a strong back office.
Like Bunny, Michael Smith showed me how a person can be successful in so many different areas of the design industry. Michael had a large office and several different branches of his business in addition to his Design practice… a showroom, a textile line, and several licensing deals. He really “lived the business” and seeing his drive and dedication to being the best was instrumental to me.
As a designer I learned from Michael how important it was for a room to not feel contrived. He always spoke of the importance of reading and studying the greats before us, and how having a robust knowledge of the decorative arts is important when it comes to buying and selling.
On Chairish & Vintage Shopping…
What do you find most compelling about Chairish?
Chairish really simplifies the whole online shopping process. It’s well organized and is constantly updated with new items. I personally love the vintage and antique accessories and art. Shopping is one of my favorite aspects of my job, and the fact that I can do it at any time is fantastic… even at 2 AM when I can’t sleep!
Are there any dream vintage/antique “gets” you wish you could have? What’s a dream piece for you?
What are three of your favorite pieces on Chairish now?
Some Design Favorites…
Favorite way to create a statement-making moment in a room:
A painted patterned floor
Favorite decorating “cheap thrill”:
Applied molding to a flat panel door or wall
Favorite iconic piece of vintage design:
Serge Roche Palm Torchieres
Favorite paint color:
Favorite piece of decor in your home:
My grandmother’s 1940’s black leather club chairs
Favorite designer or artist from the past you most often turn to for inspiration:
Favorite style icon:
Oscar De La Renta
Design destination every creative should visit at least once:
Best piece of career advice you’ve ever received:
Work for the very best designer/firm you can before starting your own business.
Some Lifestyle Favorites…
Favorite vacation destination (the next time travel becomes an option):
It’s so hard; I want to go to so many places! Currently I want to rent a house in the Italian countryside with my family.
Favorite hotel that’s inspired your work while traveling:
I love Kit Kemp’s hotels… Number Sixteen in London specifically.
Il Buco in New York
Favorite small museum:
Favorite Instagram accounts to follow:
Favorite hostess (or thank you) gift:
A great bottle of olive oil or pretty, antique linen cocktail napkins
I love parrot tulips and gardenias.
Favorite adult beverage:
Rosé or a very, very fresh margarita with salt
Favorite way to unwind at home:
A glass of wine by the fire with my husband
Favorite entertaining essential:
My grandmother’s silver goblets
Lead image by Read McKendree