Tara Shaw sat at the breakfast table of her New Orleans home, doing business like nearly everyone else these days — wearing comfortable clothes and taking a business meeting on Zoom.
She’s a furniture designer, antiques dealer and interior designer whose goods have made it into homes all over Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere, and her newest endeavor is her first published book, “Soul of the Home: Designing With Antiques” (Harry N. Abrams; $50; 272 pages).
It started out as a biography and spirit guide and ended up as a tribute to things of the past — the antiques she cannot live without. She was born in Lake Charles, La., and attended Louisiana State University, but her family moved to Austin many years ago.
After working several years in the apparel industry, she moved to New Orleans, where she lived and worked until Hurricane Katrina wrecked most of that city. (When the storm hit, she was in Italy trying to ship two, 40-foot containers of European antiques and had to shift their destination to Texas.)
Like thousands of other New Orleanians, Shaw came to Houston as part of the post-flood migration. She lived in Houston five years and opened an antiques showroom on West Alabama, an easy call since she already had numerous interior design clients in Houston and other Texas cities.
She eventually returned to New Orleans, and is now putting finishing touches on a new showroom on Magazine Street, which she expects to open in a few weeks.
By Tara Shaw
Harry N. Abrams
272 pages, $50
The front part of her book is a conversational tutorial on antiques, where she explains the difference between Louis XIV and Louis XVI antiques as well as how styles of European antiques vary from one country to another.
There are photos of her own home, with antiques in every room, and you’ll meet her 10-year-old whippet, Brother Lucca, who innately knows how to pose perfectly on any piece of furniture he encounters. Through these and other projects, you’ll learn how to sprinkle antiques throughout any room like a pro.
Shaw recently spoke with the Houston Chronicle about her love of antiques, spotting fakes and her new book.
Q: Tell me about your connection to Houston.
A: Houston saved my life financially after Katrina — that big welcome and Texas can-do spirit. I was in Livorno, Italy, when Katrina hit … and I remember looking at the TV and thinking, “Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness. That’s my city, New Orleans.” I thought, “If I ship into Houston, they will embrace it,” and they did. They turned out in droves.
Q: You talk about guerilla shopping and selling to the trade. How does that work?
A: I shop (in Europe) for five weeks at a time looking for one-of-a-kind antiques, and then I have an opening event when the containers come in. I call it the running of the bulls — designers run in and tag furniture, and then we see them again next time.
Unloading during COVID-19 — because freight never stops — we wear masks and gloves, but there are no people running in. We took our time and photographed things and put them on the website. I am working on a new showroom on Magazine Street. That’s where we will put the new container of antiquities and midcentury, and we’ll only allow so many people in at a time. It should be open in three to four weeks.
Q: So, this book has been in your head and your heart for a while. What pushed it into print in this form?
A: The book, for me, is about connecting to that still small voice of understanding the things you’re drawn to and to make your home feel unique. That’s my passion — collecting things that you’ll have with you for the rest of your life. Feather your nest with things that are important to you. Don’t follow a trend, follow your heart.
I started writing a book in 2004 called “The Code Your Father Gave You.” It was really my spiritual journey from working in Europe for over two decades and in Asia for seven years. I ran into (literary agent) Jill Cohen, and she said, “I know you have a book in you. … Why don’t you tell me your story in antiquities?” We turned to that, and it became “Soul of the Home.”
I wrote the book as a teaching tool because I was trying to find out who I was because of furniture. In business, I didn’t feel like I could make a financial mistake, so I wanted to give people a shortcut to do their home. I wanted to paint a picture of how it happened for me and then get them to listen to that small voice that’s directing them. I want them to fill their homes with treasures that mean something to them rather than trends they’re going to dispose of in five years.
Q: A lot of designers and antiques dealers seem to constantly rotate things they buy in and out of their own homes. Do you do that, too?
A: No, I am the opposite. In guerrilla antiquing and selling to the trade, in my most productive year I brought in 16, 40-foot containers. That is a lot of furniture. I allowed myself one piece per container. When I took time to select one item per container, it really meant something to me.
Q: Now that “Soul of the Home” is done, did it turn out the way you’d hoped?
A: I really believe that it did. What validates me is when I read reviews on amazon.com or receive emails. It was written as a teaching tool to help and inspire and encourage people to just develop their own style. When I read the reviews, I think, “Oh, my goodness, this really is everything I wanted it to be.”
Q: Images in your book show such a variety of European antiques, but I notice a lot of Swedish pieces. What do you like about those?
A: Someone asked me what piece of clothing I would attribute to Swedish furniture, and it’s like a crisp white shirt. You can put it with anything, and it always looks great. You can use one anchor piece in a room, and then you have to use soft supporting pieces around it.
Q: You shop for your antiques trade in Europe, but where are some of your favorite places to shop?
A: I love firstdibs.com. I have the world at my fingertips on firstdibs, and I’ve been selling on it, gosh, for 15 years. I also like Sotheby’s Home for bluechip midcentury and Live Auctioneers where you can see auctions throughout the U.S. and Europe. When I’m guerilla antiquing in the field, I might have a shopping list of the things that I feel interior designers and antiques dealers and customers would want to buy, a beautiful commode or beautiful armoire or great sconces, but Europe is far from Walmart. I might go with a list, but I might not find one armoire when I’m there. I love how small the world is now; we have the world at our fingertips.
Q: What are the most sought-after antiques right now?
A: Sconces, beautiful mirrors and any kind of chest or commode, which has so many functions. You can put them bedside or at an entry with contemporary art above it. I still sell a lot of anything Swedish, whether it’s a secretary or a daybed. I see a lot of Swedish furniture that is not antique — it’s been reproduced and is being labeled incorrectly. You need to do your research — pairs of Swedish commodes are not that prevalent but are all over the market.
Q: If there are a lot of fakes out there, what are some tips for spotting them?
A: I’m always looking for an original patina. I can spot a new finish without a flashlight at 100 paces at 4 o’clock in the morning. My eye is trained, and I know what an original finish is and the layers it has. You can open drawers and look at the construction. Look for dovetail corners and look at the back.
Q: People who love antiques are often collectors, so what do you collect?
A: My husband collects whippet canes. Everywhere we go we look for them. I love old white porcelain and old silver services. I also collect prehistoric bones. My mother gave me a pair of prehistoric scapula for my birthday one year. It was in a box the size of a shoe box, and I was sure she bought me shoes. I opened it, and it was a prehistoric scapula. She said, “One day you’re going to think of these as art.” I thought, “OK, thank you so much.” They’re now on an acrylic stand in my office.