Real Estate / Houses

One Glamorous Woman

Dallas’ Own Version of Grace Kelly is an Unstoppable Design Force

BY // 09.14.16

She has Grace Kelly looks and an unmatched eye for the glamorous. On the eve of her showroom’s 20th anniversary, we dive into the brilliant past, present, and future of inimitable designer Jan Showers.

In the mid ’90s, Dallas was head over heels for rooms decorated in rustic wood, worn leather, rusted iron, and Navajo textiles and rugs. “It was haute Ralph Lauren,” remembers interior designer Jan Showers. “There wasn’t much around I thought was fabulous.”

But the antiques stores on the Left Bank and the marché aux puces in Paris were another story. Showers was smitten with the sleek 1940s French furniture she found in pale woods, parchment, shagreen, and lacquer by makers Jacques Adnet, André Arbus, and Maison Jansen. Vibrant Murano glass chandeliers and accessories from Seguso and Venini were everywhere. And all of it, Showers remembers, was going for a song. Just like that, a showroom was born.

During that first buying trip, Showers wrestled with how much to bring back. “I agonized over what I wanted to buy, and what I thought I should buy,” she says. “I didn’t want the store to be a bust.” She filled the majority of a shipping container with 18th-century antiques — the kind of “brown furniture Dallas was used to” — and the rest with the French ’40s pieces she loved.

When Showers’ Slocum Street showroom opened in 1996, it was a hit. “My late ’30s and ’40s French pieces went out the door first and fast,” she says. But not everyone loved the new look. “Some designers wanted to know why I was buying all that junk,” she says, laughing. A year later, Forbes published a story declaring French ’40s furniture “hot,” with prices fetching far more than 18th-century French antiques. Showers was vindicated: “I framed the article and put it on a table in the showroom.”

Jan Showers helped usher in a glamorous era of design in Texas, influenced by Old Hollywood, when legendary decorators Billy Baldwin, Elsie de Wolfe, and David Hicks reigned. Today, Showers’ showroom, styled as a Parisian pied-à-terre, is a cozy showcase for sleek French and Italian antiques from the period, mixed with bronze, brass-and-glass tables and lighting from the ‘50s through the ’80s. Prominent designers from across the country shop its rarified contents, and clients have included Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, Heidi Klum, and Ellen Degeneres.

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Jan Showers, née Smith, and her younger brother, Steve, were reared 60 miles south of Dallas in Hillsboro. She idolized her father, a surgeon from a long line of paternal doctors that included her grandfather, whom she, like everyone else in town, called Dr. Smith. With a sophisticated French mother, Jan was born to be chic.

“[My mother] was really into great food and style,” she says. “She loved decoration and antiques. All the things the French are passionate about — I grew up with that.”

The family had a cook, but her mother was always in the kitchen, whipping up something French (coq au vin) or Southern (hamburgers made of fresh ground ham). Her taste for clothing was impeccable. “She wore the classics: Chanel suits and camel-hair coats,” Showers says. Twice a year, the mother-daughter duo shopped for new wardrobes at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, where Stanley Marcus would greet them. At the end of the day, they would retire to the opulent Adolphus hotel next door or the stylish Statler Hilton across the street.

Bookish and beautiful, Showers devoured Nancy Drew mysteries and was the editor of the Hillsboro High School yearbook, El Aguila; in 1958, she was voted Most Beautiful. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie sets fascinated her, and she dreamed of being a film star. “Hitchcock loved glamorous blondes,” she says. “I totally related to Grace Kelly in Rear Window. And when I saw Kim Novak turn around in that gorgeous emerald gown at Ernie’s in Vertigo, I said, ‘That’s how I want to live.’”

Interior design grabbed Showers’ attention early. At seven or eight years old, she tore pages from House Beautiful and created her own shelter magazine full of rooms using her favorite photographs. At some point, her mother included her in meetings with the family’s interior decorator, Lucille Neblett, a Sister Parish who was full of terse Southern wit and sage advice.

“She was hilarious,” Showers says. “If you suggested a grouping of pictures on a wall and Mrs. Neblett didn’t like it, she’d say something like, ‘I’d rather be nibbled to death by a gnat.’” Showers learned some of the foundations of design from Neblett: A touch of black grounds a space; use at least one good antique in every room; and a chair always needs a table and lamp next to it.

“They seem like obvious things now,” Showers says, “but back then they weren’t.”

Mr. Right
During her senior year in high school, 18-year-old Jan, who was standing in the front yard dressed in her costume for a school play, caught the eye of 19-year-old TCU student Jim Showers, in town visiting a friend. The young man soon arranged for a reason to drop over, ostensibly to see Jan’s brother’s train set. “He asked me out, but I said no,” she remembers. “I had a boyfriend and was headed to TCU, so I wasn’t interested.”

That fall, Jan and Jim ran into each other on campus. (By then, she had broken up with her boyfriend.) “Jim was great looking and more mature than the other boys,” she says. “He acted like the guys I admired in movies — strong, smart, cool. Our first date, he took me to a nice restaurant and knew how to order.” Six months later, they were married and living in a cottage near TCU.

Two daughters and several decades later, the fun hasn’t stopped. Today, the couple spends extensive time traveling together. They just returned from four weeks on Lake Como — their annual vacation to escape the Texas heat and to power down before the busy social season in Dallas. Each winter, the family heads to St. Barths for a few weeks, and to Harbour Island in the Bahamas, where the whole family gathers for vacation, in June. Weekends are spent together at the family house in Hillsboro whenever possible.

