Transforming Relics for Today: Up Close & Personal with Debi Davis

Within the first hour of her first day working as a part-time designer in her friend’s Little Rock design shop, Debi Davis landed her first big decorating gig when a man who was newly divorced and needed help decorating his home wandered into the showroom. “I turned to him and said, ‘I’m a designer!’” Davis says. “And 27 years later, I’m here.”

The project, a sprawling 8,000-square-foot home, was a success. What developed over the years after that serendipitous moment became Debi Davis Interiors, Davis’s full-service design business in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Though designing came naturally to Davis, the road to her decorating career took a few unexpected turns. Rather than attending design school, she studied broadcasting at the University of Arkansas. “I thought I wanted to be an anchor, because I’m a talker,” she says. Loquacious indeed, Davis’s southern charm and easy charisma resonate through her drawl and warm laugh.

Although broadcast journalism was her intended path, chance led her down another avenue, and after college, she purchased a high-end fashion boutique in Little Rock. This is where she refined her sense of style and aesthetic. “Being in the fashion industry and buying clothing in New York City and Europe helped me,” she says. “Fashion bleeds down into the furniture market. It goes hand in hand. I had an eye for putting things together, and that worked on my behalf.”

Davis sold her women’s boutique after eight years and reset her course, landing in the design world. For the next few years, she honed her decorating skills while working for her interior designer friend. “I learned, learned, learned, and worked out of his showroom,” she reminisces, educating herself on antiques, design, scale, and color.

“I just absorbed everything I could in those years,” she says. “And, I tell you. I know this — you can go to school, but you need a certain level of taste, too. All the schooling in the world can’t help you if you don’t have an eye.”

Left: Marcus Bookcase. Right, top: Voluted Crest on Stand. Right, above: Urn Fragment in Lucite Box.

Eight years ago, after years of helping clients transform spaces, Davis realized there was a void of interesting custom pieces that made homes distinct. “I was getting to where I couldn’t find certain pieces,” she says. Noticing a dearth of artifacts and architectural elements, Davis saw a new niche. Enter the concept of Reborn Relics, her latest venture, which she has been building ever since.

Taking inspiration from beautiful antique relics that she has culled from her travels, Davis reimagined them into new unique pieces. With the help of a local woodworker, she started producing pieces like headboards and mirrors in her garage, painting elaborate and ornate handmade pieces in a timeless color palette that allows them to effortlessly mix with other pieces in today’s more laid-back, relaxed home while also making a statement. “These are pieces with character,” says Davis.

Over time, Reborn Relics has breathed new life into a variety of finds sourced abroad and at antique markets closer to home. A carving that had been torn off of a door in a French salon became a bed; ornate wood panels found in Baton Rouge were transformed into custom paneling for a refrigerator and freezer. “It’s quite incredible what you can do,” she says. Other architectural scraps have been used as decorative influences, such as a carving set into a wine cellar wall. Italian carved panels were used as inspiration for dramatic doors leading into a master suite. Old fragments from Portugal were turned into fireplace siding and a mantelpiece. The scale and size of the artifact directs the design path Davis will take, whether it will be an accent on a coffee table or carving on a sconce, and then the piece is off to a new home in one of her client’s houses.

Top: Bacall Console. Above: Emily Console.

In addition to sourcing elements, Davis’s talent lies in adapting pieces for today’s spaces. Reborn Relics gives historic-inspired pieces a modern edge by painting them in light, washed-out finishes. Muted colors tone down the ornate designs, bringing them to present day. Applying the finishes is an art in itself and requires layers and layers of paint that gives each piece a beautiful patina. Most of the custom pieces are wood (maple, pine, and oak), while the remainder of the creations include metal and resin accents. Ironworkers and woodworkers help Davis’s visions come to life with hand-carved designs and intricate metalwork. Eighty percent of the custom creations produced in Arkansas, and twenty percent made in Egypt and Indonesia by experienced artisans hand-picked by Davis.

The business has come a long way since Davis’s days experimenting with fragments in her garage. She has moved Reborn Relics into a sprawling 3,800-square-foot showroom in Little Rock’s hip Garden Design District, and the line has expanded to include everything from accessories to over-sized television cabinets, along with consoles, sideboards, kitchen tables, chairs, and dramatic full-length mirrors. The small company is growing, shipping their pieces to other designers, and selling their products in stores across the country, and showcasing their wares to the trade in Atlanta and High Point. They also are venturing into the art world, creating installations to pair with the antique replicas. Think custom drawings, white on white, and high-gloss lacquered frames—contemporary pieces that balance out the old-world look.

“These pieces add a new depth to homes,” she says. “They are unique conversation pieces, something different. It’s new and something that your neighbor doesn’t have.”

Debi Davis’s Little Rock Cheat Sheet

EAT AND DRINK // “In downtown Little Rock, Main Street has become a popular spot,” says Davis. “There are quite a few new healthy and hip restaurants.” Her food recommendations include South On Main (1304 Main St., 501.244.9660) for refined Southern fare and cocktails, and Samantha’s Tap Room & Wood Grill (322 Main St., 501.379.8019) for locally sourced comfort food.

BROWSE // Another must-see is President Clinton Avenue, a downtown street lined with indie boutiques, galleries, and coffee shops. Spend an afternoon walking up and down the avenue, and stop by the Clinton Library (1200 President Clinton Ave., 501.370.5050), located at the end of the drag.

While in The Heights neighborhood perusing the cozy shops and bistros, swing into Cobblestone & Vine (5100 Kavanaugh Blvd., 501.664.4249), a chic home furnishing and accessories boutique.

Located along Little Rock’s waterfront, the Garden Design District, where Reborn Relics and Debi Davis Design is located, is home to nearly 10 different design stores, all with eclectic and inspiring vibes. “If you are looking for accessories and lamps and home projects, the Garden Design District is great area for that.”

Text by Marissa Hermanson.