Seated in her eponymous home furnishings shop, decorator Rivers Spencer lists the films that introduced her to timeless design: To Catch a Thief, Rear Window and High Society are among them. "Ever since I was a little girl, I've loved Grace Kelly," Spencer says as Frank Sinatra songs play in the background.
Surrounded by refined decor that complements her pared-down, sophisticated clothes, Spencer is a young woman with a fresh sensibility. However, the 20th century has clearly provided a wealth of inspiration for her aesthetic.
Raised in Jackson, Miss., Spencer had ties to the Big Easy growing up, since her family kept an apartment here. After stints in New York and Washington, D.C., Spencer wanted to be in New Orleans. She closed the decorating business she started in Jackson and relocated to New Orleans.
"New Orleans is just the right size. It has a lot of soul, a lot of character and it's a design mecca of the South," she says. "It has everything I want in a city."
Becoming a decorator was not Spencer's original career plan. After college, she worked in advertising and considered law school. But when her parents, longtime antique collectors, gave her the job of renovating her grandmother's Jackson home, she was smitten.
"It sort of snowballed from there," Spencer says. "I ended up throwing myself into the industry. I feel like you don't do something unless you do it all the way. I love this. It doesn't feel like work to me. If I'm happy doing what I love, then I'm a lot more productive."
These days, productive is synonymous with busy. Between running the store and working on decorating jobs that include the second floor at Dominique's on Magazine Street and an Uptown residence that was once a corner grocery, Spencer has little down time. Her mother, a retired litigator, handles the books and logistics, while Rivers is the creative force behind the business. (Her 6-year-old Labrador retriever, Zeus, is on hand daily as the resident shop dog.)
"I'm so particular," Spencer says. "I like a neutral palette of upholstery punctuated with color, but it has to be very precise. I like to use one accent color and one statement fabric and pull that color all the way through the room."
Color is new territory for Spencer, who says traveling and going to market keep her excited about her ever-evolving metier. While the underpinnings of her style — classic shapes and finishes and soft tones — remain constant, she's learned to shake things up with splashes of vibrant color and a bit of an edge.
"I think New Orleans needs that," she says. "It's fresh to have a little bit of edge, but not a hard edge. It's like a spritzer."
The analogy is accurate: Spencer brings refreshing lightness to a room. Her shop is filled with pale, painted pieces and gold accents (white and gold is her favorite palette). But unlike a spritzer, there's nothing watered down about her approach. It's strong and confident with a definite point of view.
"It's hard to find a [decorator's] style I really identify with," Spencer says. "But if I had to, I'd say my style is kind of a mixture of Jan Showers and Barbara Barry. ... I like old Hollywood glamour with a traditional softness and a little patina."
Quality is key, and Spencer continuously upgrades her inventory. She is the exclusive New Orleans retailer of Amy Howard Home, a collection of handmade French- and Italian-inspired antique interpretations known for authentic-looking finishes. Spencer also has taken on a new line of high-end upholstered furniture and sells original works by Houston artist Austin A. James.
"They're a big part of the store," Spencer says of the mixed-media pieces, which feature soft watercolor-like tones and glossy finishes. Lamps, dishes, vases, mirrors, animal hide rugs, bedding by Dallas designer Lili Alessandra, linens by Linen Way, VivVere candles and Lady Primrose fragrances — all displayed in a circa-1924 shotgun house on Magazine Street — are among the other items that attract a steady clientele.
Though she's done well with antiques, Spencer plans to focus elsewhere in the future. "There are so many people with years of experience selling antiques," she says. "As a young person, I think it's better for me to go (in) a little bit different direction. It's good to find another avenue." Increasingly, the niche she is carving is one of fine American-made goods not found in other local shops.
Spencer shops to relax from work. She adheres to a wardrobe of classic garments that last for years. Dresses by Milly, silk blouses by Equipment in a range of colors, white jeans, fitted blazers and heels are her go-to pieces.
"You'll never catch me in flats," she says. "Except when I go to market where I wear driving loafers."
Spencer accessorizes with simple jewelry pieces she received on milestone occasions like graduations and birthdays. She also has a weakness for Hermes scarves, the first of which she bought in Paris. "I don't like trendy," she says. "I like quality over quantity."
Spencer counsels her customers to take a similar approach. While her dream project would be a client with an unlimited budget who gives her carte-blanche to use anything she fancies, in the real world she's more pragmatic.
"If you can't afford something, wait and buy one piece at a time," she says.