It didn’t take long for Beth Claybourn to win over a new client after she opened her New Orleans showroom at the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Natchez streets two years ago.
“The couple came into the shop and told me they had seen the dinner table set with china and crystal when they were window shopping on the way home from dinner,” Claybourn said. “They said they were giving a dinner party and wanted it just the way I had staged it, linens and all.”
Claybourn was thrilled, especially when they didn’t change their minds when they saw the price tag.
“It was $250,000!” she said. “I’ll tell you, child, they didn’t even blink.”
Since establishing her own business in Baton Rouge 30 years ago, Claybourn has designed homes for notable politicians such as Edwin Edwards and successful businessmen, including Jim Bob Moffett, longtime chairman of Freeport McMoRan. But her background is far more humble.
“I grew up in Carthage, Mississippi, and knew even when I was a child that I wanted to be a designer,” she said. “Daddy was so disappointed that I didn’t want to be a doctor or a geologist like my brother, but it’s what I wanted to do.”
After completing her degree at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Claybourn went to work for Mary Wood in Greenwood and Jackson for six years.
“I was fresh out of school, 23 years old, and I had a lot to learn,” Claybourn said. “Eventually, though, I wanted to spread my wings.”
Her design work — and husband Garrett — eventually brought her to New Orleans, where the couple lived for three years before moving to Baton Rouge and putting down roots.
“Those were some of the happiest years of my life, when we lived here in New Orleans,” she said. “The culture is amazing, and there is always so much to do. It’s why I always wanted to open a New Orleans branch of my Baton Rouge business. It took me about 10 years, but I’m thrilled to be here.”
If only Claybourn’s father could see his daughter now.
Beth Claybourn Interiors occupies a 5,000-square foot ground-level space in the Walle Building, just off Poydras Street. It offers room after room of antique and contemporary furniture, racks upon racks of fabric samples, dozens of vintage and designer chandeliers, shelves of glassware, tabletop groupings of blue and white imported ceramics, walls covered with paintings, spaces lighted by one-of-a-kind lamps, and on and on. The Emperor Napoleon appears again and again, whether as a small bronze statue, a custom painted wall portrait, an alabaster bust, or a white plaster head crowned with gold leaves.
The rooms remain approachable despite all the rich fabrics and high-end antiques, in part because of the warmth of the owner (who divides time between Baton Rouge and New Orleans) and because of the abundance of affordable objects, many of them accessories.
“Some people will come in the shop and feel a little intimidated, but we have things in all price ranges,” she said. “A lot of my young clients don’t believe me at first when I tell them they can get a white slipcovered sofa from me for $200 less than they’d pay at Pottery Barn, but it’s true. For $10,000, I can furnish an entire apartment in style.”
Given the breadth of her interior design experience, Claybourn is acutely aware of the trend away from antiques for young adults.
“Mama and Daddy start downsizing when their kids turn about 30 or 40, but the kids don’t want the mahogany furniture or crystal or china these days. I got a call from a young client not too long ago who asked me what I thought of painting the antique armoire her parents had given her,” said Claybourn, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers. “Her mother had told her to wait until ‘Miss Beth’ could take a look.”
Claybourn saw that the piece was too fine to be painted (“Paint a $35,000 armoire? I don’t think so”) and came up instead with a plan for blending it in with other furniture in the room.
“We mixed it in with pieces of contemporary furniture and changed up the accessories,” she said, noting that lamps, mirrors, floor coverings, draperies and especially artwork can completely change the feel of a room and the appeal of an antique armoire. “By the time we finished, the piece looked so good that Mama and Daddy almost asked for it back.”
‘Miss Beth’ said slipcovers are key to lightening up the mood in a room (she employs a small army to sew them at her Baton Rouge work room), as are light-hearted pieces in materials including Lucite, chairs with unusual shapes (like a high-backed chair with a half-domed top), and fluffy pillows.
“We use Sunbrella for our white slipcovers so the dog can jump on the sofa and the kids can spill ice cream on it and it isn’t a problem,” Claybourn said. Pillows of llama fur (fake or real) and faux mink throws add texture and style without breaking the bank.
To add a bit of whimsy to a room, Claybourn might transform a statue of a circus monkey by handing him a paper umbrella and converting him into a table lamp. For an exotic feel, she might convert an antique Indian warrior’s helmet into a light fixture. For a touch of luxe, she’ll frame a piece of European tapestry or put a classical frieze in a shadow box to display on the wall.
Today, Claybourn’s young client and her family’s armoire are the envy of her friends, many of whom have asked “Miss Beth” to help them integrate their heirloom antiques into an upbeat, contemporary environment.
“I just love what I do,” said Claybourn. “And I love helping people live the way they want to live.”