While most Atlantans recall the 1990s as the decade in which their city hosted the Summer Olympics, others fondly remember the era as the heyday of local decorator-turned-star designer Dan Carithers, whose rise to national prominence echoed that of his adopted city. Admired for his talent, his good taste, and his high-profile clientele, Carithers is often credited with bringing prestige to Southern decorating, something that earned him accolades from magazine editors and influenced a generation of Southern designers.
One of those designers is Judy Bentley, who originally hired Carithers to decorate a few rooms in her Atlanta home. What started as a working relationship quickly blossomed into a deep friendship. Later, when Bentley decided to turn her passion for design into a profession, she joined Carithers's nascent firm.
Although Bentley eventually established her own successful design practice, she has remained close to her former boss and his wife, Nancy. In fact, after Carithers was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a few years ago, it was Bentley to whom the couple turned to help them find a smaller home and decorate it. She immediately knew they had found the right place as soon as she walked into the townhouse where they have now settled. "The first things I saw were the living room's arched French doors, the terrace garden beyond, and the light streaming in. I thought, This is it. The light, the garden, and those doors are so Dan." Carithers agreed. "Look at that light — how beautiful," he recalls thinking at the time.
The next order of business was to edit the furniture and belongings that had graced the Caritherses' former home. Other than purchasing new rugs, lampshades, and some different fabrics, Bentley kept most of the couple's furnishings. "I took the best of the best," she explains, including the creamware collection for which Carithers is so well known. "Mention creamware in Atlanta, and everyone thinks of Dan."
Bentley displayed the creamware just as it had been done in the former house — on an antique French table in the living room. The den is decorated in shades of his favorite color, brown. Other notable details, including check-patterned fabrics and skirted tables, appear throughout the townhouse.
As much as the new home embodies Carithers's famous taste, Bentley made sure its interiors reflected Nancy, too. "When Nancy married Dan, she moved into his house, where he had made all of the design choices," Bentley explains. "She lived in his surroundings." This time around, for Nancy's benefit, Bentley expanded on Carithers's typical brown-and-white color scheme, adding notes of soft blue for a touch of femininity. This lightness is especially evident in the living room and the dining room, where Bentley used blue-and-cream fabrics to help create an atmosphere, she says, of "calmness and happiness."
Bentley's knack for crafting inviting spaces is one she s with her mentor, who has always been attuned to the details of a room's ambience. Flowers are a constant presence in the house, as is music, particularly opera and Frank Sinatra tunes. But it's color that Carithers finds especially inspiring. "Don't you think that color is delicious?" he says, pointing to the bedroom's seafoam-blue walls. Despite having closed his firm in 2005, Carithers still indulges in his passion for design by creating collages of photographs culled from magazines.
Although Bentley's aesthetic differs from that of Carithers, she is quick to credit her friend's influence on her design work. She still marvels over his ability to "get more chairs into a room than any other designer." She also admires the stylish way in which Carithers combined expensive and affordable furnishings, something he accomplished with aplomb.
His holiday decorating remains legendary: "Dan loves Christmas more than anybody," Bentley says. "The effort he put into his trees and his lighting was amazing. Everyone should have a Christmas like that."
Like other designers who were once part of the Carithers stable and have gone on to prominence in their field, Bentley tackled this project with the confidence that comes from having once worked for a design giant. Rather than being intimidated by decorating for her friends, Bentley instead felt greatly honored. "I consider Dan and Nancy family," she says. "This is one of the most important things I've ever done."
And what does Carithers think of Bentley's work on his new home? As he recently told his wife before giving her a hug, "I just love it, honey."
This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Natipernavigare.