Designer, author and Georgia native James T. Farmer III discusses his Wreaths for All Seasons just in time for the holidays.
Just from our conversation, James T. Farmer III seems like a throwback to a more genteel time. But, the Georgia native’s designs for interiors and landscapes throughout the South are completely of-the-moment and sparking a revival in elegant garden living.
Last week the freshly minted 30-year-old, who was the guest of honor at the Savannah Book Festival’s Nov. 1 luncheon at the Plantation Club in The Landings, spoke with Savannah magazine about his latest release, Wreaths for All Seasons, his idyllic childhood in the country, his affection for our fair city and his take on our singular mix of high/low culture.
Savannah magazine: What is your definition of the elegant garden life? I don’t hear a lot of people actually speak of it that way. I see it as that very specific way of living when you have porches, when you have beautiful back yards, when you have secret gardens.
James: To me, each and every day is influenced somehow by the garden. It could be anything as grand as a garden cotillion, where every flower on the table came from your garden, but it could be as simple as a glass of iced tea with a mint sprig from the mint in your garden. Or maybe it’s a salad and you’ve grown the tomatoes. That’s garden living. Once you set up your garden, it becomes your pantry, your florist, even your event center. I think it’s important to realize that the garden is as much a part of the home as the living room. That’s how you achieve the elegant garden lifestyle.
SM: Where was your love of this outdoor living and celebration founded? It seems like this has been a lifelong passion for you.
James: It has. I’m a fortunate soul who has always known what I wanted to do, and I knew I wanted to work with design. My day job is a designer: I do garden and interior design.
I think about my childhood when I sat on the back porch in rocking chairs with my parents and grandparents. If we were going to sit down and talk, it was either at the kitchen table or on the back porch. It’s the opportunity to be in this hybrid space of inside and outside, and that’s what the porch is. My grandparents raised my parents like that, and my parents raised my two sisters and me like that. I think folks who don’t understand or have never truly experienced that lifestyle don’t know what they’re missing. I hope my books, photos, and writing will help inspire that living, that lifestyle.
SM: Your latest book is Wreaths for All Seasons, and it goes beyond the traditional Christmas wreath. If I hadn’t really grown up with this connection to the garden, how would I use wreaths to bring the garden lifestyle into my daily life?
James: Wreaths are great, because they are a first and last impression of our homes. Where does someone enter and exit your home? The door. Your wreath may be just a bunch of leaves that you’ve gathered and they’ve kind of dried a bit and they’re wrapped around a grapevine. That says, ‘Okay, here’s my first step, my first attempt to celebrate the season.’
The fall is so rich—it’s harvest, it’s everything from Halloween to Christmas. It’s such a mix of great things. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, celebrate the season, and use a wreath 12 months out of the year, not just at Christmas.
There is a wreath for all seasons, and that’s the book’s idea.
SM: What is one key trend you see for the holidays this year, one thing you’d love for people to pick up that’s different from the traditional evergreen wreath with some holly berries on it?
James: Here’s what I’m seeing: a high and low mix.
High being it may be glossy greenery, it may be a little bit of sugared fruit, or some kind of glitz and glam, paired with something low, like a burlap ribbon. I love it. I love taking something like rusted jingle bells and a burlap ribbon and putting them on a glossy magnolia wreath. I love that high and low.
If you look in a beautifully decorated home, you’ll see that high and low, too—that great mix can really be achieved in decorating with that high-and-low sense. I hope that mix stays.
SM: What does “Southern” mean to you?
James: Southern is a lifestyle, and it’s a true culture. And what I love about the Southern culture is that it span all races, creeds, and cultures to form one. There’s hardly anywhere else in the world where the dichotomy can be so diverse, yet so unified.
You can be in New York City and the culture is your neighborhood. For us in the South, it’s where you’re from—and we’re immediately connected through food, flavors and people. That, to me, is what’s so Southern. I think you could wrap it up like this: it’s fried chicken with a sterling silver fork and a linen napkin.
SM: At the beginning of our conversation, you said you love Savannah. Tell us about your affection for this city. What is it?
For James’ Holiday Garden Wassail recipe, click HERE >>
James: My parents did a great thing for the three of us [my two sisters and me]. Even though we grew up with a farm in a small southern town, we would leave the town and have these great cultural experiences. If the opera was coming to the Fox [Theater in Atlanta] or if someone was playing at the Mercer auditorium … Mom and Dad were really keen on taking us to learn about the culture throughout our state, and Savannah just happened to be one of those places you could go half a dozen times and get a different bite of culture each and every time.
Mom and Dad were really good about taking us as young children to restaurants. We did cotillion and took manners courses … but we had to exercise [these skills] somehow. I can remember being a young child and eating at the Olde Pink House. I loved that, because now as a grown child, I still love to go eat there and have a great meal.
I got the Savannah bug early because I was fascinated with design and history. I got this book … on St. Augustine, Savannah, Williamsburg—it just had sections on old American cities. The part on Savannah was almost rubbed bare because I kept flipping those pages.
With my sister only 20 minutes away, any chance I can get [to Savannah], I do. You can get the true upper-crust Southern experience, or you can get the down and dirty ghost tour. Savannah can be a different experience each and every time. You can come from anywhere and there’s something for you.
By James T. Farmer III
Photographs by James T. Farmer III, Maggie Yelton, and Laurey W. Glenn, reprint permission by Gibbs Smith Publisher.