America has a Deep South Tradition. It is synonymous with a unique kind of hospitality that makes us want to return again and again to the Sunbelt, and especially to the homes of those we are lucky enough to know are true Southerners—people not only with that wonderful, infectious Southern accent, but whose manners convey a genuine warmth for people.
You may remember an early black-and-white television sitcom, “The
Beverly Hillbillies,” about a family who struck oil on their
Deep South property and consequently moved to Beverly Hills, CA,
bringing their backwoods ways with them. The neighbors were shocked
and dismayed at their antics, but the audience fell in love with
this family of misfits who exposed the modern corporate world to
the open-door policy and love-of-life disdained by the uptight wealthy
class in their zeal to convey perfection in order to impress one
And long before the first television sets, right back to the Colonial
era, residents of southern states seemed to take it as a personal
responsibility to educate their Northern neighbors about how to
treat guests with genuine hospitality.
Of the many historic examples of this graciousness, President Thomas
Jefferson stands out as an icon of Southern Hospitality. As the
pen of the documents that emerged from the Continental Congress,
this brilliant young man was sought before and after he became the
leader of our fledgling independent nation. Following his years
in the capital, he retired to his beloved Monticello (his home built
from 1768 to 1782), where he fulfilled his dream with the creation
of a Roman-style Federal home atop a knoll near Charlottesville,
He equipped this lovely planter’s home with many of his own
inventions: the cannonball clock, his writing desk and arrangement
of his bedroom to take notes when inspired thoughts awoke him, his
dramatically effective skylight and Greek-inspired architecture.
Perhaps the most ingenious invention was the dumbwaiter in the fireplace
mantle used to draw liquor from the cellar so servants would not
hear the politically sensitive conversations while his guests enjoyed
To visit someone during these critical Colonial years was more than
just a visit. It was often a stay of several weeks, making the laborious
journey worthwhile. Jefferson was so profoundly respected and sought-out
that parties would come and stay, enjoying the lavish spread of
meals that came from his own gardens, made successful from his study
and travels where he brought back seeds and learned crop rotation.
Although this tradition of hospitality left him nearly bankrupt
in the end, he never failed to provide a warm and welcoming experience
for his guests.
Among his architectural inventions were triple-hung sash windows,
serving also as doors to his gardens. Thus was born the home connected
with its environs, where beauty reigned inside and out. Jefferson
made plain his joy and satisfaction in creating order and beauty.
He was an architect and a fine interior designer who enjoyed decorating
for the season.
He was also an intellect and endowed with great wisdom, so that
visiting him was important training for the finest minds of the
day. His tenure in the White House was without his wife; he was
a widower whose niece acted as First Lady, becoming the gracious
hostess required for the many dinners and receptions. History has
indeed bequeathed to us a rich heritage of good manners.
A RETURN TO GRACIOUS LIVING
One of my favorite teachers in my early college days used to say,
“We need a return to gracious living.” Thirty-two years
later I am still pondering her words and wondering how to imbue
my life and the lives of those I know and serve with an element
of graciousness. Certainly three ingredients are: personal interest
in your guests, stimulating intelligent conversation, and good food
and appropriate beverages. As important, perhaps, is an environment
where visitors can feel accepted, uplifted, nourished and thus rejuvenated.
And it is important that they are inspired by their surroundings.
Never at any time in our history have so many beautiful and elegant
homes in the Southern Tradition been created, and never before have
there been so many intimate gatherings of friends and family in
these lovely, gracious settings. Quiet, at-home entertaining of
large and small groups with people dressed in many different colors,
means that backgrounds must serve to make the people feel important.
These interiors should bring about feelings of happiness and security.
Interiors of the Deep South are often lavish, elegant and refined.
Often two directions of color schemes are seen repeatedly, which
give opulence to any interior. One is drenched in white and is filled
with pretty, almost ethereal, colors that expand space and seem
to cool down an interior. This whitewashed effect laced with trellis
and flowers evokes a light and romantic feeling and seems to lighten
cares and gently caresses the mind with softness and refinement.
