As a native New Yorker with a previous career in finance, Tara Engelberg never imagined herself as an interior designer in Memphis. Her interest in design began a handful of years after her family relocated to her husband’s Tennessee hometown. Building their new home in East Memphis, with help from a Chicago-based interior design team, was eye-opening for Tara. The design process provided her with unexpected inspiration while helping her discover her modern, clean and contemporary aesthetic. Months after moving into the completed home, Tara received a breast cancer diagnosis that caused her to spend a great deal of time within her home recovering. During this time, she gained the realization that where you live affects your state of mind and your physical and emotional well-being.
Eager to apply her newfound understanding and interest in interior design, Tara began redesigning her best friend’s home. What started with a bedroom makeover turned into a full home redesign, and she gained the confidence and experience that motivated her to start an interior design business. In 2016, Tara Felice Interiors was established, and the full-service firm has grown to provide interior design for homes around Memphis. Establishing herself in the local design scene, Tara continues to create interiors that positively impact the way her clients live.
Meet the New Yorker-turned-Memphian and our latest interior designer crush, Tara Engelberg!
Tell us about your first interior design project.
It all started with my very best friend, who is Indian, and her house. She has a young family with three amazing kids, and they are all super stylish. I used to joke with her that the house looked like an old Indian grandmother lived there. Everything was brown and heavy with traditional furniture. Her house was a very stereotypical Germantown cookie cutter with brown wood cabinets and beige countertops — everything was very brown and very sad. She knew that, and we have a good laugh about it now. She decided that we would start with her daughter’s bedroom, and that came together really quickly. Since I didn’t have a business, I was ordering from retail sites — Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and whatever retail sites were available. The more confident I became, the more I thought I might have something to offer the design community. Halfway through redesigning her house (we did the entire house), I established my business. Going through the process of chemo, cancer and turning 40, I lost the fear of trying something new because you might fail. My motto is: What is the worst that can happen?
What lessons did you learn during those first interior design projects at your friend’s house?
I learned a lot about scale and a lot of furniture placement. It sounds obvious to say, but the furnishings of a room completely change the space. When you have an appropriate layout and properly scaled furniture, the space looks and functions better. Most people don’t know that a room can (and should) typically hold more furniture and larger pieces than you think it can. Memphis has a lot of massive houses that aren’t properly filled — either the homeowners don’t know how to fill the space or don’t realize how expensive it can be to do so.
The other lesson I learned is about scale and symmetry. I am a very symmetrical person by nature — what’s on the right has to be on the left. In my friend’s den, she has these French doors that throw off the symmetry of the room, and I spent a lot of time stressing over how to balance the room. We put big art on the wall and added curtains, and it showed me that everything does not have to be 100% symmetrical. You can play with furniture and layout to make it work for the space and the architecture of the home.
How would you describe your aesthetic as a designer?
The two words, or phrase, that really suits what I do is “sophisticated comfort.” A home has to be comfortable. When we hired the Chicago interior designers, I told them that we need a home where people can come in and put their feet up. I didn’t want any furniture people felt like they couldn’t sit on. We have a main dining room where we eat pizza and host work dinners for my husband. With sophisticated comfort, it looks elevated and adult, but it also is comfortable. Comfort means a lot of different things to different people.
Overall, I’d say my style is more modern and clean. People think of modern as cold, and they don’t realize that modern can also be warm. That is where I hope to help educate my clients. It is also about educating people that you can mix old and new elements for a look that is timeless, not trendy.
The other thing I say is that I design for life. It is a design for life, in the sense that it is designed for everyday life but also the long term.
Do you have a project you’re most proud of?
My friend’s house, of course, because it was my first project and I learned a lot. It was exciting for me because she didn’t have many opinions, so she was on board with all my crazy ideas.
There is another project that I completed in my neighborhood. It is a kitchen and den renovation, and we completely transformed the space. The homeowners are a couple with no kids at home. The house is very French, but it was dark, traditional and heavy. The architecture of the home is beautiful, but the previous design didn’t let that show through. My client cried when we revealed the design, and that was the first time I saw my work elicit that kind of emotion. It was a proud moment to see someone so happy with the space I was able to give them. I was recently there again for a dinner party, and it was really cool to be in the space and see how well it functioned for her.
What are the necessary elements of a well-designed room?
Good layout and good lighting. I like multiple lighting sources that can function in a variety of ways, depending on what you are doing in that space. Comfortable furniture is another necessity. Also, there needs to be something exciting in every room — something that catches your eye, even if it’s not the main focal point — but there can’t be too much excitement, because then nothing is exciting.
What projects are you looking forward to in 2020?
I am tackling an entire house for a client in Germantown/Collierville. We will have a really good time putting the house together with new furnishings. I also hope to start working on other rooms in my neighbor’s home this spring.
This year, I’d love to work with some builders on bigger projects, including a full house (from the ground up or a full renovation).
Are there any new design trends that you are eager to incorporate this year?
People are starting to embrace texture more, and I saw a lot of cane, woven and rattan pieces at market. I am excited to see (and do) more mixing of materials. I try not to be a trendy designer because I want my clients to get longevity out of their space.
What excites you about the Memphis design scene?
We have an amazing cultural base in Memphis, and I think many people don’t know that exists. I am super excited about getting more involved. There are amazing artists and artisans who I would love to showcase in my projects. In my neighbor’s house, we are commissioning local graffiti artist Nosey42 for a piece of artwork to hang over her sofa. I would love for the local talent to become recognized by people outside of the design or art world.
What are the home decor items you cannot live without?
A really great dining table. I love to entertain, and I love that a dining table brings people together. A hot cup of tea in a good tea mug. We just got the Restoration Hardware sofa; it is amazing. Fresh flowers, too.
Learn more about Tara and explore additional stunning examples of her work by visiting tarafeliceinteriors.com.
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