An Engaging Interior
Inside the home of interior designer Rachel Gray
Story by Christian T. Owen | Photos by Katie Benjamin
Rachel Gray’s home is a three-dimensional expression of this Memphis-based interior designer’s creativity. She has always enjoyed traveling and has seen various definitions of beauty worldwide, which points to a recurring principle behind every design decision in her home: a willingness to embrace change. After the birth of her second daughter, Gray decided to give up a career in teaching and start her own design business. In 2004, she launched Rachel Gray Styling. “My advertising team and I decided to use ‘styling’ because I was providing so many different services for clients,” she says. From the outset, I found myself doing more interior design than anything else and finally decided to rebrand exclusively to interior design and art consulting.”
The goals for decorating her own home are contrary to the manner in which Gray works professionally. While her clients have a full range of goals for a variety of interiors, Gray follows a series of structured steps when working with others, using a start-to-finish layering process. Perhaps her background as a teacher prepared her for the more methodical designer-client process, but any creative pursuit provides an avenue for experimentation and for Gray, that place is her home. Gray is often moving things around and adding found objects to her home. Sometimes she makes interior choices simply to create a more child-friendly setting for her two girls, Vivian, 13, and Ava, 11. Gray sees her home as an interior design lab, a place to safely try a new idea or assess a product she represents. The rug underneath the Parsons table in her dining room, for example, is a line she is testing for quality before offering her personal recommendation to a client.
Another example of Gray’s willingness to experiment with decor is found in her dining room. Orange chairs around her dining table just arrived because her client wanted the ones that were there before. The “Therapy” sign in her dining room was a streetside find. And the brass Moroccan lanterns hanging below two wood diamonds were a treasure uncovered while helping a friend with an attic cleanup. The dining room light fixture is called “Mary Poppins” and was created from copper by an Italian designer. Two red aluminum chairs in the corners are unique finds from St. Louis.
Gray’s passion for collecting art is evident throughout her home. As an art consultant, she has a reputation for guiding her clients toward pieces that not only complement their interior surroundings, but also have the potential to grow in value. Gray is already in the process of amassing an art collection for her daughters. A case in point, the painting hanging over an Asian day bed in her foyer was purchased for her oldest daughter Vivian. It is by Jeri Ledbetter, purchased from the L Ross Gallery of Memphis.
One of Grays’s standout talents is her ability to breathe life into otherwise overlooked objects by repurposing them. For instance, the two bamboo panels currently flanking the entry from living room to dining room are shown with lights. These panels have served as headboards; they have been suspended from the ceiling with lights and they have been on display without lights — a prime example of the experimentation and repurposing that takes place in the Gray residence. The antique iron horse positioned at the center of her living room was found at an estate sale and is what Gray calls a “slam dunk” discovery. While browsing through flea markets and art galleries is a routine passion, Gray notes that providence often leads her to some of her favorite finds. Consider the circular art sculpture installed on the wall above her couch, which she found discarded on a curbside. Originally a floating wooden structure used to hold up a dock, it is now a decorative focal point in Gray’s home. The lamp next to that same couch is a repurposed bottle drying rack that she found in France. Her goal for this object is to create a light fixture mounted on the ceiling. “I see it upside-down, grand scale,” Gray says. “It is a work in progress.” One of the designer’s trade secrets is her annual quest for decorative objects in Michigan. She often brings home a U-Haul trailer filled with all sorts of finds from The Great Lakes State. The candle altar is one gem from Michigan.
Gray likes to create unpredictable yet seamless combinations, as represented by the candle altar, juxtaposed atop the chest and mirror, which happen to be two of the finest antiques in her home. The wood cut prints, reflected in the mirror, are by deceased artist and former Memphis College of Art professor Ted Faiers. Sometimes Gray calls on the art of persuasion when she has a desired object in sight. The iron and wire antique fire screen pictured above is her second favorite item in the house. It was not for sale, but she convinced the owners of the antique store where it was displayed that they should sell it to her. The screen is in front of a fireplace whose mantel currently displays a collection of wooden red plates below a stainless steel, exotic horn sculpture.
In a transaction similar to the fire screen, Gray recently spotted the outdoor sign for an antique store that was closing, located at the intersection of Summer Avenue and National Street. She quickly identified what a nostalgic and progressive decorative object this could be. After talking the owner into letting her have it, she figured out how to personally relocate the oversized sign. With safety lights flashing and daughter Vivian shaking her head all the way, Gray arrived home with her new prized possession.
Even though change is inevitable in her home, Gray maintains one constant: “When I come into my house, I want to see my favorite things,” she explains. This is an underlying goal when she is directing her clients’ choices as well. “Everything in my house has a story, always interesting and sometimes funny.” Other guidelines Gray adheres to are steadfast rules for proper scale and lighting; these two elements, she adds, determine the success of any interior design project. Gray’s circular structure of floating balls makes a statement not only with the object’s repurposed design, but also in size. This decorative object is an example of using proper scale and proportion.
“Color should be fluid, not like a staccato rhythm but fluid,” she says. Of course, the structure and floor plan of a home help determine color choices, but more often, color should be used to “pull together, not separate.” Because any creative process involves learning through experimentation, Gray uses her home as a place for expressing new ideas, her design philosophy and lifestyle. The result is an efficient, orderly and engaging home that changes as often as the seasons.