Another direction in Southern luxury is the deep, jewel-like intense
palette of the Empire Period. The pre-Civil War era or antebellum
period reached its architectural zenith during the American Empire
and early Victorian eras. During these years prior to the 1860s,
American interiors were heavily influenced by French Napoleonic
Empire furnishing styles, colors and motifs. Imperial Roman Red
is a color of rich, welcoming hospitality. Red enlivens the taste
buds and connects the synapse. People in red rooms have more intelligent
or stimulating conversations, feel hungrier and eat heartily—even
the taste buds are more alive in red rooms.
Following a satisfying meal and/or refreshments, the power of red
mellows into a warm and comforting experience where guests feel
enveloped and welcomed for the entire stay. Red with orange, first
enjoyed in Europe during the French Renaissance period, produces
a coral-family red. The addition of yellow as an undertone imbues
the red with keener intelligence, as yellow is the color that most
stimulates the logic and thinking process. Thus, rich hues from
the coral family encourage conversation.
Empire-inspired interiors of the Southern Hospitality vein are most
often overlaid with three other eras that combine to create contemporary
interiors—rich and transitional—at home in gracious and
elegant settings. The level of sophistication and of formality is
a personal matter, but all who desire to enjoy refinement may find
it among colors, patterns and furnishings of these combined eras.
Gold as a wall covering or paint color is found in both the Empire
and also the American Late Georgian eras when it appeared directly
as old Chinese gold utilized by Thomas Chippendale. The Late Georgian
era also was a blossoming of the Italian Renaissance colors in America.
Today we have found gold a gloriously rich and satisfying color
for both living and entertaining. It is a profound color that evokes
hunger and thirst (emotions guests like to feel so that satiation
is more satisfying). Gold also is a color that assures the guest
that the host is well-situated—assuring the impression of wealth.
Gold is, however, a potentially overwhelming color, and usually
must be relieved with lighter hues in order to not become oppressive.
This takes the form of light hues on ceilings, on floors and filtering
window treatments that bring a natural cast to outside light.
A key to contemporary traditional design as seen in the first three
photos here is that the more intense the color, the more light hues
are required to balance the effect. In historic interiors we often
saw more furnishings that were deep brown or off-black and, when
combined with vivid colors, the effect was heavy, cave-like and
almost foreboding. This approach rarely finds favor today. Rather,
today’s savvy homeowners like a look that speaks of carefree
Although many people do obtain paid cleaning services, the days
of indentured servitude are obsolete. We want materials that repel
dirt, that clean easily and with minimum effort and, better yet,
that look clean even if dust is present. In short, less clutter,
more clean. We simply don’t have time for polishing and detail
THE LIGHT SIDE—EASY LIVING
The combination of gracious living and easy living today yields
a new generation in Southern charm and hospitality. This kind of
life is indoor-outdoor living and entertaining. For these interiors,
choose furnishing elements that are less formal yet still beautiful.
Specifically, hard flooring near doors that lead to patios, courtyards
or swimming pools; lighter colors on walls; and simpler window treatments,
bare windows if the exterior yard assures nighttime privacy.
Protecting against the damage of the sun in the Sunbelt can be accomplished
with exterior awnings, architectural elements such as handsome porch
roofing and columns, or it may be the addition of a quality window
film that filters ultraviolet light.
This casual lifestyle need not preclude elegant furnishings, but
usually is not composed entirely of precious things. A few lighthearted
items echo the simplicity of hard, low-upkeep surfaces. Guests may
come indoors dripping wet and so the furnishings need to be more
impervious to damage than interiors not connected to the outdoors.
For both refined and elegant interiors and spaces that connect outdoor
living to indoor living, we continue to be inspired and appreciative
of the tradition of Southern Hospitality that says to us, “Come
in. Rest a spell. Ya’ll come back now, ya hear?”
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including
Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction,
3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular
correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion,
education and merchandising.