And then there are Jan’s weeks-long buying trips to Paris, with stopovers in Murano to oversee production on her lamps for the Jan Showers Collection. Jim, an attorney, always tags along on these overseas work excursions. “We have fun,” says Jan. “It has a lot to do with us having a good marriage.”

Jan and Jim Showers' 1938 Greek Revival-style house in Hillsboro (Photo courtesy Jan Showers)
Jan and Jim Showers’ 1938 Greek Revival-style house in Hillsboro (Photo courtesy Jan Showers)

Aesthetic Evolution
Upon entering her freshman year at Texas Christian University, Jan wanted to study acting and psychology, but deferred to her father’s wishes to pursue a degree in business. Taking 22 hours a semester, plus summer school, she graduated in three years with honors. Post-grad, Jan and Jim moved to Austin, where he attended law school at University of Texas Austin. To help with the decoration of their first house, Jan enlisted the trusted Neblett.

In 1966, expecting their first child, Susanna, the couple moved back to Hillsboro. While house hunting, Jan directed her husband to a grand 1938 Greek Revival–style house, just a few doors down from where she had grown up. She’d admired it since childhood. “That’s the one I really want,” she told him. Alas, the white-columned estate wasn’t for sale, but when it came on the market, four years later, Jim bought it. It was Jan’s first solo decorating project, and she filled the historic rooms with a mix of Louis XVI antiques, sleek sofas, and contemporary glass-and-brass tables. The couple owns the house to this day, spending weekends and holidays there when schedules allow.

Another daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1971, and Jan kept busy raising two girls and working on her house. But when Elizabeth started first grade, her mother became restless. “I read Gail Sheehy’s book Passages, and it made me realize I needed a career,” says Jan of the 1976 best seller that explored new ways of thinking about the phases of adult life. She asked herself the all-important question: What am I best at? The answer was clear, and she began decorating friends’ houses.

“Then the mayor called and asked me to do his,” Jan says. Shelle Bagot Sills introduced her to Dallas clients, and by 1987 she was decorating full-time. “In the ’80s, I really got into English country style,” she says. Later, for clients who requested it, she dabbled in the Ralph Lauren look that held sway in the ’90s. Business was brisk, and Jan and Jim took a pied à terre in town on Turtle Creek Boulevard.

Jane Wexler's 1997 photograph of Susanna, Jan, and Elizabeth at home (Photo courtesy Jan Showers)
Jane Wexler’s 1997 photograph of Susanna, Jan, and Elizabeth at home (Photo courtesy Jan Showers)

By the time her showroom opened, in 1996, Jan had found her design footing — a sleek, glamorous aesthetic of pale fruitwood furniture, mirrored dressing tables, rolling drink carts stocked with sparkling decanters, exotic-hide rugs, and neutral palettes punctuated by the vivacious hues of mid-century Venetian glass. Tastemaker Kimberly Schlegel Whitman and Dallas socialites Jeanne Marie Clossey and Angie Barrett were early clients. A wait list formed for her mirrored furniture, and, within a few years, the name Jan Showers was known across the country as a premier source for French ’40s design.

The Glamorous Now
Showers keeps the kind of hectic pace that would exhaust most people. In bed at 11 pm, she is up by 5:30 am and meditating — assisted by an app on her phone.

The busy schedule is the result of a never-ending list of successes, a testament to Showers’ business acumen: She has created a line of custom furnishings and Murano lighting for her own Jan Showers Collection, which is sold worldwide; authored two design books — Glamorous Rooms (2009) and Glamorous Retreats (2013) — for Abrams; and designed rugs for Kyle Bunting and Moattar.

For decades now, top national magazines including Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, and Veranda have featured her interior design projects. This year has been particularly illustrious. Showers was named to Architectural Digest’s prestigious AD100 list of top designers, and she produced a lifestyle collection of furniture, lighting, rugs, and fabrics for Kravet Couture.

Still, after nearly 40 years in the design business, Showers shows no signs of slowing down. She is working on a line of garden furniture for Michael Taylor Designs, set to launch in 2017, and is designing interiors for projects in San Francisco, Hawaii, Nantucket, New Jersey, and the Texas Hill Country.

In Dallas, Showers is working with longtime client Kimberly Schlegel Whitman — the lifestyle entrepreneur, author, and Southern Living editor at large — on the interior of her new Preston Hollow home. This is the seventh project Whitman and Showers have worked on together — the first being Whitman’s bachelorette pad, when she was a debutante. Is retirement on the radar? Never. “I don’t have an exit strategy,” Showers says. “Interior design is something I can’t imagine ever giving up.”

The Particulars
. Through her mother’s Melvin family lineage in France, Showers is a descendant of one of Empress Josephine’s ladies in waiting, who was married to a general in Napoleon’s army. They fled to Louisiana when Napoleon was exiled.
Treasure hunt. Helping to open the Preston Center store Out of Africa in 1995, Showers sourced exotic furnishings and goods during a five-week buying trip to the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali, and Marrakech.
Reading. A book a week. Most recently: Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arhur Lubow and The Last Love Song, a biography of Joan Didion. And always, the New York Review of Books.
Take-out lunch. R&D Kitchen’s mango noodle chicken salad, which she orders like a scene from Five Easy Pieces — hold the mango, hold the noodles.
No apologies. Apple TV. She watches everything from Orange is the New Black to British mysteries. At the end of a long day, she powers down with Turner Classic Movies.

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