Keith Meacham brings his oh-this-old-thing elegance to a southern retreat

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This article is part of our latest special Design section, devoted to spaces inspired by nature.


SEWANEE, Tenn. — Keith Meacham moves eagerly to greet a visitor, accompanied by two ecstatic spaniels. In a loose pink cotton shirt that patrols the line between chic and easy, she leads her guest into a screened porch filled with rattan chairs and flowers picked from the woods around her home.

Her fingernails are painted blue.

She’s a paragon of carefree, oh-this-old-thing elegance, just like the weekend retreat she shares with her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham, 53, and their three children .

Wrapped in a cloak of forest on the Sewanee campus: University of the South, the neo-Georgian house has jewel-toned interiors, William Morris wallpaper, whimsical photographs of pears and, here and there, a nest of bird. To the charmed visitor, it seems like a love letter to British country estates of yore and the nature-obsessed eccentrics who passed through them.

Ms Meacham, 52, is the co-founder of an online design firm called Reed Smythe & Company that sells the kinds of artifacts – sometimes the very things – that decorate the home. She filled a comical ceramic vase with human features with salvaged mountain laurel, honeysuckle, ferns and maple seedlings and set a table with stemless goblets and speckled dishes. The vase is by Los Angeles artist Matthias Vriens-McGrath and is sold in his shop; the plates come from the Parisian design boutique La Tuile à Loup; and the mouth-blown glassware is inspired by 18th-century wine glasses.

“I love mixing those green glasses with an unexpectedly colored tablecloth,” she said of the pink and yellow paisley fabric, a vintage Indian textile that complements the peonies, hellebore and rhododendron arranged in the room. mistress. “But it looks great.”

In November, Reed Smythe opened its first physical store 90 minutes away in Nashville, where the Meacham family primarily lives. Sewanee, with its crisp mountain air and bursts of birdsong, is ideal for weekends and vacations.

How the Meachams got there is quite a story. Ms. Meacham was a high school student from the Mississippi Delta who was offered a scholarship to Sewanee, as the school is colloquially known. Mr. Meacham, originally from nearby Chattanooga, was a freshman there.

In Mr. Meacham’s version of events, as told by his wife, the Dean of Admissions suggested he talk to this ‘smart girl’ when she visits campus and try to persuade her to attend. But when Mr. Meacham went to a reception to meet her and saw a pretty girl sitting in the corner, he thought he’d hang around waiting for the smart girl to show up. Eventually he realized they were the same person.

It’s not the punchline. This is the punchline: After her visit, Ms. Meacham sent Mr. Meacham a gracious thank you note letting him know that she had decided to attend the University of Virginia.

The couple corresponded regularly for the next few years, but rarely saw each other. It wasn’t until they both moved to Washington, D.C. that they formed a romantic attachment.

They then moved to New York, where Ms. Meacham worked as an educator and eventually joined the team that founded Homer, a technology company that produces educational software. Mr. Meacham made a name for himself in journalism and became editor of Newsweek magazine.

The couple enjoyed living on the Upper East Side but missed the lush greenery of their native south. Both were able to take off in July, so they found their way back to Sewanee. (They wanted to go home, but not to their hometowns.)

For a few years they rented a cabin in the nearby town of Monteagle. Then, two years after the birth of their second child, in 2006, they bought this house, a simple brick building from the late 1920s or early 1930s that had belonged to the director of the Military Academy of Sewanee.

In 2012, they decided to move full-time to Tennessee. Newsweek had been sold by its then owner, the Washington Post Company, and was about to go exclusively online. Mr. Meacham wanted to spend more time writing his presidential biographies. (His next, “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle,” is due out from Penguin Random House in October.) Because the couple needed access to an airport and craved some semblance of city planning. , they settled in Nashville, using the Sewanee house for getaways.

Their first major move when acquiring the property was to double its size by adding a two-story screened porch. The addition plunges the family into cool, verdant depths downstairs and transforms into a pleasantly punchy instrument upstairs when the rain hits the roof.

“All destinations lead to the porch in the summer,” Ms. Meacham said. “We live there, we entertain ourselves there, we read there, we eat every meal.”

Ms. Meacham handles most decorating decisions, though she seeks advice from Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman, interior designers with offices in New York and New Orleans.

“She has a bunch of ideas and she likes to share them with us,” Mr. Brockschmidt said. He noted that Ms Meacham was not intimidated by objects and fabrics that others might find too formal. She doesn’t mind wear and tear or damage from children and dogs, making her surroundings feel comfortable rather than stiff.

“When you’re at her house, you’re immediately comfortable,” he said.

Recently, designers consulted her to paint the dining room in a Farrow & Ball red called Radicchio. In this piece, the eye is drawn to a painting of a middle-aged woman with bobbed hair and a striped scarf – the mother of Herbert Wentz, a Sewanee religion teacher who took young Mr. Meacham under his wing and bequeathed the portrait to him several years later.

In the living room, Sap Green by Farrow & Ball is a backdrop for bird-themed artwork and bird’s nests collected by Ms. Meacham. (“I’m sure there are dust mites everywhere,” she says.) The seats are unassuming and greasy and upholstered in textiles by Pierre Frey and Lisa Fine, among other designers. Nubby candles hand-cast from cedar branches are clustered near a wall of books.

“These are ephemeral works of art that look as beautiful in a pair of sterling silver candlesticks on a decadent holiday table as they do on a casual side table in a cozy office,” says the copy on Reed’s website. Smythe, where candles are sold.

Reed Smythe was the inspiration for Ms. Meacham’s best friend, Julia Evans Reed, a New Orleans-based journalist and author of books on design, entertainment and Southern culture and politics. She, too, had grown up in the Mississippi Delta and traveled to New York, where she and Mrs. Meacham had formed a bond.

The two women shared a common love for finding vintage finds and commissioning decorative items from artisans, especially in the South. Together they developed the business as a digital platform, using their last names. (Mrs. Meacham’s – Smythe – more or less rhymes with “blithe”.)

Shortly before Reed Smythe was founded, in the fall of 2018, Ms. Reed was diagnosed with cancer. She died in August 2020. In her obituary for Garden & Gun magazine, where she had been a columnist, Mr Meacham wrote: “If we had tried to invent a character like Julia, no one would have believed her. She was a tsunami of talent, charm and energy.

Today, the new boutique is a scented pocket of eccentricity in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification. It casts a consumerist charm that makes you crave more than you ever thought possible for card holders shaped like squirrels sitting on their haunches, or lollipop-colored containers originally designed for rinsing wine glasses. . (The wine rinsers are based on 18th-century versions collected by Mrs. Meacham and Mrs. Reed.)

Down the street, a sushi restaurant called Punk Wok plays B-52’s “Rock Lobster” and displays a mural with a quote from Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. The quote says, “Do not accept the old order. Get rid of it.

Recalling the events she planned with Ms Reed when they were sisters in entertainment in New York, Ms Meacham said: ‘We were talking about a lot more than what we were going to serve at the party and who was coming. It was really about making new friendships and creating a welcoming space.

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