John Phifer Marrs: Head of the interior

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 414 views 

HARRISON — If beauty captures the attention, personality captures the heart.

Interior designer John Phifer Marrs is blessed with the talent to envision and transform spaces into works of art. He’s also blessed with a personality that instantly makes one feel as if they’ve known him forever.
Marrs grew up in Harrison, lives in Dallas and maintains a vacation home on the lake in Eureka Springs, but he’s never in one place for long. He jets between projects in Russia and Costa Rica as well as throughout the United States.
He will return to his hometown May 4 to receive the Ozarks Ambassador Award during the North Arkansas College Foundation’s annual Evening on the Plaza Dinner. The dinner is held on the college’s L.E. “Gene” Durand Center and will recognize Marrs’ outstanding success in the field of interior design. A reception will precede the dinner.

“When I received the phone call telling me I was selected as the Ozark Ambassador, I thought they had made a mistake and were calling for my dad,” jokes Marrs. His father passed away several years ago.

“He really deserved this award. He would be so proud of me. I was shocked and honored because I really respect the members of the selection committee. When Dr. Stockton told me who the past award winners were, I thought, ‘Gee, I’m much too young!’”

However, the honor is all his.

“The selection committee was impressed with Marrs because of his many achievements,” says Dr. Jackie Elliott, president of Northark, “as well as the sophistication and charm he exudes as he enthusiastically tells others about the love he has for Harrison.”

A leader and trendsetter
Although Marrs doesn’t take himself too seriously, his achievements are worthy of a standing ovation. One of the premier interior designers in the South, his interiors reflect his southern roots and combines a sense of the past with comfort and convenience.
His education includes post-graduate studies in the United States as well as in the European Program at the Parsons School of Design in both Paris and Rome. He is an accredited interior designer, having successfully completed the NCIDQ Examination and is a registered interior designer in the state of Texas.
Marrs’ many leadership roles include past Texas chapter president of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and past chairman of the ASID Dallas Association.  He has participated in numerous Dallas Charity Show houses and has served as the co-chairman of the Beaux Arts’ Decorative Arts Auction for the Dallas Museum of Art.
Funny and irreverent, with a Saturday Night Live sense of humor, Marrs has been very busy entertaining clients and creating magical interiors in Texas and throughout the rest of the country. His projects include major residences, vacation homes, executive offices and even the official residence of a U.S. Ambassador.
His work has been regularly featured in local and national publications including Texas Home and Living, Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Accents, Traditional Home, and Architectural Digest. In the Dallas shop that bears his name, Marrs offers an assortment of antique American furniture, contemporary artwork, 19th century porcelain, tabletop accessories and custom lighting. The shop also houses his design studio and support staff. A frequent guest lecturer, blogger for DHome magazine, traveler and collector, his own homes were featured in the recently published book Designers Here and There – Inside the City and Country Homes of America’s Top Decorators.
New southern style

Marr’s shop, Marrs Phifer Mars Interiors, is nestled in the heart of Dallas but looks like it could sit in Paris. The building is filled with antiques, upholstered furniture, art and accessories. The retail shop is also a full service design studio, where Marrs brings his commercial and residential client’s ideas to life.
His trademark is “new Southern style,” which reflects his southern roots and combines a sense of the past with comfort and convenience.

“I was a lover of the older, classic designers, one a New York designer from the South by the name of Billy Baldwin.  Even though he lived in New York and his clients were from New York, he had that gentile quality that I love,” explains Marrs. “To make a room full of antiques and very expensive things have a warm, homelike feel — that’s what I strive for. I can’t stand to be a prisoner in someone’s home where you feel like you can’t sit on anything. I want to make it comfortable and livable with a sense of history.
“There are many things I have that are not the finest, or the most beautiful, but because someone I love very much owned them and gave them to me, they mean more than anything,” he continued.
Memories of Harrison
Marrs’ family lived outside of Harrison in Bellefonte. His family eventually moved to Harrison and he graduated high school there.

“All my friends were in Harrison,” Marrs said. “I grew up always thinking it was very beautiful place and it was the center of the universe.”
He credits his family with his success. He was especially fond of his paternal grandmother Marilla Marrs, who married a Presbyterian minister and lived in a beautiful house in Harrison. His mother, Betty, still lives in the family home.  
In his grandmother’s eyes, everything was beautiful.

“It was nothing for us to load up on a Sunday and drive around to look at the leaves,” Marrs says. “When I moved to Dallas and told someone I’d like to go up and look at the leaves, they looked at me like I was from outer space! 
“I would go hang out with my grandmother at her house on Central Street, just up from the junior high,” he remembers. “She would let me do whatever I wanted, like all good grandmothers.   would rearrange and re-accessorize her house and she thought it was beautiful. “
If Harrison was a fabric, what would it look like?

“A beautiful woven tapestry,” answers Marrs. “We used to drive up on Gaither and look out over the land. It looked like a patchwork quilt with all of the different greens and browns of the farms. The water and streams running through the land looked like a tapestry.
“Even back then, I would have all these crazy ideas in my head, and I don’t know why,” he explains. “Like, I wanted to go to Europe for no particular reason.”
Marrs took piano lessons in high school from Billie Dunlap. 

“I loved taking lessons; she was a wonderful piano teacher and a really neat lady.  One day she said she was thinking about taking a group to Europe to visit the Academy of Music in London, and then we would travel around the country.

“I said, ‘Okay, I’m going.’”
 Marrs’s father owned dry cleaners and laundromats around town. “I had to work at my dad’s laundromat to save enough money to go on the trip,” he says. “To be from Harrison and to spend six weeks traveling around Europe was just pretty cool to me.”
Later, while a member of a student theater troupe at the University of Arkansas, Marrs returned to Harrison. The troupe performed three shows one summer at Dogpatch, with Marrs playing the character of Available Jones. Available Jones was always available – for a price.
His quick wit was an asset.

“Best job I ever had,” recalls Marrs. “I got paid minimum wage. We felt like we were real actors. I pushed around a baby stroller with a rubber chicken. I would dress the chicken up in a different outfit every day and go around the amusement park insulting people. I’d say, ‘Hey there fellow, what’s that on your lip? A caterpillar?’”
He also performed in the variety show at night. One of his best friends, Michael Rice, was the pianist.
Rice, a music composer/director living in New York, remains close to Marrs.

“We all started at Dogpatch,” recalls Marrs.”My friends and I would load up the boat, go to the lake in Lead Hill and play all day, and then roll into Dogpatch in the evening just in time to do the show. It was probably the best summer of my life.
In 1975, I finished my degree in speech and drama and thought – what am I going to do with that degree, I can’t go back and work at Dogpatch!” 
He returned to the UA to study interior design. Marrs had worked at Lewis Bros., a department store on the square in Fayetteville, where he helped an interior designer in the furniture department. He loved the job and the town, but he knew he would have to move to a larger city to fulfill his dreams.
“I was so anxious to get out of Harrison, and now the irony is, I can’t wait to go back,” he says. “I have a house in Eureka Springs and it’s the best of both worlds. Dallas is the big city, lots of stuff going on, just crazy. I go to the lake house in Eureka Springs and none of it matters. I love to sit and look through the leaves over the lake. It makes me so happy.”