I stumbled upon Carrie J. Furr’s shop, The Southern Mermaid, while trolling etsy for vintage furniture (as I often do). That beautiful deep blue chest of drawers showed up in my search results and I feel in love. Carrie transforms lovely, old furniture into decorative treasures. She has such imagination. And wait until you read her response to the “stranded on a deserted island” question!
Out of which city/state/country do you work and live?
My husband and I live with our kitten, Billy Jack, in Wilmington, a port city in southeastern North Carolina. I’m on the road once or twice a month to the rural foothills of NC where I was born and raised. I do most of my buying, scouting, and raiding in and around a little town called Harmony.
Have you been formally trained as a designer or in carpentry/furniture-making? (If so, where, and which degrees do you have?) Or are you self-taught?
I graduated from Wake Forest University and earned a Master’s from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. But those degrees are in English and Education, not design or art or anything remotely related to my current trade.
My knowledge and understanding of furniture has been acquired by using my eyes and ears and hands since I was a little girl. My grandparents worked in the furniture and textile industries and possessed a rich heritage of skilled craftsmanship. My parents were jack-of-all-trade DIYers, before the DIYing trend. I learned a lot growing up in that kind of environment. I didn’t even know I knew some things until I put that knowledge to use.
In other areas, I’ve put forth concentrated effort over the last couple years. For example, I never sat down at a sewing machine until November 2010. My Grandma showed me the basics, and I’ve been off and running – and still have a lot to learn. Since the company’s inception, I (and the company) have been blessed to form strong friendships with veteran artisans in Wilmington. The Southern Mermaid team now consists of an extraordinarily talented upholsterer, two furniture design-build contractors, and a career seamstress. They are teaching me so much and making sure that we deliver quality craftsmanship to our customers.
What is the concept behind The Southern Mermaid? (Can you tell us the story behind the name?)
In the fall of 2010, I found myself back in my hometown for several months,
spending time with my aunt, who was in failing health. During that time , my Grandma taught me to sew. Sewing opened up a creative world to me. When my aunt passed away I sewed incessantly. I came home to Wilmington and stayed busy sewing, dabbling in upholstery and reinventing furniture. By February of 2011, I was committed to finding a forum to broaden my creative process and share the resulting products.
One night I was trying to come up with a name. So, I put myself in bed with a cup of tea and just tried to open my mind to see what would come. This is what I saw
A lovely two-story home, standing proud and isolated on the furthest point of a southern beach. A scarce few people, just a little beach tribe
-my family. We were scurrying around like children building a mermaid in the sand. She was called “Sidda C” and she lived way back on the shore, lovely and dressed in jewels of the sea. As the tide came closer, we prepared ourselves to let the mermaid go. By the light of a full moon, I danced around that sandy mermaid accompanied by a small band of southern women. With chocolatey drinks sloshing in our glasses, we christened her and committed her to the deep. From our chalices, we toasted “the rich brown blood of the southern mermaid.”
As the memory faded, my smile remained, and those were the words that kept ringing in my ears – “the southern mermaid.” I googled it, of course. There is a ship registered in Singapore and a resort in southern India that bears the name, but other than that, the coast was clear. I took her for a test drive with a small trial audience and discovered that she was a hit! The Southern Mermaid was reborn and lives today.
How did you get into refurbishing/upcycling vintage items? What do you love most about what you do?
As a young person, my grandma became interested in “old stuff.” She shared this love with my mama and me. My grandpa was an expert in refinishing and restoring antiques. As a toddler, I was a regular at local estate sales and auctions. I grew up in a world rooted in antiquity. My fondness for “old stuff” blossomed when I needed to furnish my home. I messed around in my parents’
barn painting and staining and worked closely with an upholsterer to redesign furniture. I repurposed everything and wasted nothing. I think that’s what I love the most–so much beauty and so little waste. Our world is all about discarding the things (and people) that just can’t cut it. Finding beauty in the ordinary, even ugly, and sharing it with others is such a gift.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
When pressed, I say “eclectic.” The Southern Mermaid is bold. She’s not afraid of color, but she also knows when to let white be white. She’s not afraid of a little bit of ugly because it’s what makes a house feel like a home. Her style is a complete mash up of bohemian and classic, modern and Victorian, rustic and industrial. She’ll always surprise you (I hope), or at the very least, she is always surprising me!
How do you determine what changes you make to a particular piece?
My creative process has three phases: inspiration, contemplation, actualization, but it’s not necessarily a linear process. I’m always collecting images/artifacts that inspire me. Photos, clothing ads, vintage signage. If I’m stuck, I’ll go stare at this quilt my Granny pieced from flour sacks for my wedding gift. Some of the color combinations are unbelievable. I’m always looking for inspiration, but I seldom try to think about a specific piece and the route that it should take. That comes naturally.
In the morning, I’ll lay in bed, praying and thinking. In my mind’s eye, I see a piece that I have in the warehouse in all its revitalized glory. I see the colors, the textures, the lines. I generally take that as the green light from God to get started on that piece. If I can help it, I don’t start on any piece until I know what’s supposed to happen to it.
Once I had the vision for a midcentury dresser. I knew exactly how it should look. Then, I made the mistake of opening up a DIY blog and was “inspired” to go against my gut. After the first coat, I knew it was horrible. I had to strip the paint and start over. Worst of all, my original plan called for a stained top, but I had applied paint. The paint was deep in the wood grain, and I spent hours with a dental pick scraping the paint out of the crevices. This dresser (after much labor) became the Colonel Mustard Midcentury Dresser. It was one of the original pieces in my Etsy shop and sold one day after I listed it–-my first official sale. Can you imagine I ever considered doing something different?
Name three things that inspire you…
#1 Color, color, and um, color…especially in fashion
#2 Landscapes: rural, urban, waterways, streets
#3 Old movies
What are your hobbies and interests outside of your work?
I’m so grateful to say that my hobbies have become my work, and I still enjoy them. It is my job to dig around yard sales and walk the aisles of fabric stores. Crazy! It’s not just the colors and the artifacts, it’s the people. I really love people! Does spending time with people count as a hobby? This business is great because I get to be a part of people’s lives at so many important moments-–weddings, babies, first homes, fresh starts. What a privilege. Oh, and I really love old movies, specifically 1960s Technicolor like How to Marry a Millionaire and To Catch a Thief and black and whites like Roman Holiday, Casablanca,and Angel and the Badman. Audrey Hepburn is, of course, my favorite. Such a class act!
Ok, you’re stranded on a desert island. Which five things can’t you live without?
I was actually stranded on an island once with my family for a whole day. I didn’t have any of the items I’m about to list. Somehow we did survive, and it’s a favorite memory. So, ideally, my family. Otherwise:
#1 Large quantities of ice and water
#2 Bed Swing (like the one TSM is building for my porch right NOW!)
#4 iPhone for reading
#5 Comfy shoes for exploring
Anything else you’d like to add:
Well, at the moment, I’m excited because we’re expanding the design-build component of our company. We’re making several new prototypes from architectural relics. My favorite is a bench with an old windshield for the back. The sides of the windshield curve around, and we’re building the bench to mimic the curve. So, the whole piece will essentially be a large oval. I love the sophistication and gentleness that seem to be coming out of it, and the backward slope of the windshield makes it so comfortable. It’s the perfect angle for your back. Can’t wait to have pictures to share. I love it when pieces come together, like they were made for their second life, just as much as they were made for their first! It’s so hopeful.
Thank you so much, Carrie! See more of Carrie’s beautiful creations at The Southern Mermaid shop. (p.s. The Southern Mermaid does custom work too!)